Shirley Clarke; Oscar-Winning Filmmaker


Shirley Clarke, an iconoclastic Academy Award-winning film director who made innovative use of video and earned respect outside Hollywood’s mainstream, has died. She was 72.

Clarke, who had spent most of her life in New York and Los Angeles, died Tuesday at the Deaconess Palliative Hospice in Boston, which she entered after suffering a stroke, said her sister, novelist Elaine Dundy. Clarke was also suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, her sister said.

The director earned her Oscar for a 1962 documentary commissioned by President John F. Kennedy, “Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World.”

She was better known for her 1960 film about drug addiction, “The Connection,” and for the landmark 1963 film, “The Cool World,” the first motion picture to be shot on location in New York’s Harlem. Taken from the Warren Miller novel, that study of an impressionable and bright but poor black teenager trapped in ghetto life became a classic of African American film.


Also memorable were Clarke’s 1967 “Portrait of Jason,” a one-person character study of a black homosexual hustler, and her 1986 documentary of jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman, “Ornette: Made in America.”

Despite the early accolade from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the former dancer worked primarily outside the Hollywood establishment.

“I don’t look at Hollywood with reverence,” she told The Times in 1978. “I think it’s a miracle that so many wonderful films have been made here in spite of the system. Personally, I’m an out-of-the-system person and always have been, politically and emotionally. . . . It was a matter of pride not to be from Hollywood.”

Born into a wealthy New York family, Clarke became a dancer, performing with Martha Graham and Hayna Holm. But dance propelled her into filmmaking.


“Most of the dance films I’d seen were awful and I figured I could do better,” she said. “Essentially, film’s a choreographic medium.”

Her first film, in 1953, was titled “Dance in the Sun.”

She was largely a self-taught film director--learning first to operate a camera, to record sound and to edit film. After making shorts, she went on to create her classic 1960s features, which she considered close in mood to the New Wave European films of the period.

Joining the women’s movement in the 1970s, Clarke expressed her ideas about herself and her profession.

“For years I’d felt like an outsider, so I identified with the problems of minority groups,” she said. “I thought it was more important to be some kind of goddamned junkie who felt alienated rather than to say I am an alienated woman who doesn’t feel part of the world and who wants in.”

The feminist Clarke often railed at Hollywood’s greater acceptance of--and funding for--male directors.

“It was years before it dawned on me that if I had been a man I would have been Stanley Kubrick,” she said in 1978. “He made two early films, then went to Hollywood and had his way, but I was some kind of a threat. I didn’t make myself acceptable and I had no intention of making their films.”

Clarke taught directing, film and video production at UCLA in the 1970s and 1980s and increasingly utilized video in her own work. One lyric example was the 1980 stylized dance film “Four Journeys Into Mystic Time,” which was included in a retrospective of her works that year at the old Fox Venice theater.


Her documentary on Ornette Coleman also made liberal use of video.

“Video allows for an emotional response on the part of the person editing,” she told The Times in 1986. “What’s going to change is that you’re going to have the same kind of freedom that actors have on stage, yet you can record it. It allows the filmmaker to stay in the creative process longer.”

The UCLA Film Archives also screened a Clarke retrospective in 1980.

In addition to Dundy, Clarke is survived by her daughter, Wendy Clarke, and another sister, Betty Lorwin.