Monday, July 16, 2007

The Solo Camille

Alla Nazimova, with Rudolf Valentino in Camille (1921).

"It's all about suspension of disbelief." Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994)

Silent screen diva Alla Nazimova basked in the calcium light once again last Saturday evening at the 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, with her 1921 version of Camille, co-starring Rudolf Valentino.

After her training at Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater, the Russian-born actress was a legendary star of the American stage and premier interpreter of Ibsen's work, before signing a contract with Metro in 1917. Nazimova soon became the highest paid movie actress of the time and, following the lead of actress-producer-mogul Mary Pickford, gained complete creative control over her productions.

Known for her lavish, flamboyantly gay (in both senses of the word) lifestyle, Nazimova threw spectacular parties for movie stars, jetsetters, movers and shakers - and fawning female groupies - at her opulent estate, known as the Garden Of Alla. She was a rock 'n' roll star.

As for the film itself, 98% Nazimova and 2% Dumas, the combination of the then ultra-modernist settings and costumes (by the equally legendary Natasha Rambova) with heavy-duty melodramatics becomes quite a bit of fun, as long as you don't waste energy on resistance. Even though the only honestly erotically charged moment in the picture happens when Camille meets a girlfriend - it really looks as if Nazimova and Patsy Ruth Miller are going to just ditch Rudy and the boys, pull the shades and just go for it - once you just relax and go with the flow, it is possible to have quite an excellent time.

Amidst the splendid, striking and stylized art-deco trappings lies an intriguing contrast between the two silent screen icons. Valentino, a few years away from chewing up serious scenery in "The Sheik", is by comparison low-key and naturalistic, and at times even leads the scenes. While his performance works quite well, Valentino's screen presence was not lost on Nazimova, who makes this largely a solo Camille and shares as few scenes as possible with the up-and-coming star.

While aware every moment that I was being manipulated by the most shamelessly over-the-top theatrics, I still found myself moved at times, unexpectedly misty instead of thinking "OH - JUST GET IT OVER AND DIE ALREADY!" during the grand finale. Alla Nazimova won. She got to me. Her artistry had me referencing my own (never entirely healed) broken heart: the painful losses and the ones who got away.

And, as a postscript, the screening's emcee, Robert Osborne, splendid and informative host from Turner Classic Movies, mentioned that Nazimova made brilliant - and entirely different - appearances in sound movies, in brief but memorable character roles. In such classic 1940's flicks as Blood And Sand and Since You Went Away, Alla Nazimova emphatically demonstrated that even after the passing of her stardom and fame, she still had her chops.

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