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Alla Nazimova Edit Profile

Actress

Alla Nazimova was a Russian-born American actress.

Background

Nazimova, Alla was born on June 4, 1879 in Yalta, Crimea, Russia. Daughter of Jacob and Sofia N. Taken to Montreux, Switzerland, and early learned to speak the German and French langs., also to play the violin.

Education

Studied music at St. Petersburg Conservatory, at Odessa, and dramatic art at Philaem Society. Studied the English language and later played leading parts in “Hedda Gabler,” “A Doll’s House,” “Comptess Coquette,” “The Master Builder,” “Little Eyolff, “The Comet,” “Bella Donna,” “War Brides,” “Ception Shoals,” etc.

Career

Began as leading woman in Kostroma, Russia. Later in stock companies, and appeared at St. Petersburg in prominent roles, 1904. Debut in New York as Lia, in Russian language, in “The Chosen People,” at the Herald Square Theatre, March 10, 1905.

She left Russia for America in 1905, and for ten years she played Ibsen—Hedda Gahler, The Master Builder, A Dolls House, and Regina in Ghosts (later, she would move on to Mrs. Alving). She worked and lived with the actor/director Charles Bryant (though there was a husband alive still back in Russia) and she entered movies. She made War Brides for the Lewis Selznick Company and went on to Metro with Revelation (18, George D. Baker), in which she plays a prostitute who poses for a painter (Bryant) and who when asked to pose as the Madonna, becomes her! So much miracle—yet no film surviving: it’s the pattern of Nazimova’s early movies.

She played mother and daughter in Toys of Fate (18, Baker) and Hassouna, an Arab girl, in Eye for Eye (18, Albert Capellani). She played two women (one European, one Eurasian) in love with one man in The Red Lantern (19, Capellani) and a slum girl in The Brat (Herbert Blache). For most of these lost films Lambert reckons that Nazimova was the actual director.

She did an Indian temple dance in Stronger Than Death (20, Blache). In Heart of a Child (20, Ray C. Smallwood), she was a Cockney girl who marries a lord. She w'as a Russian princess in Billions, another mother and daughter in Madame Peacock. It was in her Camille (21, Smallwood) that Valentino played Armand. There was a movie of A Doll’s House (22, Bryant)—yet another lost film. And then she played the teenaged Salome in her forties—“a Pantomime after the play by Oscar Wilde,” she called it, with costumes by Natacha Rambova. After that came Madonna of the Streets (24, Edwin Carewe); The Redeeming Sin (25, J. Stuart Blaekton); and My Son (25, Carew'e)—in which Constance Bennett plays her romantic rival.

She retired from movies and did more theatre, everything from Ghosts again to The Cherry Orchard (she was Ranevskaya and Eva Le Gallienne was Varya) to Mourning Becomes Electra and O'Lan in The Good Earth (with Claude Rains). David Selznick offered her the role of Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, and she seems to have tested for Mrs. Darn ers in Rebecca.

She also yearned to play Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls. In fact, her final credits are less striking: Escape (40, Mervyn LeRoy); Tyrone Powers mother in Blood and Sand (41. Rouben Mamoulian); Paul Henreid’s mother in In Our Time (44, Vincent Sherman); the Marquesa in The Bridge of San Luis Reij (44, Rowland V. Lee); and as the Eastern European immigrant in Selznicks Since You Went Away (44, John Cromwell).

Personality

Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams had one experience in common—they had been transfixed by seeing Nazimova play Ibsen, so much so that they reckoned they had never quite confronted the reality of theatre before. So many critics and observers reported that Nazimova, on stage, brought a startling immediacy to every scene, so that people believed they were beholding real life. And so the legends of acting went—before movies lasted long enough to show' that nearly every style of acting dates. Nazimova w'as a great figure of the earlv movies: her War Brides (16, Herbert Brenon) was a huge hit. But no copy survives, and so we can only heed the w'ord of O’Neill and Williams and try to measure the melodramatic stills of War Brides against movies from her last years.

Of course, Nazimova is more than just that enigma. She is a link between cultures and ages. She had studied with Stanislavsky and knowai Chekhov. In America, she would earn $13,000 a week—this in 1915. She was a bisexual society hostess in Hollywood at her house, the Garden of Allah. She was a force behind the flimsy being of Valentino. She was aunt to Val Lewton. All of this, and much more, can be explored in Gavin Lambert’s finely researched biography, published in 1997.

Connections

father:
Jacob Taken

mother:
Sofia N. Taken