She was a legendary Russian-born stage performer who studied with Stanislavsky, popularized the works of Ibsen and Chekov, and achieved acclaim as the first “modern” actress in the American theater. She became the highest-paid film actress of her era, and was also a true auteur with unprecedented control over scripts, directors and co-stars. Yet by the time she died in 1945, Alla Nazimova was all but broke, playing only occasional supporting roles, and living in a bungalow on the grounds of her former palatial estate. Nearly forgotten for 50 years, Nazimova was brought to vivid life in a 1997 biography by Gavin Lambert, who sorted out the dramatic facts from the myths, which he called “fictions less strange, and less compelling, than the truth of her life.”
Nazimova was born Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon in Yalta in 1879, into a family of Sephardic Jews. She endured a Dickensian childhood with an abusive father who had divorced his flighty, unfaithful wife when Alla was six years old. Nazimova studied drama at Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre. Later, she joined the theater company of famed actor-producer Pavel Orlenev, touring Europe and, in 1905, going to the United States. The troupe performed in Russian to immigrant audiences. One of the first reviews, in the New York American, was prescient: “We could not understand the language of the play, but the language of Alla Nazimova is universal. It is the language of the soul. Her name will be a household word.” In 1906, Nazimova accepted a contract with impresario Lee Shubert which gave her the right to choose her own material. Her first two plays were both by Ibsen: Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, and both did well. For her third, Shubert convinced her to try a frothy comedy. Over the next decade, she would alternate between challenging works by Ibsen or Chekov, and lightweight comedies or lurid melodramas.
In 1915, with Europe at war, Nazimova accepted the lead in the pacifist play, War Brides, which gave her another success. The film adaptation, which was her movie debut, was also a hit. In 1917 she signed a contract with Metro, and over the next three years she became one of the most popular stars in Hollywood. Charles Bryant, an English actor she had met in 1912 and then led the world to believe she had married, co-starred in War Brides and many of her subsequent films. He was also her business manager, and his main talent was spending her money. In 1919, the couple bought a lavish Spanish-style estate, which they named the Garden of Alla. They played the role of a loving couple, but actually led separate lives. Nazimova had lovers of both sexes, including a series of young female “protegees.”
As she became ever grander – she was now referred to by everyone as “Madame” – her films became ever more melodramatic and ridiculous. Both the public and the critics began to lose interest. Alarmed, executives at Metro demanded that she turn the writing chores over to a professional, and replace Bryant as her leading man. Nazimova agreed, as long as she could keep artistic control. To write the Camille script, she chose June Mathis, Metro’s top scenarist. To design the costumes and sets, she hired Natacha Rambova.
Born Winifred Shaughnessy in Salt Lake City, Rambova was educated in Europe, and studied ballet in Paris and New York. A former dancer with the Theodore Koslov company, she was involved in a destructive affair with the domineering Koslov, who had taken credit for Rambova’s design of the 1920 Nazimova film, Billions. Rambova left Koslov, and the two women formed the most fulfilling creative alliance either would ever have. Whether the two women were lovers remains unclear to this day, but they shared an emotional and intellectual intimacy.
To play the young paramour Armand in Camille, Mathis suggested her discovery Rudolph Valentino, who had just completed his first starring role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Nazimova shrewdly realized that the buzz from Horsemen would help Camille, and she agreed. To direct, she chose Ray C. Smallwood, chief cameraman at Metro and nominal director of her last three films – though everyone knew Madame was in charge. Patsy Ruth Miller, who played Nichette, told biographer Lambert, “We called [him] poor Mr. Smallwood.” On the set, according to Miller, Nazimova was “cold and businesslike, a tiny czarina with an eye on every detail.” A detail Madame didn’t miss was Valentino’s superb performance, which she feared could steal the picture away from her. She found a solution: unlike every other Camille, Armand is absent from his beloved’s bedside when it’s time for her death scene.
Rambova’s designs for the film were an innovative blend of Art Nouveau, Expressionism and a geometric style soon to be known as Art Deco. Nazimova’s performance, too, was a mixture of the naturalism she had learned from Stanislavsky and a choreographed dance of stylized movements, poses and gestures. Together, she and Rambova were creating their own vision of artistic cinema. As Brian Taves of The Library of Congress has written, “Camille succeeds as an example of the art film, and yet one that also retains the fundamental element of melodrama which appeals to audiences in a manner that the more avant-garde Nazimova-Rambova collaborations do not achieve.”
Critics at the time were less impressed. “More or less freakish throughout…there are so-called impressionistic settings…these seem to us merely bizarre backgrounds, suggestive of a Broadway ladies’ shop,” stated Motion Picture Classic. “What has happened to the great actress, the splendid genius, the incomparable artiste?” moaned Photoplay.
Camille did fairly well at the box office, but Metro had had enough of Madame and did not renew her contract. Once she had left, the studio changed the film’s publicity campaign and gave top billing to Valentino. Undaunted, Nazimova formed her own production company, whose first two productions were A Doll’s House (1922) and Salomé (1923), with Rambova designing the production and costumes, and Charles Bryant receiving the credit as director. Nazimova wrote the screenplays herself, under the name Peter M. Winters. A Doll’s House restored Nazimova’s reputation as an actress but flopped at the box office, and Salomé was beset with distribution problems, achieving only a limited release. After a few more unsuccessful films, Nazimova, plagued by financial problems, returned to the New York stage. She allowed a financial manager to turn the Garden of Alla into a hotel, but that too was a failure, and she ended up losing her home as well as her film career. Her “marriage” came to an end at that time and was exposed as a sham, drawing scandalous headlines. In the 1930s, after further financial setbacks, she returned to Hollywood and took up residence in a bungalow at the renamed Garden of Allah. She played small roles in a few films and died in 1945, having outlived her fame.
Rambova and Valentino fell in love during the production of Camille and married in 1922. But his pop idol success clashed with her artistic aspirations, and they divorced in 1926. Valentino died that same year. Rambova married a Spanish aristocrat in 1934, divorced him five years later, became a disciple of Georges Gurdjieff, traveled in Egypt and the Far East, and collected art. In the end, she became delusional and refused to eat because she thought people were poisoning her food. She died in 1966 of a heart attack brought on by malnutrition.
Presented at SFSFF 2007 with live music by Clark Wilson on the Mighty Wurlitzer