restricted access 4. Alla Nazimova’s Salomé: An Historical Phantasy by Oscar Wilde
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4 Alla Nazimova’s Salomé: An Historical Phantasy by Oscar Wilde Four years after Maud Allan’s public disgrace in the Pemberton-Billing Trial, Russian-born actress and Hollywood movie star Alla Nazimova (1879– 1945) decided to adapt Wilde’s drama in her striking art ‹lm Salomé: An Historical Phantasy by Oscar Wilde.1 Aided by Natacha Rambova’s extraordinary , Beardsleyesque set designs and costumes, Salomé invoked both the symbolist-decadent ‹n de siècle context of Wilde’s play and its reputation as an avant-garde work, courtesy of Reinhardt’s and Strauss’s censorship scandals and successes. Although Wilde’s play had never caused as much controversy in the United States as it did in England, Strauss’s opera remained banned in Chicago, New York, and several major U.S. cities. Similar to Maud Allan’s work and its interpretation in the Pemberton-Billing Trial, Nazimova’s Salomé, the ‹rst faithful movie adaptation of Wilde’s play, is characterized by avant-garde aspirations, pioneering feminist agency, and daring gender transgression. Unlike Allan’s The Vision of Salomé, Nazimova’s ‹lm quite openly embraced and stressed the homoerotic and transgressive elements of Wilde’s play, provoking it to be read as an homage to Wilde with a queer aesthetic. It also continued her personal commitment—as a star actress in Ibsen’s plays on Broadway—to serious modern drama and its complex modern heroines. Nazimova’s Salomé has much interested ‹lm scholars, modernist studies scholars, and gay and lesbian literary and historical scholars in recent years. Previous studies of the ‹lm have emphasized Nazimova’s pioneering role as one of the most popular and highly paid stars of silent cinema as well as one of the ‹rst female ‹lmmakers and producers; the modernist visual and technical elements of the ‹lm; and its homoerotic and camp elements, 125 which explain the ‹lm’s enduring cult status and popularity at queer ‹lm festivals. As much as it aspires to avant-garde status, Nazimova’s Salomé is also characterized by the ‹lm’s bows to popular taste. Its style is best described as popular avant-gardism, the combination of highbrow theatrical aesthetics with fashionable themes and styles of the times, such as the continuing art nouveau vogue (settings and costumes allude to Aubrey Beardsley ’s designs) and the emerging jazz age ›apper. As Patricia White shows, the ‹lm is positioned at the fertile intersections of modernist consumerism, queer visibility, and avant-garde experimentation. One crucial aspect of Nazimova’s adaptation that has received very little attention, however, is the continuity between Nazimova’s stage and ‹lm production careers, speci‹cally her well-documented preference for and personal investment in Ibsen’s complex modern dramatic heroines, in relation to Wilde’s Salomé. Such strong, psychologically complex and morally ambiguous female heroines as Nora Helmer, Hedda Gabler, and Hilda Wangel were welcome challenges to her own art of acting, but Nazimova’s interpretations also endorsed and expanded their transgressive feminist value. Whereas Maud Allan had unsuccessfully fought public perceptions of her alliance with the suffragists and of‹cially upheld orthodox gender doctrine, Nazimova courted the feminist association in A Doll’s House and Salomé, the two ‹lms she made with her own independent production company, Nazimova Productions. Before Nazimova got to Wilde’s Salomé, she had poured all her energy into Ibsen, and his feminist themes also in›uenced her striking 1922 cinematic adaptation, a milestone for femaleauthored cinematic modernism and the ‹rst surviving feature ‹lm of Wilde’s play. The Broadway Years: Nazimova’s Stage Career Alla Nazimova was a huge star in Ibsen’s plays on Broadway in the mid1900s , a legacy that she later tried to bring to the movies. Even though her theater career is almost forgotten today, Nazimova’s stage success lasted at least three decades; she was routinely compared to such star actresses as Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. Born Maria Ede Adelaide Leeton on June 4, 1879, in Yalta, Russia, to Jewish parents and a troubled family life, Nazimova originally trained as a violinist before she enrolled in the Academy of Acting in Moscow, where she soon established herself as one of the best students and got a chance to apprentice at Stanislavsky’s esteemed 126 Salome’s Modernity Moscow Art Theater. She started her professional acting career in czarist Kostrome and St. Petersburg and married a penniless drama student, Sergej Golovin, before joining Paul Orlenev’s St. Petersburg Players, who soon took her on tour to...


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Subject Headings

  • Wilde, Oscar, -- 1854-1900 -- Influence.
  • Wilde, Oscar, 1854-1900. Salomé.
  • Salome -- (Biblical figure) -- In literature.
  • Deviant behavior in literature.
  • Modernism (Aesthetics).
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