Alla Nazimova – AFI Catalog Spotlight – American Film Institute
A lobby card for the American silent film SALOMÉ (1923) starring Alla Nazimova


Alla Nazimova – AFI Catalog Spotlight

In celebration of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, the AFI Catalog shines a spotlight on the trailblazing queer actress Alla Nazimova, who would have celebrated her 144th birthday this June 4. Hailed by modern scholars as “the founding mother of Sapphic Hollywood,” Nazimova was known as a brilliant artiste and non-conformist, who performed in over 20 films in her time, as well as working as a producer, director and writer among other roles behind the camera. She got her start in theater, where her innovative naturalistic style inspired playwrights including Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, who reported that her performances gave him his “first conception of modern theatre.” Introducing American audiences to Henrik Ibsen’s depiction of the feminist “New Woman” by starring in his major works “A Doll’s House,” “Hedda Gabler” and “The Master Builder,” Nazimova earned $5 million for theater manager Lee Shubert, an amount previously unheard of, according to her biographer Gavin Lambert. By 1910, Shubert had constructed The Nazimova Theater in New York City at a cost of $4 million. Roughly seven years later, Metro Pictures (the precursor to MGM) secured a five-year film contract with Nazimova at $13,000 a week, making her the highest-paid actress at the time. Her own company, Nazimova Productions, was given right of approval for script, director and leading man. Nazimova achieved movie stardom at age 40, and established the image of the exotic foreign woman, later to be adopted by actresses including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, yet her name has been widely overshadowed by other performers of her era and she is largely unfamiliar to movie fans of today.

1913 Portrait of Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova (1879-1945)Born Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon in Yalta, Nazimova acquired the nickname Alla from her mother and later adopted the surname Nazimova from the heroine of the Russian novel “Children of the Streets” when her father forbade her to use her last name for a violin performance, lest she perform poorly and embarrass the family. This was indicative of the extreme physical and verbal abuse Alla endured while living with her father throughout her young life, and she was estranged from her mother after her parents’ divorce when she was eight years old. Taking an interest in acting to escape her real-life predicament, Alla moved to Moscow and studied with Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre. In 1899, Nazimova married fellow actor Sergei Golovin but they quickly separated. In the early part of the 1900s, Alla—now Nazimova—toured with stock companies and met Pavel Orlenev, who started a new group and made her its leading lady. As lovers, they travelled together to New York, where they separated in 1906 and Nazimova signed her contract with Shubert. Part of her contract included English lessons, and she learned the language in under six months.

Over the next several years, Nazimova performed in many stage productions and became a success. In 1912, she met British actor Charles Bryant while rehearsing for the play “Bella Donna” and tried in vain to get a divorce from Golovin. Nazimova and Bryant entered into a fake marriage, with Nazimova keeping her original husband under wraps. It was discovered that the union was a sham by the press when Bryant married another woman and entered “single” for his marital status on the wedding license. Early on in their “marriage,” Nazimova and Bryant starred in “War Brides,” which would be adapted into Nazimova’s smash success film debut in 1916. That same year, Nazimova started an affair with writer Mercedes De Acosta, her first known of many female lovers that included director Dorothy Arzner and Nazimova’s longtime companion, Glesca Marshall, who she lived with until her death in 1945.

Photograph shows Alla Nazimova (1879-1945), a Russian-American actress, director and producerIn 1918, Nazimova moved to Hollywood and by the end of the year she had purchased a 3.5 acre Spanish-style home at 8080 Sunset Boulevard, spending lavishly on remodels and landscaping. The property became known as the Garden of Alla, or the 8080 Club, where Nazimova entertained Hollywood luminaries who were considered the bohemians of the industry. Named after the 1905 best-seller “The Garden of Allah,” Nazimova’s home was central in cultivating the queer community in early Los Angeles, according to Samantha Shokin writing in Tablet. Shokin also notes Nazimova was credited with coining the term “sewing circles” in reference to her secret association of lesbian and bisexual filmmakers.

By 1921, Nazimova cast the then-unknown Rudolph Valentino in her production of CAMILLE, before he became famous in THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921). Her protégé, Jean Acker, married the young actor, but he later became wedded to Nazimova’s production designer, Natasha Rambova, (who he met on the set of CAMILLE), and he was arrested for bigamy. Nazimova was caught in the scandal, and CAMILLE was only moderately successful at the box-office, despite some positive reviews, resulting in Metro ending its contract with the actress. However, Nazimova and Rambova were still planning two productions, adaptations of “A Doll’s House” and Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé,” and Nazimova stepped in to fund them herself. Although SALOMÉ (1923), directed by Bryant, was given a restricted release due to its controversial content and did not generate income for Nazimova, it has survived and become a cult classic of queer cinema.

Photograph shows Alla Nazimova (1879-1945), a Russian-American actress, director and producerAfter a series of misfortunes, including the loss of The Garden of Alla (which became a famous hotel where Nazimova would again live in later years), and failing health, the actress returned to the stage in the 1930s and performed in several films from 1940-1944. She was godmother to the future Nancy Reagan, who visited Nazimova’s hotel villa and recalled, “It was so small, nicely furnished but…How terrible it must be for her after all that fame and glamor.” Nazimova, who had recently completed her autobiography, died from a series of heart attacks just over a month after her 66th birthday, with Glesca Marshall by her side. Nazimova is remembered today by the Alla Nazimova Society, whose co-founder Martin Turnbull has authored a “Garden of Allah” series of novels that take place in Hollywood’s golden age, and a one-woman show by actress Romy Nordlinger that will be taking the stage at Theatre West in Hollywood next month, in July 2023, with the character Nazimova billed as “The most famous star you’ve never heard of.” Also inspired by Nazimova’s Garden of Alla, a LGBTQIA+ cabaret in Seattle called “The Garden of Allah” opened in 1946, and was one of the first openly gay-owned gay bars in the U.S. To ensure she is not forgotten, here are some Alla Nazimova films you can watch today to appreciate her brilliant skills as an actress and a filmmaker.

Watch Alla Nazimova in CAMILLE here:

Watch Alla Nazimova in SALOMÉ here:

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