In a candle-lit Victorian brothel, Oscar Wilde sips champagne as pretty prostitutes enact his latest play, "Salome." As Salome performs her Dance of the Seven Veils in exchange for the ruin of John the Baptist, life begins to imitate art and … see full wiki
Twenty years ago Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance was released and I and my libertine friends saw it as a first run. From time to time I watch a movie I haven’t seen in twenty years and draw what conclusions are impossible to ignore. I found A Room with a View to be more boring than not and way more pretentious than I did at the time. Salome is better than I remember it, but a decade of literary crucibles and just getting older brought a different eye.
The film is set in 1892, in a brothel that Oscar Wilde frequents. His play Salome was recently banned (or refused a license by the Lord Chamberlain to be a bit more exact). Salome is a very sexual play with potentially heretical themes depending on the sensitivity you have to extra-textual stories about biblical players, so it isn’t difficult to understand why it might offend the stiff sensibilities of its day.
The brothel owner, Alfred Taylor, invites the playwright to sit back and watch a staging of his own banned play.
The play begins with John the Baptist captured and imprisoned by Herod. From below stage John screams somewhat veiled invectives at Herod’s wife Herodias. This mysterious screaming grabs Salome’s attentions (she is Herodias daughter). She has him brought to her and tries to seduce him. She fails.
Salome isn’t accustomed to failing at seduction—she’s a teenage Helen of Troy who knows how to use her hips aggressively. The play is only about ten minutes old before a paramour kills himself after being spurned, for instance. After some fairly long speechifying, she is given a unique opportunity. Her stepfather, Herod, wants her to dance. Her mother forbids it, but Salome is no more willing to listen to her mother than she is to John’s refusal to succumb to her wiles. So she consents to dance, but only if Herod will deliver her the head of John the Baptist so she can kiss it. So there is a dance then there is a head. Exeunt.
I had read the play a couple of years before the movie and couldn’t fathom why anyone could stage it at all. It is an almost incomprehensible series of nested similes driven around color—the play’s scenery and lighting are set to change and highlight colors throughout to make sure you understand just how prevalent color is. The speeches are long and repetitive. But since the movie was overtly sexual in pretty much every way, it was going to be well worth the $6 if for no other reason than eye candy.
The film is actually quite good. The members of the cast are male and female prostitutes belonging to the brothel and a few select clients. Their performances and costumes and body paint and makeup are all over the top which is the only way performing Salome would work.
Nearly to a person, everyone in the cast is believable in their role, including the half naked women who say nothing at all. Imogen Millais-Scott’s Salome is operatic. Her eyes are expressive enough to reach the cheap-seats with ease. She also has the longest speeches to get through. Here I can only say that she does her best, the fault is Mr. Russell’s for having these speeches last so long. Glenda Jackson plays her mother, Herodias. The role is a departure from her usual with it being so sarcastic and easily comedic, but it works. Stratford Johns plays Herod and has the same challenges as Ms. Millias-Scott. Herod’s speeches are only a few lines shorter than Salome’s but he may be a bit better at not succumbing to the bogged down imagery: “white like this and red like that and vermillion like this” color variable plus like plus noun variable formula that makes reading it such a chore.
The general casting is dead on for both the play and the setting. The mostly naked women are attractive and the boys are pretty and mostly lithe (or girly if you prefer—men seeking male companionship in the brothels sought the fey). But since their primary job is as a paid trick not an actor/actress it fits exactly as it should.
The one major failing is Nickolas Grace as Oscar Wilde. He is dreadful. Oscar Wilde, apart from being one of the best comic writers of his day, was a gifted speaker. Mr. Grace’s delivery is incredibly slow and lacks anything approaching a sense of ease let alone humor. Given the deep quality everyone else brought, this is one of the situations that make you wonder if Mr. Russell lost a bet and had to cast Grace. C’Mon, this is Oscar Wilde for crying out loud; imagine casting Wilford Brimley as Mark Twain if you need reasonable comparison.
Ken Russell had (not so much now though) a reputation for being edgy and not afraid to take on sexual mores that might make a contemporary audience uneasy (Tommy--the rock opera—as an example of the first sort, Women in Love as an example for the second). Salome has just the right elements of both to be fun. In other words, the sexuality is titillating without being icky or morose and it lacks the absurdity of Ann-Margaret rolling around in a pit of chocolate and baked beans.
It’s a strange flick, so you do need to be in a mood to work with the movie a bit before you settle into it. It is well worth that energy.
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