The real Shirley Clarke
In the twenty-five years that we have been running Milestone Films, we have never before reviewed or commented publicly on anyone else’s film—except to recommend it. But we have now encountered a new feature film that purports to “satirize” a film and a filmmaker we represent and have spent years researching. While we are absolute believers in freedom of speech and artistic expression and do not dispute that the producers, writers and stars of Jason and Shirley have every right to make their “re-vision” of the making of Shirley Clarke’s great documentary Portrait of Jason, we feel we must go on the record about the film’s inaccurate and simplistic portrayals of a brilliant filmmaker and her charismatic subject.
Director Stephen Winter (and co-writers Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters) have created a fictitious drama that imagines what might have happened on December 3, 1966 when Shirley Clarke spent twelve hours with Jason Holliday, Carl Lee, Jeri Sopanen, Jim Hubbard and Bob Fiore shooting Portrait of Jason. The filmmakers claim the right to re-imagine the events that took place in that Hotel Chelsea apartment, but they fail to understand something that Shirley Clarke knew and conveyed in all her films: the need for integrity.
Clarke’s first feature, The Connection, a fiction film based partly on real people, has enormous respect for all its characters, an understanding of humanity, and a love for cinema. Shirley knew that a genuine artist values inner truth, whether the film is a documentary or a dramatic feature. And of course, Shirley did not use real names. She knew that when you use real people’s names and identities, you need to seek and explore the truth in all its complexities. Ornette: Made in America, a film that she and Ornette Coleman were very proud to create, is an example of Clarke’s quest for meaning and authenticity.
We at Milestone are now in the seventh year of “Project Shirley,” our ongoing commitment to learn everything about Clarke as a director, an artist and a person. With the cooperation of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater and the Clarke estate, we have digitized nearly one hundred of her features, short films, outtakes, unfinished projects, home movies, and experimental films and videos. We have gone through thousands of pages of letters, contracts, and Shirley’s diaries. We have interviewed and talked to dozens of people who knew and worked with her.
We have heard wonderful stories, tragic stories, and stories of such real pain that they are almost unbearable. Shirley Clarke was a sister, wife, mother, dancer, lover, filmmaker, editor, teacher, and yes, for a sad period, a junkie. It wasn’t intended, but along the way we fell in love with Shirley and came to feel that we owed it to her to create a portrait of a real woman and an artist. Shirley’s daughter Wendy Clarke and her extended family have supported our efforts every step of the way, encouraging us to reveal what is true, for better or worse. We have shared our discoveries with the world in theaters, on television, on DVD and Blu-Ray, in lectures — and in our exhaustive press kits (available on our website, free for everyone).
We have strived for the highest levels of accuracy, knowing that critics, academics, bloggers, and the general public deserve and depend on our research. We corroborated all the oral histories we conducted using primary sources, including original letters, interviews, and contracts. Finally, we asked people who knew Shirley to check and proof all our work. We have shared this research with every filmmaker, scholar and critic who has asked us for information.
So it was truly agonizing for us to watch Stephen Winter’s Jason and Shirley, a film that is bad cinema and worse ethics—that cynically appropriates and parodies the identities of real people, stereotyping and humiliating them and doing disservice to their memory. The filmmakers may call it an homage, but their complete lack of research and their numerous factual errors and falsehoods have betrayed everyone who was involved in making Portrait of Jason.
Winter and his team call their film an “imagination” of the night (although they stage the filming during the day) of December 3, when Shirley Clarke shot Portrait of Jason. But interestingly, they only use the real names of those participants who have died: Clarke, Jason Holliday and Carl Lee (perhaps because you cannot libel the dead). They did not interview the people who were on the set that long night and who are still around—filmmakers Bob Fiore and Jim Hubbard.
They also chose not to work with Shirley’s daughter, artist and filmmaker Wendy Clarke, whom they never bothered to contact (and go out of their way to mock in the film). Jason and Shirley even features a title card in the closing credits thanking Wendy, implying that she has given her approval for the film. In truth, Wendy’s response, when she finally saw Jason and Shirley, was: “I don’t want people seeing this film to think there is any truth to it. This film tells nasty lies and is a parasitic attempt to gain prominence from true genius.”
