Reporting Eric Henderson
“There’s a lot of material there, and I’ll give you some more of it later. Whew! I’ve got to talk!”
If you ever wanted to know what it would sound like when all four characters from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? gene-spliced with everyone in The Boys in the Band and came forth with a four-alarm monologue, well, now you do.
Shirley Clarke’s astonishing and newly-restored 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason is a hypnotic soliloquy and a half. Clarke and her partner Carl Lee set out to capture the spirit of an irrepressible personality and they certainly got more than they bargained for.
Jason Holliday, the stage name of a gay, African-American, New York hustler, holds court from frame one through the film’s entire 105-minute running time, lounging in Clarke’s Hotel Chelsea flat, waving his cigarettes around with a flourish that grows larger and more ornate with each swig from his bottle of whiskey, responding to the prodding of Clarke and Lee, alternately deflecting the cold, harsh truth with studied theatrical posturing and then theatrically exaggerating the moments when he lets the façade drop, to the increasing chagrin of the filmmakers.
For Jason, life is all about the showmanship.
“All clowns are happy and sad. So I figure if you can sell sex, comedy and a little bit of tragedy, people will love to see you suffer,” he claims early on. “Give me some money, and then you can watch me act funny.”
Jason’s personality and the manner in which he presents it throughout Portrait of Jason is a product of the times, and the cinéma vérité intimacy Clarke provides him with mark it as one of the most important documents of a marginalized class. Before Paris is Burning, before Tongues Untied, there was Portrait of Jason.
Thanks to Clarke and Lee’s line of questioning, it also comes a bit like an inverted Warhol film — one that distills the essence of one strong, individual personality into its most concentrated form, instead of meandering and consigning it to the fringes for those famous 15 minutes.
“When you sing a song or do a bit, it has to be about something. You have to do it from experience. He said if you haven’t had any experiences to get out and get some,” Jason says one of his cabaret collaborators once told him. Clarke’s movie proves no one, no matter how ostracized, is without a personal experience well worth telling.