Shirley Clarke

Active - 1951 - 2012  |   Born - Jan 1, 1925   |   Died - Sep 23, 1997   |   Genres - Drama, Music, Fantasy

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Biography by AllMovie

American director Shirley Clarke planned to become a choreographer, staging her first dance recital at age 17. But the intricate movements of her dancers led Ms. Clarke to explore the possibilities of capturing those movements on celluloid-- which in turn led her into film directing. At the time she started out (1953), Ida Lupino was Hollywood's sole female mainstream film director, but Clarke was never interested in the mainstream. She filmed several dancing short subjects for a deliberately limited audience, then applied her choreographer's skills to the rhythmic editing of her semi-documentaries Bridges Go Round (1959) and Skyscraper (1959). Always fascinated with the underside of life, Clarke scraped together funding for her first feature, The Connection (1961), a frank study of heroin addicts--so frank that it was banned by the New York State film censors. This film was something of an oddity in Ms. Clarke's career in that it combined "real" people with such familiar professional performers as William Redfield and Roscoe Lee Browne, and because its story was based on a stage play rather than growing naturally from the filmmaking process itself. Shortly after establishing her own production company (Film-Makers Cooperative), Clarke won an Oscar for her 1962 documentary Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World which is still a staple of college literature classes. Her next feature, The Cool World (1963) was a years-before-its-time exploration of life in Harlem. Clarke's Portrait of Jason (1967), a two-hour interview with a black male prostitute, was widely reviewed by the American press, few of whom (except for the smaller, esoteric publications) found any value in it; it expectedly fared better in Europe, the birthplace of cinema verite. Though castigated for her supposedly morbid viewpoint and the lack of production polish in her films, Clarke was wooed by Hollywood in the late 1960s. Alas, neither she nor the film capital could come to terms, and the result was several bitter years of frustration (Clarke's recounting of her travails was filmed by Agnes Varda in the 1969 feature Lions Love). In the past two decades, Clarke has done her moviemaking on videotape, blazing creative trails for the MTV generation; she has also taught film courses at UCLA. A bloody but unbowed rebel, Clarke has continued to make films primarily for herself and her clique of enthusiasts. This may be why only one of Shirley Clarke's films, The Connection, is listed in the otherwise exhaustive "establishment" reference work Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide. Following a protracted illness Clarke died in Boston on September 23, 1997 at age 78.

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