Similarly, the filmmakers never asked us at Milestone for access to the reams of documents we have discovered from the making of Portrait of Jason. Instead, they preferred to pretend to know what happened, to create their own “Shirley Clarke,” “Carl Lee,” and “Jason Holliday,” rather than try to create honest and respectful portraits of these very real people.
Lazy filmmakers make bad movies and Jason and Shirley is false, flaccid, and boring—unforgivable cinematic sins. Perhaps its most egregious and painful crime is taking the strong, brilliant woman that Shirley Clarke truly was and portraying her as a lumpy, platitude-spouting Jewish hausfrau—an inept cineaste who doesn’t know what she is doing and eventually needs her boyfriend to “save” the film for her. In service of their alleged investigation into race relations (a topic Shirley explored far better with her powerful and intelligent films The Connection, The Cool World, Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America), they reduced her to a sexist cliché—the little woman—and a tedious cliché at that.
Shirley Clarke was wild, creative, brilliant, graceful, challenging, incredibly stylish, vibrant, and alive with the possibilities of life. At home at the center of many creative circles in New York City and around the world, she was adored by countless admirers—despite (or sometimes because of) her faults and failings. And Shirley is still loved by those who remember her—the people who worked on her films, her friends, her family, and the audiences who are rediscovering her great films. She was incredibly special. The misshapen caricature of Clarke in Jason and Shirley insults and trivializes a great artist and pioneer.
We also find “Jason” in Winter’s film to be a one-dimensional and disrespectful distortion of the very complicated man who was born Aaron Payne in 1924. Jason Holliday’s life was difficult in many ways—as a gay black man he experienced police harassment, poverty, family rejection, imprisonment, painful self-doubt, and innumerable varieties of personal and institutional racism. But he was also vibrantly an original, a self-invented diva, a survivor, and a raconteur of the first order who was the inspiration for his own cinematic Portrait. Shirley decided to make her film in order to explore this extraordinary Scheherazade’s 1001 stories—and the fragile line between his reminiscences and his inventions.
And truly, it is not easy to tell what was real and what was not in Jason’s life. In his “Autobiography” (reprinted in Milestone’s press kit), Holliday talked about appearing on Broadway in “Carmen Jones,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” and “Green Pastures” and about performing his nightclub act in Greenwich Village. And while much of his narrative may seem improbable, the Trenton Historical Society found newspaper articles from the 1950s corroborating Jason’s claim that he was a performer at New York’s Salle de Champagne. So did he study acting with Charles Laughton and dance with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham? We may never know. But the man who spun those marvelous yarns was not the alternately maniacal and weepy loser in Jason and Shirley.
Here are just a few of the other things that are obviously, carelessly and offensively wrong in Jason and Shirley:
- In the very beginning, there is a title card stating that the filmmakers were denied access to the outtakes of Portrait of Jason. These recordings were available for all to hear at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, where all of Shirley’s archives can be found—or by contacting Milestone. In fact, all the outtakes (30 minutes of audio) were released on November 11, 2014 as a bonus features on Milestone’s DVD and Blu-Ray of the film. That was six months before Jason and Shirley was completed.
- In Jason and Shirley, “Jason” has never previously visited “Shirley’s” apartment and knows nothing about her. In reality, they had been friends for many years and Jason would often visit her apartment.
- The film states that the cinematographer on Portrait of Jason had worked on Clarke’s other two features. Actually, the film was Jeri Sopanen’s first job with her. Further, absolutely no crew member had an issue about working on Portrait of Jason, as the new film portrays.
- In the film “Shirley” says, “See that horrible painting on the wall? My daughter painted that… I have a daughter who is a terrible artist.” Fact: in several video interviews with Shirley (including one released as a bonus feature on Ornette: Made In America, which also came out last November) and in many of her letters and diaries, Clarke talked about how extremely proud she was of her daughter Wendy and her art. Mother and daughter worked happily together for years on many projects including the legendary Tee Pee Video Space Troupe. Wendy’s fine art, textiles, and video work have received critical praise for nearly 50 years. It was needlessly and maliciously hurtful for the filmmakers to include a line that is so obviously false and unkind.
- In the film, “Shirley” says her maiden name was Bermberg. She was born Shirley Brimberg.
- There is an Academy Award® statue for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World in “Shirley’s” apartment and the other characters repeatedly mock her for it. The film did win an Oscar®, but although she received directing credit, Shirley had been fired from the final edit and producer Robert Hughes picked up the award. (You can see this on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOS70Tqsz7U)
- “Shirley” asks “Jason” to go up on the roof of the Hotel Chelsea with her to talk. In reality, her apartment was famously on the roof.
