Alla Nazimova - Silent Star of February 1999

by Kally Mavromatis

She studied with Stanislavsky, performing his friend Chekhov's new works. A great fan of Ibsen, she introduced his plays with great success to New York audiences. She was Madame, she was a great actress of stage and screen, and she was Alla Nazimova.

Born Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon June 4, 1879 in Yalta, Russia, she was first called Adel for short until her mother decided "Alla" was prettier. The third child and second daughter, she was raised by a young, foolish mother and a brutal father who beat his family. Her early life was one of beatings and instability; the family moved from Yalta to Switzerland, where, after her mothers numerous indiscretions, was divorced by her father. While living with a Swiss family for a few years, the young Alla showed a great talent for music and began violin lessons at age 7. Her father eventually remarried and brought her back to Yalta.

In Russia, Alla led a restricted and lonely life. She first began to display a flair for dramatics when, during her fathers absences she would sneak into his pharmacy and entertain the employees with impersonations of her father and his customers.

At her father's insistence Alla had continued to study the violin, and in 1889 she was selected by her private tutor to perform in his annual Christmas concert. Her father, not wishing the community to know that the daughter of a prosperous merchant was performing on the stage, demanded she use another name for performing. Having recently read a Russian novel called "Children of the Streets," Alla took the last name of the heroine Nadezhda Nazimova, coupling it with her given name to perform as Adelaida Nazimova.

She performed well, but when Alla displayed pleasure at the reception she received her father beat her, a beating Nazimova later attributed to the subsequent postperformance depression and horrendous stage fright that she suffered throughout her career.

When she turned 15, Alla was sent to boarding school in Odessa for a more formal education. Considered an outsider by her schoolmates, she responded with outrageous behavior. In addition, the daughters of the woman with whom she boarded were active in local theatre, and the curious Alla would watch them, studying them as they rehearsed and discussed their roles. She began going to the theatre with them, helping them with their makeup and costumes. It wasn't long before Alla determined that she, too, would become an actress.

When her father became ill, she was legally entrusted to the care of her brother, who insisted she must wait before studying acting. Finally, at age 17, her brother relented, and Alla was given an audition at the Philharmonic School in Moscow, considered the best in Russia.

She was to begin her acting studies at a unique period in history. Konstatin Stanislavsky had assembled a company of actors that were faithful to his vision of an organic visual atmosphere and a unifed performance style to create what he called "the feeling of truth." All poses and gestures must have some form of "inner justification," completely lacking in stock poses or elaborate mannerisms. Similarly, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko was developing a method of acting at the Philharmonic that emphasized inner merging and emotional merging with the playwright. At Nemirovich request, the two met and decided to form a theatre company, with Nemirovich as administrator and Stanislavsky as director. Plays would be chosen by mutual consent. In April 1898 the two formed the Moscow Open Theatre, whose name, at Chekhovs suggestion, was later changed to the Moscow Art Theatre.

While she studied, to support herself Nazimova would sell herself for a few kopecks, eventually meeting and being kept by a millionaire. After a failed love affair, Alla left the Art Theatre to work in regional repertory. On the rebound, she married a fellow acting student, Sergei Golovin, but the marriage was in name only. Not long after she returned to the Art Theatre, and with few roles available, studied stage management. A year later, becoming disillusioned with Stanislavskys increasing conservatism and heavy handed management, she, along with others, left the Theatre. A month later she signed a contract with a stock company in Kislovodsk.

It was while she was performing for the Kostroma stock company that she met Pavel Orlenev, another close friend of Chekhov and Gorky and already a theatre legend. The two began a relationship that was both a love affair and a shared passion for the theatre. In 1904 their touring company received permission to perform in Europe, and arrived in Berlin. From there they proceeded to London, where they performed the play The Chosen People. Alla's performances were electrifying, and she quickly became a center of attention.

