Jason Holliday speaks in paragraphs. He finds a train of thought quickly, often before the camera can focus, and plows through the topic. When he begins an anecdote, his voice starts with a faint lisp before settling into a hearty baritone and finally finishing in belly laughs.
Does this make Jason Holliday ideal as the sole subject of a feature length documentary? Unfortunately the old adage about never laughing at your own jokes seems to hold here and would be prudent advice. It’s clear that no one could be more amused by Jason Holliday than Jason Holliday. Or perhaps Aarron Payne. ears before, Payne invented Holliday as his ideal persona in a murky ceremony in San Francisco. Payne’s still there. You can see his glee at his creation when he exclaims how this persona could justify its own film.
The raggedy production captures the dialog of the crew as they struggle to keep film rolling to capture as much of Jason’s anecdotes as possible.
We learn quite a bit about Payne’s upbringing over the course of the film. He grew up at constant odds with his father--the hard drinking, hard punching “Brother Tough” to his friends. When assuming the Holliday name and persona, Payne finally separated himself from his father’s influence. Forget the mother, she’s a ghost in Holliday’s life. Her memory materialized only through supreme concentration and the prodding of the director.
We learn about his “gimmicks”. The one that pays, being a houseboy to wealthy women, and the one that Holiday spends most of his energy scrounging up money for, a cabaret act. The film indulges Jason’s fantasy. With the aid of some props he performs bits from his imagined show. I can’t imagine anyone paying good money to see it; I can’t even imagine a world where such a thing could be performed well at all. By the end of the film, even the film crew openly mocks Holiday’s performance.
Part of the marketing for the re-release touts Jason’s openness about his sexuality, implying it was very progressive. However “Portrait of Jason” is very much of its era. By 1967 Blacks were increasingly getting more heroic roles to play in films--this was the year of The Dirty Dozen and In The Heat of the Night--but in television they still populated ghettos and were at best informants for white hero cops. Hollywood had a long history of equating homosexuality with degenerates. If gays were not criminals, they were perpetual inhabitants of that seedy world (see The Maltese Falcon or The Big Combo). Jason Holliday here embodies that view. He is the “degenerate black homosexual”, he is a whore, he is a liar, and even a bit of a thief.
However to watch Portrait of Jason is to feel how much regard gays and lesbians gained through the decades. That homosexuals could hold regular jobs, contribute to society, and even maintain healthy relationships were radical ideas in mainstream culture until the past couple decades.