Big Joy - The Adventures of James Broughton

Eric Slade, Stephen Silha, 83 min, USA.

James Broughton is a timeless role model of one who’s not afraid to “follow your own weird,” as he put it. In the face of enormous social pressures from family and community, he always followed his muse. Hence, his work is hard to categorize. His life mirrored his work – transcending boundaries of male and female, straight and gay, young and old. Poet/publisher Jonathan Williams dubbed him “Big Joy” and eventually he took on the name for himself. He lived a good life and loved many people and ultimately died a good death.

His life story begins November 10, 1913 in Modesto, California , but his family moved to San Francisco shortly thereafter. James’ life was highly influenced by an experience he had when he was three years old. He said that at that time an angel appeared to him in a dream and instructed him to write poetry.

In 1918, James lost his father to the flu epidemic and spent the rest of his life getting over his high-strung, overbearing mother. At the age of 9, Broughton’s mother sent him to military school to break him of his feminine tendencies, but he was kicked out for having an affair with a classmate at the age of 16. While pursuing a writing career at Stanford University, Broughton dropped out and moved to New York.

He began working with film in the 1940s, and spent time in Europe during the 1950’s. While there he received the “poetic fantasy” award in Cannes from Jean Cocteau for his film The Pleasure Garden, made in England with partner Kermit Sheets.

Young Harry Hay and James Broughton
Over the years, Broughton had meaningful love affairs with both men and women. Among his male paramours was gay activist Harry Hay. He briefly lived with the notable film critic Pauline Kael and they had daughter Gina, born in 1948. Despite many creative relationships during the San Francisco Beat era, Broughton at age 49, married artist and designer Susanna Hart, whose theatrical background and personality made for a great playmate. They had two children and built a vibrant community of creative spirits, among them Alan Watts, Michael McClure, Anna Halprin, and Imogen Cunningham.

In the late 1960’s his irreverent and sexually liberating works won him a large following, especially in the Bay area. Alan Watts crowned him the “unofficial poet laureate of San Francisco.” He taught film and ritual at the San Francisco State University and San Francisco Art Institute.

At the age of 62, James embarked on the greatest love story of his life with a Canadian student named Joel Singer who was nearly 40 years his junior. Broughton believed that Singer was an incarnation of the angel who visited him at age 3. Joel and James lived 25 vibrant years together (until James’ death)  creating film, art, and lively expressions of soul.

On May 17, 1999, with champagne on his lips and his favorite music in his ears James died at his home in Port Townsend, Washington in the company of his loved ones.