Salome’s Last Dance

November 30, 2011

In Salome’s Last Dance, famed bad-boy filmmaker Ken Russell has chosen to take a cameo role for himself, that of a still photographer recording a performance of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome given for the benefit of Wilde himself. Wilde looks at the photographer and declares, “If your acting is as grossly indecent as your photographic studies, we are in for an outrrrageous evening!”

Russell uncorks this bit of self-lampoonery knowing full well that most critics consider the director of Tommy and Altered States as “grossly indecent” a moviemaker as exists on the planet. But the dialogue certainly gets it right: Salome’s Last Dance is another cyclonic phantasmagoria from Russell’s feverish brain—an outrageous evening, indeed. I think it’s a minor film, when all is said and done, but it is at least mounted with high style and good humor (Russell’s previous movie, Gothic, seemed sour and hopeless).

The Salome performance is given in a brothel on a November night in 1892. Wilde (played in a marvelously florid turn by Nickolas Grace) sits on a bower of pillows and watches his play unfold, and occasionally gets in on the peripheral action.

When Russell visited the recent screening of Salome’s Last Dance at the Seattle International Film Festival, he claimed that staging Wilde’s Salome in this manner was the only way to film the play without building elaborate, expensive sets. True, but there’s another, better reason. When Wilde watches his play staged, we see the way it reflects on his own life; he identifies himself as the play’s John the Baptist, and predicts himself betrayed by his homosexual lover just as John is betrayed by Salome.

In the play, John the Baptist is played by Douglas Hodge; Herod by Stratford Johns; Queen Herodias by Glenda Jackson. The actors are ripe, as befits Russell’s scheme, and none is riper than Imogen Millais-Scott, the petite newcomer who plays Salome. Her lilting, breathy delivery is strange and haunting, and her amber eyes flicker with lust, particularly in the ornate temptations she offers the Baptist. What an exuberantly odd performance!

Salome’s Last Dance might well have been a trashy, glitzy exercise in camp were it not for the tragic layer of Wilde’s own life, as suggested in sharp strokes by Russell. The movie may be crammed with gold-painted bodies, bare-breasted servant girls, dancing dwarfs, and a murderous banana peel, but with all of that, as is true of Russell’s best films, there’s more here than meets the eye.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

A maniac of the movies, Ken Russell died a couple of days ago. The man unleashed a few turkeys, but I can testify to the power of seeing Women in Love as a teenager, already aware of the film’s reputation as an Important Art Movie containing a certain raciness. The Eighties were not a great time for his films, although I am an Altered States fan, but this is a mad little item I somehow saw twice in its Seattle Film Festival and regular-run appearances. Between viewings someone told me that leading lady Imogen Millais-Scott was blind, which certainly gives an unusual dimension to watching the movie. But then all the actors are pitched in a slightly crazed, unreal mode, which seemed to suit Russell just fine. I also like Nickolas Grace; he played Anthony Blanche in the ’81 Brideshead Revisited miniseries, and he nailed the defining-devastating moment when he turns to old friend Charles Ryder to accurately confide that Ryder’s paintings are “tewwible twipe,” despite the fawning of art patrons.


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