'Portrait Of Jason': '60s Counterculture Restored

Jason Holliday was a black aspiring performer in 1960s New York — he was also openly gay, when that wasn't safe. Holliday is the subject of Shirley Clarke's 1967 documentary, Portrait of Jason. Michel Martin speaks with film archivist Dennis Doros, who spent years restoring the old film, and Robert Fiore, who originally helped craft it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we want to tell you about a remarkable film, one that the renowned director Ingmar Bergman called extraordinary. But it's a film that most people have never seen because, for decades, it was believed to have been lost.

The film is called "Portrait of Jason" and it tells the story of a man named Jason Holliday in his own words. Now, Jason was out loud and proud about his life as a black gay man, this at a time when blacks and gays were still fighting to enjoy basic freedoms, yet Holliday seemed to revel in his life as a houseboy, aspiring cabaret performer and - yes - a hustler.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PORTRAIT OF JASON")

JASON HOLLIDAY: Now, I have more than one hustle. I'll come on as a maid or a butler or a (unintelligible), anything to keep from punching the clock from nine to five because, every time I've punched that clock from nine to five, it's been a job that's been such a drag, it makes you sick. And what I really want to do is what I'm doing now - is perform and you just - you get hung up. I'm scared of responsibility. I'm scared of myself because I'm a pretty frightening cat, you know.

MARTIN: This unique film, which premiers in New York on Friday, was the creation of Shirley Clarke, a pioneering Oscar-winning female director working at a time when there were very few women in that craft, and the story of how Milestone Films brought the film back to life is its own interesting tale, which we hope film archivist Dennis Doros will tell us. He's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DENNIS DOROS: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: We also have with us Robert Fiore, who was the assistant editor on the film and he was there the night the film was shot. Robert, thank you so much for joining us.

ROBERT FIORE: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: So, Dennis, let's start with Shirley Clarke. Who was she and why did she want to make a film about Jason Holliday?

DOROS: It was really was the mid-1960s when people were just starting to consider portrait films. Warhol had been doing it for a year or so now and Shirley literally was just walking down the street and she saw Jason Holliday, who she knew from Carl Lee, her significant other at the time, and said, would you like to make a film? And it was really as simple as that. She knew Jason would be a perfect subject.

She was really interested in the borderline between fact and fiction, between cinema verite, truth and reality and storytelling and Jason himself was a performance artist before that was an even known profession or genre. And he really practiced his own life as performance art, as the border between fact and fiction.

MARTIN: Bob, take us back to the night that this was filmed. I just could not believe what I was reading in the film notes about how this whole thing unfolded and, if you remember that first clip, what was that? Ice clinking in a glass? He was drinking - right - through much of the film, right?

FIORE: Yeah. Shirley tried to get him drunk, actually.

MARTIN: She tried to get him drunk?

FIORE: But I think that he realized what she was doing and resisted.

MARTIN: Well, tell...

FIORE: And, also, I think he could also drink an enormous amount.

MARTIN: I understand that the filming took 12 hours.

FIORE: This was a long time ago. At the time, I was 24 years old and I don't remember every little detail about what happened, but Shirley lived in a penthouse on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel and the filming was done in her rooms. And, although it wasn't very big, there was plenty of room to film, although I do remember, since it was December, that it was quite cold.

MARTIN: This was filmed in what, 1966?

FIORE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. What did you think the film was going to be about? And do you remember, while you were there, thinking, what is going on here? I mean, do you remember what your thoughts were at the time? Because this was just not a conventional filmmaking experience.

FIORE: Yeah, that's true. And I'd actually just started working for Shirley and I didn't know what she was going to do. I did get the idea that she knew what she wanted to do and she had some kind of animus, I guess you would call it, toward Jason for something that he had done that she wanted to get him to admit to. And so part of the track of the film is to try to get that confession, which Jason never does.

MARTIN: You know, tell us - why don't we hear a little bit more about Jason and then I'm hoping you'll tell us a little bit more about Shirley Clarke, who's a fascinating figure in her own right.

I think you're already hearing, though, from just the short clip that we played that this is a person who is a character, I mean, in every sense of the word. And I'll just play another clip from the film where he talks a little bit about how he, you know - how he lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PORTRAIT OF JASON")

HOLLIDAY: The east 50s is groovy. You know, if you can't cop there, you know, if you're sheik, you can't cop anywhere. All you have to do is just be patient, you know. And you got a lot of tired old strolling bachelors home, young waiters that don't work in daytime, you know, looking for matinees. And it just all takes place like you can just buy a sandwich in the deli, you know. East 50s is kind of nice. Nice place to live. Of course, the rent is high there, you know, and so that makes the clientele refined, and I like that. And I find when the heat gets to you, it's one good escape from being gay. I was grabbed one time. They're going to search you, you know. Soon as the cop touched me I went ooh, officer.

MARTIN: Dennis, this is the kind of stuff that people could put on, you know, prime time TV today. But back in the day, put this into context for us. This is pretty dangerous stuff in a way, isn't it? I mean being gay, or gay sex, let's put it that way, was illegal in most of the country at that time, wasn't it?

DOROS: It was. Until only about 10 years ago did the Supreme Court wipe out the last of the anti-sodomy laws. So when he's talking about being put in jail for and being put in Bellevue, it was for being gay.

MARTIN: At when he's talking about copping, right, he's talking about what? Picking up people to what? I mean...

DOROS: Well he's a little disingenuous about this, but most likely it was, he was hustling, he was on the street.

MARTIN: So talk a little bit more, if you would, about Shirley Clarke, if you would. I think if people don't know anything else about her, then they would know about "The Cool World," right? Which was a film that I think is more widely seen that a lot of people know about. Could you talk a little bit more about her, Dennis?

