Alla Nazimova (1879-1945) was a superstar of the Silent Era, greatly admired as an actor in her day, and popular with audiences.
She was also a fearless queer super-heroine, who made an immense contribution to film history and LGBTQ history with her daring projects. A Russian emigree to the USA, when she earned a fortune as a stage actor she did not hold on to it – she put it all into a pharaonic project: a filmed version of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, made in 1923, which remains unsurpassed in scope and ambition.
The film’s breathtaking aesthetic was inspired by the famous illustrations of Salome by Aubrey Beardsley, an artist from the ‘Decadent movement’, which was associated with fluid gender and sexuality, and with slippery morals to match.
Nazimova’s Salome (1923) is a celebration and expansion of queer aesthetics. There is a lot of emphasis on effeminate boys, but it is in the central performance by the androgynous Nazimova (who was forty four years of age when playing the teenager Salome) that the film has its slender, graceful, and tough-as-iron anchor.
This film is an apotheosis of camp, and a hymn to transgender ambiguity. The direction of Salome was credited to Charles Bryant, Nazimova’s gay husband, though it is widely believed that she was the de facto director. A cultural activist, a magnet of queer talent, a lesbian visionary… it is time we celebrate properly this woman and her daring, original genious.