JASON AND SHIRLEY LAYS BARE THE TORTURED SOUL OF AN EMOTIONALLY HAMPERED GENIUS
Reviewed by Dwight Casimere
Theatrical Premiere: The Museum of Modern Art, October 19, 2015
Jason and Shirley is a cinematic recreation by NYC-based filmmaker Stephen Winter (Chocolate Babies). Based on Oscar-winning avant garde filmmaker and director Shirley Clarke’s groundbreaking documentary, Portrait of Jason, released in 1967 and premiered at the New York Film Festival that same year, winter’s version shows all of the stuff that may or may not have happened behind the scenes while the camera was rolling. It’s an intriguing concept that takes the old ‘fly on the wall’ concept to new heights.
Jason Holliday, the central character, is black and gay at a time when the legitimacy of both hung in the national balance. At times hilarious, and alternately desperate and heartbreaking, the film is a brilliant reincarnation. Veteran downtown New York actor and filmmaker Jack Waters is superbly cast as Jason and renowned writer and activist Sarah Schulman is spot-on as director and sometime adversary Shirley Clarke (we later learn in the film that her real name is Sarah Brimberg. That her father was a manufacturing scion, and that she grew up on Park Avenue in the lap of luxury).
Shirley Clarke was an anomaly of her time and was on the short list of groundbreaking female directors working in the 1960s ; Ida Lupino, an actress (often with husband Howard Duff) and pioneer of the ‘film noir’ genre, Mai Zetterling, another actress-turned-director, Sara Aldredge, an innovator in experimental film, and Carolee Schneemann, who pioneered films dealing with the issues of sexuality, power and gender. Clarke won an Academy Award in 1963 for Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With the World, and was co-nominee for Skyscraper (1960). Clarke made Skyscraper with two other documentary filmmakers. In 1964, The Cool World became the first independently-made film to be screened at the Venice International Film Festival.
Sketch of Jack Waters as Jason Holliday by Bizzy Barefoot
The genesis of Jason and Shirley is almost worthy of its own atmospheric film, evoking the free-wheeling era of the 1960s. The original documentary was filmed on the evening of Saturday, December 3, 1966. Director Shirley Clarke and her crew, consisting of her unwilling son, Nico, who needed the practical experience for film school ( she filmed Jason for twelve straight hours. The shoot started at 9pm. To say that it was exhaustive is an understatement). I saw the restoration of the original at the IFC film center in the Village last spring. In it, the only person you see on-camera is Jason Holliday (who we learn is actually named Aaron Payne (1924-1998) of Trenton, New Jersey). This was the ‘60s. Yet, in spite of The Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, free love, drugs and the Hippie Culture, it was still a time when it was illegal to be gay in the US.
In the original film, we hear the director and others commenting off camera, but we never see them. Here, director Winter fills in all the blanks and fleshes out the imagined drama behind the scenes, which is only hinted at in the original film.
Director Stephen Winter (r) on the set at the Chelsea Hotel with actor Gordon Beeferman
The film is set primarily in the claustrophobic world of Clarke’s penthouse apartment in the Hotel Chelsea. Before you get too carried away with an image of unbridled lavishness and wealth, consider that the ‘penthouse’ has beaded curtain room dividers between the living room and the kitchen (a totally hippy-ish glamour touch) and, by her own admission, wrinkled bed sheets on a pull-out bed covered with Madras-print pillows in the living room. The nicest thing in whole apartment is the faux fireplace mantle with its fake lilacs in a vase and an African mask on the wall.
A director friend who loaned her the camera equipment, who turns out to be a virulent racist and homophobe, first suggests throwing it all out, but once he learns the drill, feels the tacky backdrop may be just right. Too bad he couldn’t stick around, he might have made an excellent source of running conflict throughout the film, but the tension between Jack and Shirley proves to be enough.
Early on, the director has to practically beg her son and boom mike operator, Nico, to straighten up the place (played with appropriate reluctant uneasiness by Eamon Fahey, who is, at times, the queasy object of Jason’s wandering gay eye “Ohh! You cookin’ up some juicy chicken meat up in here!” he declares upon entering Clarke’s apartment and spying her young son).
