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:
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
I've been thinking a lot about the wonders of a great city recently. Not about the way they came about, the huge buildings making you feel like an ant among giants, the infrastructure needed to keep ten million people living and moving about it, nor the incredible influence that some people wield throughout the world from within it. It's about the ability to meet amazing people when you least expect it. That you can meet the son of James Agee at a party (true) or how you can sit in front of Nichols and May at a screening (I'll write about that one later) or just seeing the Bee Gees walk right by you on the street (that happened to Amy). So hopefully, this will be the first of a series of the joys of New York and some of the chance meetings we've had over our years living in or nearby the city. And pardon me if my memory fails me at times. I don't keep diaries and some of these events happened many years ago.
The first one that comes to mind was at a screening of a William Wyler series in early 1995. The Museum of Modern Art was projecting a few of his silent works that had been recently discovered and as such, needed a pianist for the film. Since he had performed scores for these films admirably a few months before in Pordenone (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto is an incredible yearly event devoted to silent films), MoMA brought Philip Carli down from Rochester to perform them again. As we were friends and there was to be a reception after the film, Philip invited me to the screening. The film was presented by Wyler's daughter Catherine (a great friend to cinema) and, to my excitement, the still-lovely Teresa Wright. Amy and I had just seen Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT just a month or two before and it reminded me once again how this incredible actress had been the heart and soul of this (to my - and Hitchcock's - opinion, his best) film and still better, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. Her acting was effortless, it was always the character present on the screen and not the actress -- she seemed that her bags were always full. (It's Amy's and my reference to films where the acting and/or directing is so fake that it's the kind of movie where you can see that the suitcase of gold the character is carrying is obviously empty.) Ms. Wright told a funny story of working for Wyler (he seemed to have a sadistic streak) and she proved to be as charming and smart as her acting.
To my surprise (and consternation, since I like things to be familiar -- I'm not the greatest of social animals) the reception was not being held at MoMA, but it turned out to be a private party at Catherine Wyler's apartment in the sky around the corner from the museum. It was one of those modern, all-glass window apartment with magnificent views of the city. It was impeccably designed with beautiful modern art. I remember a neon sculpture of bright red lips. This might remind you of the great episode of TV's The Odd Couple, "Take My Furniture Please" (you can see it on YouTube) where Oscar refurnishes the apartment with two chairs shaped like a human hand, but you'd be wrong. It was really a lovely sculpture that fit the apartment.
The first thing I did when Philip and I arrived at the reception was to look around the room and then search for Teresa Wright. She was nowhere to be found to which I had mixed feelings. I was sorry I couldn't meet her but at the same time, what the hell was I going to say to this wonderful person that was going to be new or interesting. (Again, see above regarding social awkwardness, especially in those younger days.) So I talked to Philip for a while and then was there standing by my awkward self. A very nice, distinguished older man was also by himself and came up and introduced himself as Bob. We started talking about why I was there and he was interested on how I had become an accidental film archivist who was invited to a party by the pianist. After a short while, I got tired of talking about myself and asked what he did for a living. He said that he was a playwright and started telling me how he got started. He was in WWII in the military and while there, wrote a play that won a prize and he was on his way. He talked about those early days with some grace, and of course, I was wondering who was this man with such a great story. It was then that a mutual friend -- I believe it was Marie Nesthus from the New York Public Library's film division who knows everybody -- came up to us to say hello and said to me, "You must be a fan of Tea and Sympathy."
Well!... It took me a few seconds but I soon realized that "Bob" was Robert Anderson. He was indeed a fine playwright and at the age of nine I had seen the out-of-town tryout of "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running" at the Cape Ann Playhouse near where we vacationed. (Honestly, I can't remember much of that experience except I was delighted there was an operational shower on stage.) So, I pretended to be hip and cool and smart knowing all along who he was and told Marie, "Yes, I am!" So we three continued chatting like old friends when Bob turned to me and asked how I was finding the party.
I was enjoying their company so I told him that it was great being there but I was disappointed that I didn't get to meet Teresa Wright. Okay, there's many of you groaning loudly now. Everybody who knows theater or film knows that the two of them were married and by then divorced.... Except for me. I never really cared about such information. My expertise always ran towards cinematography, editors, and film stocks. Reading about stars was so... so... well everybody else did that. So honestly, I didn't know.
Then, Bob told me that he and Teresa came together and she was in the kitchen absolutely starving because no one had bothered taking her to dinner during the film. (Maybe she had wanted to see that rare Wyler film, but I was never certain on those facts.) He took me by the arm and said, "Let's go say hi." I quickly went over to my friend Philip and told him to follow me. He asked why, and I replied. "No time for questions. Just follow!"
At some point -- perhaps even later -- Marie told me that Bob and Teresa had been married but that their "divorce was made in heaven." They were truly great friends and remained so until her death.
So we went into the kitchen and here’s where my memory fails me. I remember her sitting on the floor when I entered but there had to have been chairs in the kitchen. I mean, really... why would she have been sitting on the floor?
