Co-directed with Charles Bryant
Silent with English Intertitles
Mitchell Lewis, Alla Nazimova
Alla Nazimova (1879-1945) was a superstar of the Silent Era, greatly admired as an actor in her day, and popular with audiences. She was also a fearless queer super-heroine, who made an immense contribution to film history and LGBTQ history with her daring projects. A Russian emigree to the USA, when she earned a fortune as a stage actor she did not hold on to it – she put it all into a pharaonic project: a filmed version of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, made in 1923, which remains unsurpassed in scope and ambition. The film’s breathtaking aesthetic was inspired by the famous illustrations of Salome by Aubrey Beardsley, an artist from the ‘Decadent movement’, which was associated with fluid gender and sexuality, and with slippery morals to match.
When the first feature films were being made, when lesbian and gay filmmakers and production teams looked for ideas, it was only natural that they would turn to the most visible queer figure of all time, Oscar Wilde, whose scandalous court case for homosexuality had taken place in recent memory in 1895. Countless versions of works by Wilde were made for the screen in the early days of cinema. The idea of a silent filmed version of a play seems rather strange to us today, but many of the most ambitious early films were adaptations of Shakespeare, for example – this was a bid to legitimize the new medium, yes, but it often resulted in surprisingly effective visual storytelling, capturing the waves of emotion that drive Shakespearean tales.
In 1921, Nazimova was behind the production of Camille, an adaptation of the novel The Lady of the Camelias. The book was a favourite with discerning queer audiences, who saw themselves in the ‘Decadent’ lady protagonist, a modern woman with undiscriminating appetites who unexpectedly redeems her sins by falling in love for the first time. In a later film version of 1936, it was rumored that gay director George Cukor’s Camille, starring goddess Garbo, had been made by an all-gay & lesbian cast and crew. Nazimova’s Camille, starring herself and the closeted gay superstar Rudolph Valentino, included a (discreet) kiss between two women. Salome, of 1923, is also believed to have been made by an all-gay cast and crew. The stunningly imaginative clothes and styling were designed by Nazimova’s lover Natasha Rambova (the film features a light bulb hair piece to rival anything by Lady Gaga), but there is not enough information on the rest of the cast and crew to confirm or deny the claim.
Nazimova’s Salome is a celebration and expansion of queer aesthetics. There is a lot of emphasis on effeminate boys, but it is in the central performance by the androgynous Nazimova (who was forty four years of age when playing the teenager Salome) that the film has its slender, graceful, and tough-as-iron anchor. This film is an apotheosis of camp, and a hymn to transgender ambiguity. The direction of Salome was credited to Charles Bryant, Nazimova’s gay husband, though it is widely believed that she was the de facto director. A cultural activist, a magnet of queer talent, a lesbian visionary… it is time we celebrate properly this woman and her daring, original genious.
Dublin Film Qlub 2014
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