Portrait of Jason (1967)

Portrait of Jason (1967)

“It only hurts when you think of it. And if you’re real, you’ll think of it a long, long time.”

Filmmaker Shirley Clarke interviews a self-described gay black “hustler” (Jason Holliday) who tells countless entertaining tales of his life as a sexually voracious “houseboy” and aspiring cabaret singer.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Aspiring Stars
  • Class Relations
  • Documentary
  • Homosexuality
  • Race Relations
  • Shirley Clarke Films

Shirley Clarke’s cult classic — filmed in her Hotel Chelsea apartment over the course of 12 hours — remains a uniquely structured, unexpectedly haunting entry in her oeuvre as an independent female documentarian. Without explanation or captions, the film plunges into Clarke’s talk with Jason, beginning with how he transformed from “Aaron Payne” to “Jason Holliday” with the help of a budding international spiritual organization which promotes the changing of one’s name to something more “authentic”. (As a bit of trivia, my parents joined this group at around the same time and also changed their birth names.) The film quickly moves on, however, to even more fascinating fare, as Jason, continuously drinking, begins sharing seemingly endless tales of his life as a hustler — or wait, as a houseboy? A companion? What exactly DID Jason do to earn money, and how often did this overlap with his own entertainment? Well, it turns out he did just about anything, and (supposedly) never felt bad about it:

“They think you’re just a dumb, stupid little colored boy and you’re trying to get a few dollars, and they’re gonna use you as a joke. And it gets to be a joke sometime as to who’s using who.”

The stories he has to tell are simply hilarious — at least until the hours wear on and his revelations become increasingly fraught with vulnerability (especially as Clarke’s cameraman, Carl Lee, eggs him on). You’re sure to be engaged — if not haunted, disturbed, and/or entertained — by this most unusual docu-interview.

Note: A docudrama re-imagining what might have taken place during the marathon shooting of this film has just been released; click here to read more.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A surprisingly engrossing “one man show”, covering both light-hearted and much more serious topics

Must See?
Yes, as a unique historical document by an unusual director. Listed as a film with Historical significance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Historically Relevant


3 thoughts on “Portrait of Jason (1967)

  1. First viewing. Not must-see, though it will be of interest to those curious about its noted historical (and cultural) significance.

    Even for patient & seasoned ffs, this is not an easy watch. We are basically watching a man get drunk over a period of 12 hours. Granted, to a degree, Jason is accustomed to holding/controlling his liquor intake – so that he’s not a completely incoherent mess.

    But even when he’s more together and lucid, the viewer must pay very close attention. The way Jason narrates his life story, it becomes necessary to fill in some of the blanks of his storytelling. And there are blanks. It’s often like he’s talking in a kind of code. This is especially true when he’s forthcoming about his sexual antics with men. (I’m gay and, while listening, even I had to decipher for myself some of what he was actually talking about.) A lot of times you just want him to be clearer (but then, of course, he’s drinking and part of the deal the viewer accepts is keeping up with the stream of consciousness).

    What’s most compelling about the film is the fact that it was captured in 1966 – and, through Jason, we get some very sharp (and occasionally painful) reminders of what it was like to be lower-class, black and gay (therefore, a criminal) at that time. Possessed of what he calls “an evil nature” (which translates as extremely rebellious), Jason found himself unprepared for anything but a hand-to-mouth existence in a society that was only accepting of him because of whatever chutzpah he had (and he had plenty). He knew how to charm and that got him through doors – though he was also often abusive to (and had resentment against) those who opened those doors.

    For someone with the personality of a hustler, Jason is at least taking a real stab at no-holds-barred honesty (even if he is mostly gaga over the fact that a movie is being made of him and his life). Still, a fair amount of the film is tedious since Jason is not really getting a whole lot of guidance from the filmmaker – and, as a result, much of the film feels shapeless.

    By far, the most effective segments come when Jason discusses his parents – the mother who he holds in high esteem and the father (‘Brother Tough’) who became increasingly aware of and disturbed by the fact that his son was the polar opposite of masculine. (The stories of his beatings are, of course, unpleasant.)

    A lot of the details of his gay adventures (as I said) are muddled but he does recount one cohesive story about a big, muscled, blue-eyed blond worker for the telephone company who he lived with for a time (almost like a wife).

    Myself, I didn’t find much in the film that’s hilarious. To me it all comes across as mostly sad and pathetic.

    The hardest part of the film comes at about the last 20 minutes or so, when Jason is rather soused and is being goaded on by those behind the camera. Personally, that’s when I stopped seeing the point of the excess.

  2. Especially enjoyed reading your commentary on this one.

    “We are basically watching a man get drunk over a period of 12 hours.” Hmmm! True, but not just any man.

    “What’s most compelling about the film is the fact that it was captured in 1966 – and, through Jason, we get some very sharp (and occasionally painful) reminders of what it was like to be lower-class, black and gay (therefore, a criminal) at that time.” — TELL IT!!

  3. A must – a huge must.

    I stumbled upon this site because I became fascinated about Danny Peary “Guide for the Film Fanatic” which I bought when it came out on a whim. It fascinated me because it embraced films (even bad ones) as seen through the eyes of a film fanatic. At the time I dabbled in some independent and foreign films. There was a great video store in a trendy neighborhood in Columbus, OH, just south of Ohio State University.

    I could rent foreign films, John Water films, experimental films, and an entire slew of videos of all types. There were also some cool movie theaters (being a large college town).

    Peary’s book spoke to me, and it also opened my door to other genres. Peary stated “you can’t be a film fanatic and not like westerns” – while preachy, I tried some and grew to fall in love with this genre. I’m basically a guy who can enjoy Bergman and Godard as well as Die Hard and a slew of other commercial films.

    My point for this semi, but not vicious, diatribe is why I say this film is a must see.

    It is a slice of life of a person in an era where the only reason he can survive is he lived in NYC (and lived in San Francisco). It can be difficult, and while it is a drunk and stoned guy talking non-stop (with some prodding off camera), I feel it is more than that.

    Shirley Clarke mainly made short films, and she rarely had any real narrative structure. “The Connection” had structure, and it suffered due to some very stiff acting.

    “Portrait of Jason” shows a guy who isn’t afraid of the camera. Fragmented to the point of being incoherent at times, Jason Holliday did keep my interest. At first jovial, but at the end defensive (or partially remorseful for a brief glimpse), but ultimately willing to just escape back into character.

    Holliday was a conman to the point where we don’t even know if he knows the difference between truth and fiction.

    Yes – the off-camera banter grew increasingly hostile. Originally, Clarke wasn’t going to include the background questions, but decided it was needed. Carl Lee (the drug dealer in “The Connection”) in particular grew hostile. There were definitely some personal issues going on, but I also wonder if the intention was to build to this (without Jason knowing). Lee obviously has his own demons (an aspiring actor who even appeared in some 70’s tv shows) – he was a heroin addict.

    Clarke doesn’t work with structure. I certainly haven’t seen her other works, but I may check some short films (they frequently show up on the Criterion Channel). With that said, Film Fanatics should check out films of all types – even Cinéma vérité documentaries that showed something that isn’t seen so real (or fake since Holliday referred to himself as an actor).

    The film is preserved in the National Film Registry (after being feared as loss). Ingmar Bergman was a fan!

    Will I watch it again? Probably not, but I certainly am glad I saw it (and I found it infinitely more fascinating than “The Connection”).

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