I do remember that she had rummaged through her friend Catherine Wyler's fridge and found some cold chicken. She was happily eating away so I felt I was somehow disturbing her, but Bob quickly introduced me as a new friend and Philip as my friend.
Here's where you're going to hate me. I should be telling you about the incredible stories she had about Hitchcock or how she first met Bob, or how...
Sorry, that's not the case. We talked about how hungry she was. How she found the chicken in the fridge, and then what we thought of the movie that night. It was a wonderfully normal conversation.
I can say, that having met a few stars, that there's a reason why the cream rises to the top. Even in her 70s, she was still a beautiful, magnetic woman. Just as charming as you would expect.
All too soon, Bob told Teresa it was getting late and they had to leave. They said their goodbyes and soon departed. Philip and I remained at the party a while longer, but then I left to go back home and tell Amy about my wonderful experience.
Bob and Teresa and I didn't remain friends forever. That's not how things happen, at least for me. I never even saw them again. I had my own life and they had theirs. But when Teresa died in 2005 and Bob died in 2009, I did have left that memory of a wonderful evening in New York City.
And now, perhaps I can ask my best friend and partner, Amy, to write about the first time we met Fay Wray! Or perhaps Nancy Gerstman.
Milestone does an enormous amount of research for most of the films we distribute. Sometimes there's years and years of gathering of materials (books, letters, newspapers, magazines, photographs, etc.) and extensive interviews to write each one of our press kits. And many times, we're still revising them 20 years after the fact! Yet there remains several mysteries in Milestone's distribution career and now one of them can be answered! Out of the blue, Clifton Cardin, the "Official Bossier Parish Historian" wrote to us with his research. He took it on himself to discover what happened to the star of ON THE BOWERY, Ray Salyer. All we knew was that he disappeared. Now, with Mr. Cardin's permission, here's the rest of the story...
"Ray Salyer Life
Ray Salyer was born Dec 3, 1916 in Ashland KY to Shankland Salyer and Florence Hill. Shankland had been a soldier in the 26th US Infantry shortly before Ray and his twin brother were born. Military records show Shankland had been both a musician and barber. Ray and Roy were the middle children in a rather large family.
Shortly after Ray and Roy were born, the Salyer family moved 446 miles to Lumberton, NC.
During most of his childhood, Ray witnessed America’s experiment with legislated morality, Prohibition, while the resulting gang warfare ravaged the country. There is very little doubt Ray had relatives back in Kentucky involved with white lightning. The Ashland area they came from has been documented by none other than singer Billy Ray Cyrus as big in the moonshine manufacturing and distribution.
Between the ages of 7 and 12, Ray undoubtedly followed along while his father preached on the Methodist Circuit in North Carolina. His father then got a job as assistant manager of the Met Life Insurance office to support the large family. Ray’s oldest brother Lester joined the Navy and moved out of the family home.
Soon after, something happened that may have affected Ray. His oldest brother, Lester, who had joined the Navy came “home” on furlough. While in Lumberton, he stole an automobile, drove it to Fayetteville, and returned. He soon ran out of gas and left the car. Witnesses provided police with enough clues they soon tracked it to Lester, who pleaded guilty of the larceny.
Ray was an active Boy Scout earning merit’s, accommodations and such when he was a young man.
Ray’s first foray into infamy occurred when he was just 14 years old. He and bunch of other Lumberton boys went skinny dipping in the Lumberton River. Two boys started across the river, but one panicked and drug the other under with him. Roy and Ray came to the rescue, retrieved the youngest boy from the bottom of the River. Brought him to the bank and performed CPR. The boy coughed up water, and soon began breathing. The boys were declared heroes and were nominated for the National Life Saving Award from the Boy Scouts.
During this time, the Salyer family moved 75 miles away to Wilmington NC, so Shankland could become manager of the Met Life office there.
When Ray was 18, in 1934, Prohibition was repealed.
By 1940, Ray had married his true love Gaynelle Swister. They had several children….
Ray joined the US Army, August 11, 1941. Sources suggest he was in the first waves of D-Day and went all the way to Berling at the end of the war. Today we would recognize Ray as having PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or shell shock as they called it then.
It has been said that Ray did not return to his wife and left them to fend for themselves.
The movie, “On The Bowery” brought more problems for Ray. He was offered $40,000 to become an actor. Ray turned them down. Soon after he was found, beaten, nine ribs broken and his left hand smashed. He had learned the dark side of the Bowery. His comrades did not like the attention he brought their hideout.
Where Ray went after that, is unknown.
In 1963, after his children had grown, his wife Gaynelle Swister Salyer filed for divorce in Florida. As soon as the divorced was granted, she married another man.
It is known that Ray returned to New York, possibly the Bowery area. For on Oct 6, 1963, he died from the affects of his life. He apparently drowned in his own vomit. His youngest sister, Frances paid to have his body returned to North Carolina, where Ray was buried next to his family.
It is an irony that his son, Ray Allen Salyer died at 38 years of age.
His wife, Gaynelle lived until 2003, and is buried in Florida. Her obituary lists four children, but it is not know if the were Salyer’s or Rollings."