Audiences at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival will be treated to several strong roles for leading women Lois Wilson's heartbreaking humble pie as Miss Lulu Bett (1921), Louise Brooks's gender-bending hobo in 1928's Beggars of Life but now as then, there can be only one Nazimova. The Russian-born enchantress (who dropped her first name, Alla) stars in 1921's Camille, a version of Alexandre Dumas fils's novel set in swinging Paris and a perfect vehicle for her insanely overwrought performance style (it would have to be: beyond her stirring salary, the actress had final say on the film's director and script). It seems a cruel joke that the better-known version of Camille is the 1936 rendering with Greta Garbo, since, in the reductive annals of film history, it was Garbo who displaced Nazimova as the reigning ice-queen, only-one-name-necessary androgynous European beauty. That said, those who associate the silents with musty hokum are in for a surprise when this Camille splays across the screen, a vintage blast of Hollywood Babylon tangled up in Nazimova's nest of black curls.
A little history might be helpful here, and besides, it's too fun not to recount. Born Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon to a brawling family of Russian Jews, Nazimova fled for the arts and notoriety early, taking up the violin and, when that didn't work, joining Konstantin Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre. A couple of love affairs and one fruitless marriage later, the actress embarked for New York to perform Henrik Ibsen with Pavel Orlenev, a personal friend of Anton Chekhov and Maksim Gorky. From here she went to Hollywood, where she was presented with her unusual paychecks and creative control (whenever a gentleman tries to kiss her Marguerite in Camille, Nazimova sniffs, "Not until you put a jewel in my hand"), eventually producing her own films (including 1923's notorious Salomé) and establishing residence at 8080 Sunset Blvd., a sprawling compound that came to be called the Garden of Allah and played frequent host to both icons and outrage. A typically delicious Nazimova story: the actress hired art director Natacha Rambova to design Camille's sets, and the two may or may not have had a love affair before Rambova married Nazimova's costar, fishy Rudolph Valentino.
And that's not even touching Nazimova's lavender marriage with Charles Bryant or, weirdest of all, her being Nancy Reagan's godmother. If Nazimova's personal life seems spun or at least exaggerated, it was all at the service of her queenish persona something on prime display in Camille, thanks in no small part to Rambova's logic-defying art deco set designs. The many arches and frills that appoint bedrooms and ballrooms accentuate Nazimova's sinewy bends, beaky sneers, and bomber swoons.
Susan Sontag begins the inquiry in her seminal "Notes on 'Camp' " essay with a useful criterion for considering Nazimova's flamboyant performance: "Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization." The tragedy of this Camille has nothing to do with Dumas' plotting but instead lies in the decline that inevitably accompanies pure camp's straining seriousness. In Camille, Nazimova's wilting is foreshadowed in Valentino's naturalistic glide, the unaffected air that purportedly prompted D.W. Griffith to wonder, "Is this fellow really acting or is he so perfectly the type that he does not need to act?" Nazimova was all aura, without a trace of naturalism; regardless of the actress's personal tumbles, this image would have been impossible to sustain with the coming of sound. In the end, it seems, she was simply too big for real life.