As a result of their success in London, in February 1905 Nazimova, Orlenev, and the rest of the St. Petersburg Players left for New York. Again, Nazimova's performances were singled out by critics, and for the next year and a half, the company performed and toured relentlessly, living a hand-to-mouth existence. They performed classical works such as Tsar Fyodor and The Chosen People, Chekhov's plays as well as the heretofore unknown Ibsen. Despite Orlenev's stature in Russian theatre, it was Nazimova who proved to be the bright light, and in May of 1906 Orlenev and the company returned to Russia. Alla stayed, having signed a contract with legendary theatre producer Lee Schubert who gave her a surprising amount of freedom to select her performances.

Before she could begin performing, however, Nazimova had to learn English. Her tutor, Carolyn Harris, was a single mother who would bring her son to Alla's while they worked on her English lessons. Later her son Dickie was given his first role in one of Nazimova's films, changing his name to Richard Barthlemess.

During the next few years, Nazimova became the darling of New York Theatre, alternating between the "heavy" plays of Ibsen and lighter fare. While performing in Bella Donna for her new producer Charles Frohman, Alla met Charles Bryant, the man who would Nazimova's "husband." Never legally married, for Nazimova was still legally Mrs. Segei Golovin, the two claimed to be married and would continue the pretense for the next 20 years.

In 1915, with the outbreak of World War I, Nazimova was offered a role in the 35-minute play, War Brides, a plea for pacifism. Set in an unnamed country during a time of war, Nazimova portrays Joan, a woman who loses both her brothers then her husband on the battlefields. When the king orders women to bear more children to fight in future wars, Joan organizes a protest and, when threatened with jail for her noncompliance, shoots herself.

The play and Alla's performance, came to the attention of Lewis J. Selznick. He offered Nazimova $30,000 and a $1,000 per day bonus for every day filming went over schedule. Securing director Herbert Brenon, the film also featured "Little Dickie," Charles Bryant, and Gertrude Berkeley (mother of Busby) recreating their stage roles.

Based on the film's success, in 1917 Nazimova was offered a 5-year, $13,000 a week contract -- $3,000 more than Mary Pickford earned -- with Metro studio, with the right to approve director, script, and leading man. Her first film, Revelation, with "husband" Charles Bryant was a sucess, as was the follow-up film, Toys of Fate. Both were melodramas that allowed Alla to "run the gamut between Vice and Virtue." After taking a break to return to the stage, Nazimova moved to Los Angeles to begin production on her third film, Eye for Eye. Also a success, Nazimovas next film was a reworking of one of her stage roles, Ception Shoals, titled Out of the Fog,1919.

With her film career flourishing, Nazimova bought an imposing California Spanish home at 8080 Sunset Boulevard, building a pool and landscaping the property's three and a half acres. Named The Garden of Alla, the place became a popular place for the Hollywood elite. Eventually Nazimova lost the property, and when it became a residential hotel took a small room in the house that had once been her home.

Her next film, The Red Lantern, was well-received, but The Brat (1919) was not. Despite the success of Stronger Than Death, her pictures became to become ever more "lurid" and "preposterous." After her next films, Madonna of the Streets, Heart of a Child, Madame Peacock, and Billions, she dropped from #4 to #20 in Photoplay's annual popularity poll.

Notable in Billions is the work of set designer Natacha Rambova, friend of Nazimova and future wife of Rudolph Valentino, the co-star of her next film, Camille (1921). With its ultra-modern set and contemporary settings, the film was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Critical reaction varied, and the film was a moderate success, but after its release Nazimova and Metro parted ways.

Alla turned to producing her own films, returning to familiar ground with A Doll´s House (1922) and the dark and exotic Salome (1922). House), while restoring Nazimova's prestige as an actress, was a disappointment, as was Salome, with its highly stylized acting and ultra-modern sets. Her losses from the two films were heavy, and in need of work she returned to theatre, returning to small parts in films such as The Redeeming Sin (1924), a low-budget film for Vitagraph and My Son (1924).

Nazimova returned to the theatre for good, only returning to films for small parts in Zaza, Escape, a remake of Blood and Sand, In Our Time, and Since You Went Away.

Alla Nazimova died in California of coronary thrombosis on July 2 1945.

Source: Nazimova, by Gavin Lambert


GLen Pringle / pringle@csse.monash.edu.au
Kally Mavromatis / kallym@sprintmail.com
Copyright © 1999 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431