Shirley Clarke's 'Connection': Will It Click At Last? When it was released in the early '60s, Shirley Clarke's controversial film about heroin addicts got shut down by New York police after two screenings. Now, a half-century later, audiences get a second chance to see the newly restored movie in theaters.
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Shirley Clarke's 'Connection': Will It Click At Last?

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Shirley Clarke's 'Connection': Will It Click At Last?

Shirley Clarke's 'Connection': Will It Click At Last?

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Fifty years ago, a movie called "The Connection" opened in New York City, then closed after two screenings. Police shut down the theater and arrested the projectionist. The movie is about drug addicts and the language is sometimes frank - too frank for 1962. The director was an independent pioneer named Shirley Clarke, and now her groundbreaking film is back in theaters to stay. Pat Dowell reports.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: "The Connection" started out as an Obie-award-winning play, written by Jack Gelber and premiered in 1959 by The Living Theater. Like all of the groundbreaking troupe's work, it was provocative - an unapologetic look at a group of heroin addicts waiting together in a seedy apartment for their dealer to arrive with a fix. Often characters heckled the audience from the stage.

GARRY GOODROW: I was one of the guys in the play who shouted at the audience: You don't want to know me.

DOWELL: Garry Goodrow, like most of the play's cast, repeated his role in the film. And filmmaker Shirley Clarke kept the play's confrontational tone, with characters addressing the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CONNECTION")

DOWELL: The movie also kept the notorious language of the play, recalls Garry Goodrow.

GOODROW: I don't know if I could use this word...

DOWELL: No, you still can't.

GOODROW: One of the critics, using his little counter I guess, counted 50-some times during the course of the film that the word (bleep) was used.

DOWELL: The number was 28, as reportedly counted by Variety, but that was quite enough for the film to be declared obscene by New York's Board of Regents, which refused to issue a license for "The Connection" to be shown. The film's producers won a court battle, but still the Board would not issue the license.

The producers opened the film as a civic protest and it was promptly shut down by police. It didn't help the film's fortunes that the New York Times critic panned it, even though it had already won a Critics' Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and had been shown at the White House. The Connection seemed doomed to an obscure corner of film history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: "The Connection's" musical score helped keep it alive. An album was released. Jazz fans collected it because the LP was all that was generally available of this mysterious movie about junkies that featured acclaimed saxophonist Jackie McLean.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: McLean was part of a quartet that pianist and composer Freddie Redd assembled for the stage production and carried into the film. The musicians were part of the cast. McLean himself struggled with drugs, but Redd remembers he was a cutup on stage.

There's a moment in the play when someone says the police are coming. In the script, they weren't supposed to show up. Redd says one night they did.

FREDDIE REDD: A knock came on the door, and when the gentleman who was the head actor in the play, Leach, he opened the door and there was a real uniformed policeman there. Jackie McLean had gotten the policeman on the beat to come up to the theater and stand there. So we all thought we were being busted.

DOWELL: Redd says filmmaker Shirley Clarke didn't let the actors get away with much.

REDD: She was hard but she was always fair. And she knew what she wanted. She always knew what she wanted. And she was always in motion. I never remember her just sitting still. She was always very thoughtful and into something. Something was on always on her mind; she had that kind of mind.

DOWELL: Clarke's career was always in motion too. A former dancer, she started with dance films, then experimental shorts and documentaries. Her 1963 film "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World," won an Oscar. She ventured into experimental hybrids, bringing the lives of Harlem teenagers to the screen and giving gay men a voice as well - always using her camera to put her audience in the same room with the subject.

In a 1970 French television documentary she described this desire to dissolve barriers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CONNECTION")

DOWELL: And the woman who made "The Connection" was unrepentant as well. As she told NPR in 1983, she would do anything to overcome obstacles mounted by censors, Hollywood, and men who thought women had no place in filmmaking, independent or otherwise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

DOWELL: For the first time in half a century, the general public will have a chance to decide what Shirley Clarke accomplished. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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