NAZIMOVA by Gavin Lambert


A Biography
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 Hollywood historian Lambert (Norma Shearer, 1990, etc.) covers the basics but scants the artistry of the great Russian-born actress (18791945). Relying heavily on Nazimova's personal papers, the author does a good job of depicting her Dostoevskian childhood. Born Adelaida Leventon, she hated her brutal father and adored her mother, who vanished when she was five. After years of paternal beatings and ridicule, young Alla found liberation as an acting student at Moscow's Philharmonic School, then as a minor player at the Moscow Art Theatre during its first season (189899). Nazimova moved up to costarring roles on tour in the Russian provinces with her lover, the brilliant but alcoholic actor Pavel Orlenev. When they played a Russian-language season in New York in 1905, critics lavishly praised her emotional power in Chekhov, Ibsen, and Gorky. Her 1906 English-speaking debut, Hedda Gabler, and subsequent successes in A Doll's House and The Master Builder, remain legendary among theater people. But in 1917 Nazimova went to Hollywood (for $13,000 a week) and spent a decade making movies that capitalized on her ``exotic'' qualities. It was during those years that her bisexuality tilted toward lesbianism. Lambert paints a juicy portrait of Tinseltown's sexual underground, with its marriages of convenience, and depicts with sympathy Nazimova's relationships with various ``protegÇes.'' He is less thorough on her triumphant return to the stage in 1928 in The Cherry Orchard, nor does he do much better by her work at the Theatre Guild in A Month in the Country (1930) and O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). A few slapdash paragraphs and unrevealing quotes are all we get about Nazimova's acting, considered by contemporaries a revolutionary brew of powerful emotion given direction by sharp intelligence and profound understanding of the classic modern drama texts. The woman who brought Ibsen and Chekhov to large American audiences deserves a more thoughtful biography than this. (120 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: April 28th, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-40721-9
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1997


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