Bryan Webster is absolutely delightful as the dope dealer friend Candy Man, whose long-awaited arrival propels the film to its denouement. He does his best to look like a barefoot Ray Charles, delivering the much-demanded dope that Jason says he needs in order to relax and ‘be real’ on-camera.
In the film, Jason, in his exaggerated manner of speaking through his alcohol and drug fueled haze, spins extraordinary tales about his a career as a quasi-drag nightclub entertainer, which appear to be more imaginary (especially when he’s high) than real. In real life, there’s only one known performance of his cabaret act in a one-night-only performance in the theatre district.
His confrontations with his father; growing up in Trenton is at the center of his internal conflicts. He describes in creepy detail one encounter with his father as a toddler that may or may not reveal the origins of his sexual preferences. He is similarly vague about the sexual encounters that occurred later in life when he was arrested and imprisoned at Rikers Island and was, presumably, raped and driven to the point of attempted suicide.
The one thing he is perfectly clear about is that he is a hustler, who is not above sex play-for-pay and who willingly lowers himself to work as a sex slave/servant to wealthy white women who are thirsting for companionship.
“We’re all ‘niggers’ Jason declares more than once, taunting director Clarke because of her Jewish heritage and wealth. In his derision, he also makes his point about the role-playing and masquerading that everyone does in one way or another to keep the grist in their mill.
Along the way, he reveals some harsh truths by way of raw, entirely classless humor. “What do you call a nigger whose been shot 14 times?! A botched suicide attempt!” presciently referencing the present day ‘black lives matter’ protests over the unlawful killings of young black men.
Another ‘Bon Mot;’ ‘Niggers are constantly in pain. They won’t open an aspirin bottle because they refuse to once again pick cotton,” referring to the cotton ball enclosures in aspirin bottles of the time. In it’s own way, the comment makes a sort of lame social statement.
Jason repeatedly avoids director Shirley Clarke’s probing questions. “Tell me about your old man,” she asks repeatedly, asking him to address his obviously rocky relationship with his father. He finally remits, after his good friend and dope dealer Carl Lee, a fellow would-be actor caught up in his own snake-pit of sexual identity and drug addiction belatedly arrives on the scene.
When he finally arrives on the scene, Clarke enlists his help in breaking Jason down to finally reveal his true self, sans the posturing and the bullshit. Even when Jason finally crumbles in tears at Lee’s incessant prodding, we still wonder if he’s is leveling with us, or just embarking on another of his charades.
Sadly, Jason Holliday died a pauper in 1998 at the age of 74. He was cremated and there was no funeral service or memorial and no relatives of record. His burial place is unknown.
Jason and Shirley is, as was the original, an important film in the LGBT film lexicon. The brilliant acting and meticulous recreation of historic and psychological time and place alone make it worthy of attention.
Director Stephen Winter does a masterful job of recreating the shoot-from-the-hip style of the original, groundbreaking documentary by the Oscar-winning Shirley Clarke, with terrific performances by Jack Waters in the title role and Sarah Schulman as director, Clarke. It’s a short, but highly engrossing film.
There’s a lot packed into its slight 79 minutes and the viewer isforced to pay attention to every spoken word and nuance of meaning. Jason/Waters provides plenty of quotable lines, all laced with dry humor and a hint of simmering rage. I’ll leave you with one of the more delectable ones. “I’m tri-sexual. Which means I’ll try anything!” And there you have Jason Holliday and the lingering impression of Jason and Shirley in a nutshell.
JASON AND SHIRLEY.A NEW FILM BY STEPHEN WINTER
DRAMA, COMEDY, HISTORICAL RE-IMAGINATION
PREMIERE ENGAGEMENT-NEW YORK MUSEUM OF MODERN ART OCTOBER 19-27 CHECK LOCAL LISTINGS FOR FUTURE DATES AND THEATRE LOCATIONS NATIONWIDE