Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Queen of All Drama Mamas

To get myself into the headspace of our upcoming opera, I rented the relatively hard to find 1923 black and white, silent movie version of Salome, starring Alla Nazimova in the title role. An appetizer before the main course, if you will.

I was intrigued at first because I'm a fan of the Art Deco era. The stills of the movie stayed true to fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations of the printed edition of Oscar Wilde's Salome.

Spliced with intertitles, the movie with the one set cost a whopping $350,000 to make. And it's evident the money was sunk into the lavish look of the movie: the lighting, the set design but most of all, the costuming designed by Natacha Rambova, Nazimova's close friend and collaborator.

However, where the movie goes off the rails (as if the story itself doesn't already do that) is the acting. Or should I say the OA (over-acting). Art house movie aside, this movie is hyper-stylized in not only the look but the emotions as well. Every melodramatic movement, every head tilt and bulging eye moment exaggerated. It's no surprise that it reminded me of Rudolph Valentino movies, like The Sheik, since Rambova was Valentino's soon to be wife.

With the camera at a respectable distance, Nazimova in her blond bobbed wig looks alittle like circa 80's Cyndi Lauper. But when the camera zooms in for the "I'm ready for my close-up" shot, even the cleverest soft focus lighting could not disguise Nazimova at the age of 42 trying futilely to portray a vixen-ish teenager.

The make up worked well, particularly caked on to Herod's and Herodias' visages, which made them all the more believable in their grotesquery and depravity. The wigs were memorable in their strangeness, especially Salome's wig made of bouncey moth ball sized pearls wired onto tightly wound springs and the male guards with their cotton ball wigs.

Of course I was watching Salome for 3 things:

The erotic dance of the seven veils which turned out to be nothing more than pitifully swaying without rhythm or structure under a flimsy piece of chiffon.

The beheading and the kissing scene were completely omitted. No actual beheading took place; rather, it was all implied. Also, Salome holding the silver charger supposedly carrying the head of Jokanaan did not actually lift up the head to kiss it. Instead, Nazimova used her long cape to cover the charger and herself, while crouching on the floor to kiss Jokanaan's mouth.

There's no doubt that this avant-garde movie was daring for its time, especially with its flamboyantly gay overtones. It proved so untouchable that it took years to find a distributor for the film and also effectively ended Nazimova's producing career.

Course, with the passage of time comes appreciation or at the very least, curiosity and homage to Nazimova's Salome. Gloria Swanson's crazy dame character Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard pays tribute by making Salome her comeback movie.

Although over the top in decadence and camp value, Nazimova's Salome may be worth a look, especially if you dig the whole Art Deco/Art Nouveau look. Because really, don't we all want to indulge the little drama queen in all of us sometimes?

~ Ling Chan

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