Portrait of Jason (1967)

Carl Lee and Shirley Clarke


For this film, I enjoyed a Zucchini, Mozz & Sun-Dried Tomato Panini.

To make this, you cook sliced zucchini in a pan with olive oil and a little bit of Italian seasoning. Then, mix together some mayonnaise, sour cream, garlic powder and basil leaves to get a flavored crema. Spread the cream on one side of the bread, and on the other side, place the zucchini slices, cut up pieces of sun-dired tomato, and a sprinkle of mozzerella. Toast the panini in the same pan, pressing it on each side. All set!

Meal from HelloFresh.

LGTBQ Film Series #3:

“Portrait of Jason” is a 1967 documentary, directed by Shirley Clarke. This experimental work is considered an authentic example of cinéma-vérité (truth film), as the subject, Jason Holliday, spends the majority of the run-time regaling fascinating stories from his life. Opening the film, Holliday reveals the pain behind hearing his birth name Aaron Payne and begins to unravel his inner armour with a whimsical persona. With decades of observations about the lives of those who have employed him, he speaks about the racism and hatred towards queer people he has seen, with a grin and a shrug.

The background of this piece is more difficult to understand, but Shirley Clarke decided to interview Jason for this project, and, years later, in 1983, admits to having hated him going into it. “I started out that evening with hatred, and there was part of me that was out to do him in, get back at him, kill him,” she stated. There is no doubt that the intent behind this documentary was exploitative, however Holliday is so enigmatic and engrossing, it is hard to look away. Clarke apparently grew to love him deeply through the process of editing, but it is hard to say that the final piece is framed that way.

Jason Holliday was a gay African-American hustler and aspiring cabaret performer. According to him, he began his career at five years old as errand boy for prostitutes, pimps, bootleggers, schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, etc. — “and anyone else I could get a buck out of. Lonely old men and hot old maids.” His history is fairly unclear. He was born in either Montgomery, Alabama or Trenton, New Jersey. His parents, Fannie and Eugene, owned Payne’s Restaurant in Trenton, but were from the South. He spent most of his life in New York City, eventually passing away in Flushing, Queens in 1998. The documentary took place in Clarke’s Chelsea Hotel apartment, with Clarke, Holliday and Holliday’s long-time friend and lover, the actor Carl Lee. The trio sat for 12 hours capturing this footage on 35mm film in her living room over drinks and cigarettes, as Holliday monologues. He flies through tales about the odd jobs he would take, “I’ll come on as a maid, or a butler, or a flunky—anything to keep from punching the clock” and sudden admissions “What I really wanna do is what I’m doing now, (that) is: perform.” He pops in and out of dead-on impressions of Mae West, Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl,” Vivien Leigh and Butterfly McQueen in “Gone with the Wind,” the cast of Carmen Jones, and the aristocrat Katherine Hepburn plays in “Stage Door.”

One viewer spoke of the film saying, “Jason Holliday is like that one uncle everybody has who gets sloppy drunk whenever you see him. But you let him keep drinking because the more he drinks, the more fascinating his stories, advice, and rants turn out to be. But the more he drinks, you realize he’s a sad drunk that’s full of shit and you can’t separate his truths from his bullshits” – the most accurate description of the atmosphere of this film. It appears to be one of the initial forms of consumptive entertainment that has now become Jerry Springer or reality TV. “People love to see you suffer” Holliday profoundly remarks.

Clarke and Lee occasionally direct him to go in a certain direction with his antics, most poignantly when they try to goad him to open up about his estranged bootlegger father, Brother Tuff, but he pushes back and effortlessly evades these attempts. It isn’t until Carl Lee confronts him about an altercation they had previously, that Jason Holliday’s facade fades and he breaks down into tears.

“Without you, I don’t know anything about anything. And if you don’t know that I love you, then you don’t know anything about anything. I guess because I was subconsciously jealous, and I felt ‘Why does it always have to be you? And never me? Andd I did everything I could to please you. And that was a mistake too, because you only got so much energy, and I just spent so much time being a nervous wreck. I guess I never had any fun at all.”

Though Shirley Clarke was often called the “Queen of the Chelsea” [hotel], with this piece, Jason takes the throne, and this visceral performance full of half-truths and half-emotion is not for the feint of heart. “Portrait of Jason” is a wild ride. It is evocative, heartbreaking and strange. In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”

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