DOROS: Shirley was born in 1919 to a very, very wealthy family and she was dyslexic. She had very bad learning problems in school and she only discovered herself as a teenager as a dancer. That was something she thrived in. And when she came back from college to be in the dance world, she studied with some of the greats, became friends with Anna Sokolo, who she became partners with in filmmaking in the 1950s. By 1953 she had discovered that she was middle-aged, a mother, married, and a dance career that was not going to be as successful as she hoped. So she had a camera and she decided to go to filmmaking. And by 1960 she had won an Academy Award and was probably the preeminent woman director of her time.

MARTIN: Bob, how did you wind up working with Shirley?

FIORE: Her daughter Wendy was going out with one of my roommates and mentioned that her mother was looking for somebody to help her edit, so I called her up and got the job.

MARTIN: What was she known for at that time? I mean did you know that she was kind of a big deal in her field or was it just a gig?

FIORE: I didn't know her, actually, before I went to work with her and I wasn't familiar with her films. At the time I was a student in film school but I managed to be able to work on the side to support myself. The thing that I was impressed with what Shirley was trying to do is that it was possible to make a film with somebody who just talked to camera and basically there wasn't anything else going on in the film, and she made it work. And I think that that really opened my eyes to what was possible. And a few years later I was involved in a film called "Winter Soldier," which Dennis also distributes, which is basically people talking to camera. And I don't think I would've ever thought that it was possible to make a film like that if it hadn't been for the way Shirley had made "Portrait of Jason."

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the 1960s documentary "Portrait of Jason.." It's part of a series of restored films by the late Oscar-winning director Shirley Clarke. We're speaking with Robert Fiore, who helped make the film in the 1960s and archivist Dennis Doros, who brought the film back to life.

So Dennis, tell me about why is it that this film has been so rarely seen? I mean what do people think happened to it and how did you get the idea to try to find it?

DOROS: There were prints around but they were very battered and very worn and many duplicated versions away from the original negative. And so when we acquired the rights to the Shirley Clarke films, and this one from Wendy Clarke, her daughter, we were expecting that it would be very easy to find the original materials because we thought it was such a popular film, but the negative, everything was lost on the film. And Shirley had created her own problem by making a film that is meant to look unedited, completely raw, as untouched as possible. She spent months and months editing this film. My favorite line is Dolly Parton's, it took a lot of money to look this cheap. And of three years of searching, there were these outtakes that were in her collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and I kept going back to that - it has to be, it has to be, and yet from all reports it's just outtakes. They looked again and again. We sent it to UCLA to look - that it's - could be materials, and they said it was outtakes. And finally I just said, you know, from all the materials, from all the papers we had thousands and thousands of documents dating back to the 1960s on the making of the film, including the lab bills, I really think this is the material, and in fact it was her own success that a film that is meant to look unedited was mistaken as outtakes for 40 years. And in fact when the Academy Film Archive and Modern Video Film did compare it to a print we found in Sweden, it was the original film.

MARTIN: Oh wow, that is crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That is crazy. So Dennis, what was the reaction to the film when it first appeared?

DOROS: The film actually is still getting the same reviews these days. There's a lot of people who get it and just find it an astonishing work of art and other people just don't know what to do with a gay black man who is hustling. Is it exploitive? Shirley Clarke concerned herself about that in some of the films about that itself. Is it art? Is it fiction? Is it fact? There are people who want easy answers and Shirley Clarke didn't want that. She wanted to make a film that made you question reality.

MARTIN: What happened to Jason Holliday - which was not his real name, by the way. I mean when you talk about kind of blending fact with fiction, I mean he freely admits in the film that he just gave this name to himself or somebody gave him this name when he was living in San Francisco or something like that. What wound up happening to him? I understand that he didn't have the happiest end.

DOROS: What he wanted to do in this film was to have a cabaret act, to become known, to be identified, and really this film helped him. He went to the shows. He became a minor celebrity in New York. There's photos we have of him being in front of Max's Kansas City as a celebrity. In fact, he did achieve some of the goals he wanted from this film. He was very happy with it. He talks about in the film that this is his moment, this is his chance to shine, and he did. People knew Jason Holliday after this film. And he did die in 1998, I believe - he was cremated so we really don't know the ending story of his and we're still looking for it.

MARTIN: Bob, did you ever figure out what it was that Shirley was mad at him about?

FIORE: No. Oddly enough, I didn't because whatever she wanted to do didn't get done. And she didn't say what it was that she had in mind when she decided to make the film. But she was pretty angry. In fact, she would get really upset when the camera - in those days the camera would run for a little over 10 minutes and then you'd have to stop and change film. And inevitably that seemed to happen right when Jason was rolling along and things were really happening, and each time would frustrate Shirley. And in fact, in the film she leaves sequences where there is no picture, were you just hear Jason talking because she couldn't give up the contact, I guess, with him even when the camera wasn't rolling.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Dennis, what about you? What is it that you think about this film that you want people to see today?

DOROS: It is an astonishing portrait of race, of class, of history, of gay politics for the 20th century, and most of all that Jason Holliday was an arresting, magnetic character and that this film really was 30, 40 years ahead of its time. Nobody really has matched the artistry of this film since.

MARTIN: Dennis Doros is a film archivist. He is co-founder of Milestone Films. That's a company known for restoring classic movies, particularly those that have not achieved wide recognition. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Robert Fiore was an assistant editor on the 1960s documentary "Portrait of Jason." He went on to have a career - quite a distinguished career of his own. He's now retired and he joined us from NPR member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

DOROS: Thank you, Michel.

FIORE: Thank you.

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