- In the film, “Shirley” is unable to finish Portrait of Jason and tells everybody to go home and “Carl Lee” comes in to take over the film and save it. This is ludicrous, wrong and misogynistic. Clarke was a consummate film professional and all her collaborators attest to her skill and drive.
- The film ends with a title card stating that Shirley died in New York (which is simply incorrect) and that Carl Lee died of a heroin overdose. Tragically, Lee died of AIDS and this information is in the Milestone press kit.
- Another title card indicates that when Jason Holliday died that there were no friends or family listed in his one obituary. In truth, the Trentonian on July 31, 1998 wrote that two sisters, six nieces and two nephews survived him. We found the relatives when doing our research.
The filmmakers have labeled Jason and Shirley a satirical work of fiction. We are just not sure who or what they claim to be satirizing. The film is not ironic, humorous, sardonic or tongue-in-cheek. We can only surmise that they are deliberately parodying the idea of cinematic integrity.
On behalf of Milestone, Wendy Clarke, and Shirley Clarke’s extended family and friends, we respectfully ask film fans not to base their appraisal of Clarke and her filmmaking on the unkind depictions in Jason and Shirley.
Yours in cinema,
Amy Heller and Dennis Doros
Thank you so much Amy. A sad attempt to ride on a brilliant woman’s coattail.
I can’t wait to see the proposed film, much need to right the many wrongs that have been thrown Shirley’s way.
I watched this film today. I work with survivors of horrific abuse; nobody plans on becoming so twisted themselves as they grow up and reach adulthood. But far too many do. Although Aaron/Jason had insight about the linkage between his childhood abuse and his subsequent life’s choices…it was minimized by his maniacal laughter and increasingly drunken ramblings as the film progressed. I am surprised he lived as long as he did to tell you the truth. He certainly entertained his way out of being taken out much sooner by whomever and whenever. If only for the reason that he lived past 70 years old in spite of being terrified most of his life…he was successful in terms of his own straight up survival. As he put it in describing another in the film, Aaron/Jason was seriously “confused”. No kidding!
What a foolish bunch you all are. Aaron Payne lived a miserable life due to his total self obsession, multiple addictions, and bondage to the lie that sexual promiscuity brings any lasting peace and joy. And there’s always the pseudo intellectual crowd that loves to leer into lives that are filled with aberrant behavior and desperation, such as Payne’s, and always touting their exploitation of these tragic souls as ‘art.’ There’s nothing artistic about the sad, empty, ghoulish life of this type of drunken, addicted homosexual in their doomed from the start search for true meaning and happiness.
I saw “Portrait of Jason” in 1967 in New York where I was studying film at the Millennium Film Workshop with Ken Jacobs. Of all the ‘underground’ movies I saw that year, it was “Portrait of Jason” that was the most compelling — I have thought about that film again and again over the years. What a powerful fascinating document. I was delighted to get the opportunity to see it again on TCM — restored! Thank you SO MUCH for bringing this film back so that other people have the opportunity to see it. Great work!
I saw this movie on TCM in 2015. I was wowed off of my sofa. I knew that if this movie was available on DVR, I would have to have. I found it on Amazon and ordered my Blu Ray edition. I just watched it again and I noticed that the version shown on TCM had cut out a lot of dialogue. The movie now makes more sense and packs a greater punch. I am totally thought provoked. I also viewed The Connection, and was blown away by this film also. My next question is if The Cool World, is going to be restored and made available on DVD? I saw this movie with my grandfather many years ago as a child. I really would like to see this film again, because being a child, I did not fully grasp what was happening, but it still had an impact. Thanks for sharing this unsung director’s work and making it available to another generation.
Thank you for posting this article. I just got through watching "portrait of Jason quote on PBS.. As a person who knew nothing about Shirley Clarke. I really appreciate your insight. It was a remarkable film. I also appreciate your integrity in dealing with this subject..
Thanks Amy and Dennis for starting this conversation. All your points are well articulated and accurate. I do have lots to add, but the I’ve only just seen the Winter film and it will take a day or two to put my take on paper.
This great Dennis. Thank you for doing this and being so articulate. It is very sad that these filmmakers felt the need to create so many lies.