ALLA NAZIMOVA was born May 22nd, 1879 into a Jewish family in Yalta in the Crimea (then part of Russia but today is Ukraine). To cope with a dispiriting childhood which alternated between foster homes and stays with relatives, Alla developed a strong penchant for outrageous behavior helped, in no small part, by her violet-colored eyes. She also showed a great aptitude for music and began violin lessons at age seven. Over her conservative father’s objections, she began acting lessons at age 17 and joined Konstatin Stanislavsky’s company of actors as a pupil of his ‘method style’ at the Moscow Art Theatre. During this time, in 1899, she married Sergei Golovin, a fellow actor, however the marriage was “in name only” and the two never legally divorced.
By 1905, Alla found herself in New York heralded on Broadway for her definitive interpretations of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House. It was during this period that Alla met Charles Bryant, the man who would become Nazimova’s “husband.” Never legally married–Nazimova was still legally Mrs. Segei Golovin–the two claimed to be married and would continue the pretense for the next 20 years despite the fact that Nazimova was a lesbian.
In 1915, with the outbreak of World War I, Nazimova was offered a role in the 35-minute play War Brides. The play and Alla’s performance came to the attention of motion picture producer Lewis J. Selznick (who was also from Ukraine and whose second son, David O. Selznick, later became a notable Hollywood filmmaker, producing the film version of Gone With the Wind as well as Nazimova’s final film, Since You Went Away, in 1944.) Lewis Selznick offered Nazimova $30,000 and a $1,000 per day bonus for every day filming went over schedule.
In 1917, based on the film’s success, Nazimova was offered a 5-year, $13,000 a week contract–$3,000 more than Mary Pickford–with Metro studios (working with future MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.) Her contract awarded her the right to approve director, script, and leading man. Her first film, Revelation (1918) with “husband” Charles Bryant was a success, as was its follow-up, Toys of Fate. Nazimova then moved to Los Angeles to begin production on her third film, Eye for Eye.
By the end of 1918, her film career flourishing, she spent $65,000 on an imposing California Spanish home at 8080 Sunset Boulevard (then still an unpaved dirt track), and proceeded to spend another $65,000 remodeling the interior, building a pool and landscaping the property’s three and a half acres. She named it the Garden of Alla and it became a popular gathering spot for the Hollywood intelligentsia who would flock there for the salons in which literature, art, and theater was discussed at length. It attracted a largely lesbian following making it somewhat notorious.
Nazimova’s film, The Red Lantern (1919), was well-received, but its follow-up–The Brat (1919)–was not. The films which followed in 1920–Heart of a Child, Madame Peacock and Billions–also performed poorly and in Photoplay magazine’s annual popularity poll she dropped from #4 to #20.
The set designer on Billions was Natacha Rambova, a friend of Nazimova and future wife of Rudolph Valentino who co-starred with Nazimova in Camille (1921). With its ultra-modern set and contemporary settings, the film was ahead of its time. Critical reaction varied, and the film was a moderate success. After its release Nazimova and Metro parted ways and Alla turned to producing her own films.
In 1922 she produced and starred in A Doll´s House and Salome, an exotic adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play. Her losses from the two films were heavy and, in need of work, she returned to work in the theater.
By the mid-1920s, Alla was in financial straits and agreed to allow her mansion to be developed into a hotel. The property–renamed The Garden of Allah Hotel & Villas–opened on January 9th, 1927. Although the hotel was an instant success, the plan bankrupted her entirely and she was forced to sell her share.
By then Nazimova was working in the theater almost exclusively and returned only occasionally to movies for small parts including the 1941 remake of Blood and Sand and In Our Time (1944). Her final screen appearance was in the World War II weepie Since You Went Away (1944).
Alla Nazimova died at the age of 66 in California of coronary thrombosis on July 2nd, 1945.
For further information see:
Nazimova: A Biography by Gavin Lambert
Alla Nazimova on Wikipedia
Alla Nazimova on IMDB
Martin Turnbull | Jun 23, 2013