Monday, July 31, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: Nazimova by Gavin Lambert

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.


Nazimova: A Biography
by Gavin Lambert
University Press of Kentucky
Paperback ISBN: 9780813153421
432 pages

“When I first came to America I had so much luck it frightened me… And then the luck turned.” — Nazimova

With her dark and wild hair, her downturned eyes and her incredible confidence, Nazimova was bonafide star. This actress who made waves on stage and on the silent screen is the subject of Gavin Lambert’s 1997 biography, recently reissued in paperback by University Press of Kentucky.

Alla Nazimova was born Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon in Crimea, Russia in 1879. Nazimova came from a Russian Jewish family and suffered from severe neglect after her parents’ divorce. She sought solace with acting and became part of the Moscow theatrical scene. The author goes into incredible detail about childhood and teen years thanks to Nazimova’s own unfinished autobiography that he used as reference. Towards the end of her life she spent countless hours detailing her origin story but never got to write about what happened after the age of 17. Luckily, she left behind many other details in the form of correspondence and diary entries that the author had access to and references frequently throughout the book.

What made Nazimova so special as an actress was her stage and screen presence, her ability to play characters much younger than herself, her incredible memory, her attention to detail and her personal and professional networking skills. She was a master at both the technical and social aspects of being an actress. It was natural that Nazimova would make her way to Broadway. Despite her heavy accent which some criticized, Nazimova soon became a star in the New York theatre world.

Metro Pictures came around with an incredible offer: a contract that would make her one of the highest paid actresses in silent film and give her approval of the director, leading man and the script. The author goes into detail about each of Nazimova’s films. There is a lot of detail for her early Metro Pictures films, including WAR BRIDES (1916), Revelation (1918) and TOYS OF FATE (1918), all of which are unfortunately lost. When Metro Pictures moved to Hollywood, Nazimova followed suit. She made silent films with them until a terrible falling out led her to start her own production company. Now with complete creative control, she produced and starred in films like CAMILLE (1921) and SALOME (1924). By 1925, Nazimova had abandoned films for the New York stage. She returned to Hollywood in the 1940s with small roles in films like ESCAPE (1940) and BLOOD AND SAND (1941). In fact, her final role in SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944) was written specifically for her.

The crux of Lambert’s biography is Nazimova’s relationships with family, lovers and professional collaborators. Nazimova was queer and preferred to be in relationships with women. Her relationship with her common law husband Charles Bryant (they weren’t legally married but pretended to be so for many years) was a means to protect her professional image. He was also producer, actor and director for many of her films, which further gave Nazimova control over her projects. Lambert offers the reader many stories about key figures like June Mathis, Jean Acker, Rudolph Valentino, Natacha Rambova and many more. I was surprised to discover that much celebrated genre producer Val Lewton was Nazimova’s nephew! And of course, there are Nazimova’s homes including the The Garden of Allah and Who-Tok, both of which no longer exist although stories of these grand homes continue to be part of her legacy.

My biggest issue with Lambert’s biography on Nazimova is some of the outdated language. There are a few sexist and racist terms, direct quotations from people in Nazimova’s life, that I feel could have been nixed in the reissue. Fortunately, these are few and far between. There is quite a lot of details about Nazimova’s sex life but I felt it was done in a respectful manner. Lambert really does demonstrate how these relationships were key to her growth as a performer and were also how she navigated her social world.

Never salacious and always informative, Gavin Lambert’s biography captures the dramatic rise and fall of the late great Nazimova.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for sending me a digital copy of this book to review!

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