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Shirley Clarke: Pioneering Figure of the New American Cinema

A contemporary of Golden Globe Nominee John Cassavetes (Faces, Shadows), arguably the father of the New American Cinema, Shirley Clark (1919-1997) is an equally seminal figure of bold and audacious indies who, due to gender and other biases, has remained an unsung hero.

Early on, Clarke saw the limitations of experimental cinema and the narrow scope of exploring female subjectivity and sexual desire. Instead, she displaced her sense of marginalization onto an urban cinema of alienation, centering on outcasts and misfits, as personified by Blacks and other ethnic minorities, gang members, homosexuals, and drug addicts.

Born in 1919 in New York City as Shirley Brimberg, she was the daughter of a Polish immigrant father who made his fortune in manufacturing. Her mother was the daughter of a multimillionaire Jewish manufacturer. Clarke’s interest in dance began at an early age but was met with the disapproval of her father, who she later described as “a violent bully.”

Clarke attended Stephens College, Johns Hopkins University, Bennington College, and the University of North Carolina. Having trained in dance at various schools, she was fluent in the techniques of Martha Graham, the Humphrey-Weidman technique, and the Hanya Holm.

She married Bert Clarke to escape her father’s control so that she could study dance under the masters. She began her dancing career in the New York avant-garde modern dance movement of the 1950s, and as an avid participant in dance lessons and performances at the Young Women’s Hebrew Association.



Clarke applied cinema verité style to her first produced feature, The Connection, shot in black and white on a minuscule budget. Though it is now hailed as a trailblazer for alternative cinema, most mainstream critics of that time didn’t get the film and thus deemed it crude and offensive.

The Connection, from the play by Jack Gelber, concerns heroin-addicted jazz musicians. It was part of the emergence of a New York independent movement. The film heralded a new style addressing relevant social issues in black-and-white low-budget films. Clarke intended it to be used as a test case in an ongoing fight to abolish censorship rules. It was also meant as a chronicle of contemporary lifestyles such as bohemia and gay, labeled by the mainstream as “rebellious,” “anti-establishment,” and even “dangerous.”

The Connection generated controversy even within the New York City downtown arts community. Jack Gelber’s play had been condemned by mainstream critics during its performances off-Broadway but still drew audiences that included celeb artists such as Leonard Bernstein, Salvador Dalí, and Lillian Hellman.

Unfazed, Clarke was determined to film the play. Once completed, it received favorable reviews. It was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961, where it was well-received again. American Beat generation celebs who were in Europe at the time traveled to Cannes to show active support for Clarke’s film.

However, screenings in the U.S. were banned due to complaints about “indecency”. All it took was one shot of a porn magazine and a single word deemed obscene. Her film was permitted to be publicly screened if it had received a license from the New York State’s board of censors. Another attempt to publicly screen the film, a year later, led to the intervention of the police. Following these incidents, reviews of The Connection became predominantly negative, which made it difficult for her to get funding and distribution for her projects.

While filming The Connection, she fell in love with actor Carl Lee. After her divorce from Bert Clarke, she began a relationship with Lee that lasted until he died in 1986 from AIDS (he had contracted the virus from a non-sanitized hypodermic needle).

Clarke’s follow-up, The Cool World, was another startling, verité-infused drama about a street gang. Made independently, it was shot on location in Harlem with a nonprofessional cast. This time around the response was more positive, although some critics still complained about deficiencies of narrative and technique.

In 1967, a greater controversy erupted over Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, a feature-length, single-camera interview with a black male hustler, which was labeled “repulsive” by conservative reviewers.

Directed, produced, and edited by Clarke, and starring Jason Holliday, Portrait of Jason is as fresh and poignant today as it was five decades ago. A gay African American hustler and cabaret singer, Jason Holliday (née Aaron Payne in 1924) narrates his troubled life story to the camera. As the interview unfolds, Clarke and actor Carl Lee provoke Jason to discuss matters of race, gender, social class, desire, and sexuality.

The film, dominated by Jason’s screen presence, boundless wit, and self-reflexive honesty, employs cinéma verité to reflect Jason’s deliberately theatrical and exaggerated persona.


Filming took place in the living room of Clarke’s Hotel Chelsea apartment, on Saturday, December 3, 1966. It world-premiered at the 1967 New York Film Festival.

Initially, Clarke intended Jason to be the only speaking character but, during editing, she decided to include the off-screen voices of herself, Carl Lee, and other crew members: “When I saw the rushes, I knew the real story of what happened that night in my living room had to include all of us. Our question-reaction probes, our irritations and angers, as well as our laughter, remain part of the film, essential to the reality of one winter’s night.”

The genius Swedish filmmaker Golden Globe Nominee Ingmar Bergman had said that Portrait of Jason was “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.”



Though she declined to describe herself as “feminist,” because holding that the label would be too narrow, her social activism went beyond the realms of dance or art. In 1972, decades before the Me Generation, Clarke was a signatory to a rights campaign organized by Ms. magazine, “We Have Had Abortions,” which called for an end to “archaic laws” limiting reproductive freedom. It encouraged women to share their stories and take action against oppression.

Clarke died of a stroke in Boston, in 1997, after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her 78th birthday was a few days away.

Happily, Clarke’s oeuvre has been rediscovered and reevaluated by a new cohort of feminist critics and other scholars. Following an intensive restoration effort that received over $26,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, Milestone rereleased the original print of The Connection, in 2013.