A forgotten legend, Alla Nazimova (1879–1945) was an electrifying Russian-born actress who brought Stanislavsky and Chekhov to American theater, who was applauded, praised, adored—an icon of the stage and screen for forty years, before fading into the shadows of time. Gavin Lambert unearthed Nazimova's unpublished memoirs, letters, and notes, writing an evocative account of her extraordinary life.
Nazimova began her career on the stage. Her shockingly natural approach to acting transformed the theater of her day—she thrilled Laurette Taylor, and the first time Tennessee Williams saw her he knew he wanted to be a playwright ("She was so shatteringly powerful that I couldn't stay in my seat"). She later ventured into film, signing a contract with Metro Pictures before it was MGM and becoming the highest-paid actress in silent pictures, ultimately writing, directing, and producing her own movies and forming her own film company. She was the only actress, other than Mae West, to become a movie star at forty, and was the first to cultivate the image of the foreign sophisticate.
In addition to her career on the stage and the screen, Lambert also delves into Nazimova's complex and dramatic personal life, from her tense relationship with her family to her numerous partners and lovers (both men and women). Nazimova: A Biography is a brilliant re-creation of the life and work of this complex, dark, glamorous, and important figure.
All but forgotten today, Alla Nazimova (1879-1945) was one of the most powerful actresses in silent-era Hollywood, able to name her terms and maintain artistic control of her films. Lambert's rich, readable, painstakingly researched biography follows Nazimova's life from her difficult, Dostoyevskian childhood in Russia, where she suffered at the hands of an abusive, neglectful father, through her years studying with Stanislavsky et al. at the Moscow Art Theater, to her emigration to the U.S. and subsequent rise to the heights of the film and theater worlds. Lambert handles a melodramatic life full of violence, scandal, and the kind of sudden reversals of fortune that would have killed lesser talents with considerable aplomb, and Nazimova's sexual orientation with even greater composure, treating her bisexual inclinations and later strict lesbianism without a hint of Hollywood-Babylonish sensationalism. Incidentally noteworthy are the fascinating portraits Lambert provides of the Moscow Art Theater in its first years, of Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties, and of the American theater during the fervent years of the Depression.~Jack Helbig, Booklist
Restoring the real Nazimova cannot have been easy for Lambert, a veteran Hollywood writer (Norma Shearer; On Cukor). The actress's last lesbian companion, a talentless sponger, tampered with Nazimova's already unreliable memoirs and diaries; it was the last of many victimizations.... This gossipy but reliable life of Nazimova, emphasizing her defiance of social norms, may transform her from a forgotten theatrical heroine into a feminist icon.~Publishers Weekly
Gavin Lambert has written the full-scale biography that Nazimova deserves, telling the story of her affairs with women and with men, tracing her rise to fame and her near-eclipse.... Nazimova combines just the right amounts of psychological speculation and juicy gossip.... Lambert has contributed to critical debate by synthesizing an account of Nazimova's career. For Nazimova points up the insufficiencies of disciplinary-based studies: theatre scholars recognize only the productions of modern drama and barely mention the open secret of Nazimova's bisexuality; film scholars recognize only the open secret and do not consider the complex interplay between the roles Nazimova played on stage, off stage and on screen. Both sets of scholars might do well to read Lambert' s biography as a first step in reformulating some questions about this fascinating actress and about the scope of their disciplines.~Susan Manning, Northwestern University
ALMOST FORGOTTEN today, Alla Nazimova was once revered as the greatest actress on the American stage. As Gavin Lambert points out in his competent but superficial biography, during her 50-year career Nazimova twice managed to fuse groundbreaking work in modern classics with commercial success.... Nazimova's fiery nature is most strongly conveyed in the early chapters, which draw heavily on her unpublished autobiography to delineate tangled relationships with a brutal father who beat and ridiculed her, an older sister who was his favorite, a passive brother, and an unhappy mother who vanished when Alla was 5. Lambert also does a nice job of untangling fact from myth in Nazimova's description of her work at the Moscow Art Theatre, where she played minor parts as an apprentice.... Lambert knows how to lay out a complicated plot line.... There's no question that Gavin Lambert has exhaustively chronicled Alla Nazimova's dramatic life.~Wendy Smith, The Washington Post
How in four years [Nazimova] went from being an unknown actress who spoke no English to an American star for whom the Shuberts named a theater is an amazing tale, and Gavin Lambert, in Nazimova, a gracefully written, highly entertaining, surprisingly poignant biography, makes the most of it. The author of a biography of Norma Shearer (among many other works of fact and fiction set in Hollywood), Mr. Lambert charts Nazimova's up-and-down career and squishy private life.... Nazimova comes most alive in this biography — and perhaps in her life — on stage. The descriptions of her American debut performance as Hedda Gabler and her comeback triumph (Ibsen again) in Ghosts evoke the thrill that her audiences felt.~Arthur Lubow, The New York Times
A major rediscovery – a full-scale biography – of the electrifying Russian-born actress who brought Stanislavsky and Chekhov to American theatre, who was applauded, lionized, adored – a legend of the stage and screen for forty years, and then strangely forgotten.... Gavin Lambert was given exclusive access to her unpublished memoirs, letters, and notes. And now fifty years after her death, eighty years after her ascendancy as a giant figure to the American public, Lambert has brilliantly re-created the life and work of this complex, dark, glamorous, and important figure.~Jon Ponder, Playground to the Stars