Movie of the Month: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon, Boomer, and Hanna watch Salome’s Last Dance (1988).

Britnee: Last year, while I was on a month-long Ken Russell binge, I watched Salome’s Last Dance for the very first time. I had avoided it for a while because I assumed it was going to be a run-of-the-mill period piece. I do enjoy period films, but I have to be in a particular mood to watch them. It turns out Salome is more than just a period film. It’s a trashy masterpiece! How could I expect anything less from Ken Russell?

Salome starts with a framing narrative where the staff at a London brothel put on a performance of Oscar Wilde’s banned play, Salome, for none other than Oscar Wilde himself. The play is so magnificent that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a play within a movie. The vibrant set and gaudy costumes are visually pleasing components to this very sexy Salome production, and I just loved all of it. Ken Russell even plays the part of the play’s photographer! There all sorts of delicious little treats strewn throughout the show, such as topless dominatrix guards with silver nipples and a zombified John the Baptist.

The actress who plays Salome in the play, Imogene Millais-Scott, is phenomenal. She has a very cat-like presence that really makes for an interesting take on the character, and her passionate and intense line deliveries outshine everyone else in the film. Millais-Scott was almost blind from an illness before she started filming, so the fact that she showed up and showed out in Salome regardless is insane.

What I enjoyed the most about Salome is that we never really leave the theatre. There aren’t many moments where we go into different areas of the brothel to follow up on what Wilde and everyone else is doing while the play is going on. The play is just so damn good that I never wanted to leave, so that layout worked out for me. Brandon, was that something you enjoyed as well? Would you have preferred more scenes that were not part of the actual Salome play?

Brandon: While I appreciated Russell’s playfulness in burying the play under several layers of metatextual remove, I don’t know that diving any deeper into the off-stage narrative would’ve added anything to this film’s entertainment value. It makes sense for Russell to include Wilde’s off-stage antics in the brothel for a couple reasons: to help highlight their shared qualities as button-pushing provocateurs and to give shape to the brothel’s otherwise slight production of Salome. The onstage performance is presented almost as a series of living tableaus, where the actors’ costuming & positioning against the hand-painted backdrops is far more outrageous & attention-grabbing than any of the spoken dialogue. There’s almost a John Waters Community Theatre quality to the play, wherein total freaks endlessly rhapsodize about how gorgeous they are – only interrupting those breathlessly horny rants for an occasional fart joke or dance break. As fun and as wonderfully artificial as that production can be, it’s also a huge relief to occasionally drift away from it to check in on Wilde’s escapades as a half-attentive audience. He gropes the staff, ruthlessly critiques their acting skills, and fires off a few of his infamously dry witticisms as a form of self-amusement (including a particularly great one about how brothels “combine business with pleasure”), seemingly bored by the onstage tableaus. I was not bored by this stage production of Salome, but it was still funny hearing that potential complaint in real time from the author of its source material. He doesn’t need to do anything more than that to justify being there.

Overall, I found this movie to be a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Ken Russell’s specialty. It often feels more like Russell doing Derek Jarman or a Cockettes stage show than Russell doing Oscar Wilde, so it was smart for the director to include an in-the-flesh avatar for Wilde onscreen, injecting the writer’s more idiosyncratic quirks into an adaptation of his play that doesn’t especially highlight them (the way a straightforward adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest might have). I totally get Russell’s decision to stage Salome with that metatextual remove, as it allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapdifire dry humor and the director’s sopping wet everything else. What I’m much less clear on is whether there’s any significance to the movie being set on Guy Fawkes Night in particular. Boomer, is there any textual or historical significance you can glean from this private, brothel-set staging of Salome occurring on that uniquely British holiday? Or did that register as just as significant of a detail as the fart jokes and the hand-painted moon?

Boomer: Is there any figure in English history more widely misunderstood in the pop cultural consciousness than Guy Fawkes? His exaggerated likeness went from centuries-old scapegoat mask to symbol of anti-tyranny in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, then to wider infamy with that graphic novel’s 2005 film adaptation, and then as the mask of online hacktivism group Anonymous. In all of his popular culture incarnations, Fawkes is a man of progress fighting for liberty against an oppressive state, but in reality Fawkes himself wasn’t … that.

Most of our readers probably already know this but just to be safe (and as Cliffs Notes as I can make it): infamously, Henry VIII blamed his wife/wives for giving him nothing but daughters (and thus no mail heir to the throne, as the law sort of dictated and tradition clearly required) and, since the Catholic Church wouldn’t let him divorce any of them, he created his own, new church (The Church of England, aka the Anglican faith) with blackjack and hookers with the option to let him trade in his wife for a new model without having to do all that beheading (which he still did sometimes anyway). He was immediately succeeded by his (Anglican) nine year old son Edward VI, and upon Eddie 6’s death at 16, the crown passed to Edward’s (Catholic) sister Mary. Better known as Bloody Mary, she attempted to return property that had been acquired by the state back to Catholic control but was largely prevented from doing so by Parliament, but that didn’t stop her from burning 280 (Protestant) people at the stake for religious dissent. When she died, there was yet another hullabaloo that eventually led to her (Protestant but, like, mostly pragmatic about it) sister, Elizabeth becoming the Queen of England. Elizabeth never had any children of her own and went to her deathbed saying “nah” to requests that she name an heir, there was another succession debate that resulted in her nephew James (also a Protestant but hyperfixated on the heresy of witchcraft rather than the heresy of Catholicism), Mary’s son, being coronated as the new king.

The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by Catholics to assassinate James I solely because he was a Protestant (and a fairly tolerant one at that, having seen how the people turned on his mother for her religious persecution). Guy Fawkes was just a guy from York who had been fighting in Spain during a time when Spain and England were allied (mostly because they were both Catholic states) and was so unhappy that everything was so Protestant now that he went so far as to petition the Spanish throne to turn their attention toward retaking England, for Catholicism. His job in the plot was to guard the gunpowder, but he was caught, and the whole thing fell apart; this lead to the declaration of November 5 as Guy Fawkes Night, which became the primary commemoration of England as a nation-state (a corollary would be the U.S.’s Independence Day) as well as a focus for anti-Catholic sentiments. Eventually, things got so heated that Guy Fawkes Night may as well have been The Purge for Catholics, but reform eventually nerfed that element of the proceedings until GFN was essentially little more than a name for a celebration that was mostly divorced from its roots (a corollary would be the U.S.’s Labor Day, which was originally created as a celebration of the Labor movement and is now mostly a holiday for the enemies of Labor to get 50% off jeans while Laborers … labor), becoming just a holiday.

Historically, Wilde’s actual arrest occurred in late May 1895, at nearly the opposite side of the calendar cycle as early-November’s Guy Fawkes Night; Russell, as a Briton himself, would know this and wouldn’t have made such a significant change without reason. Or would he? Robert Catesby, the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot, was beheaded like John the Baptist, but his decapitation was postmortem (in order for his head to be exhibited outside of Parliament as a warning, as you do). He did die (of being shot) clutching a portrait of the Virgin Mary, who was John the Baptist’s aunt. But really, that’s grasping at very tenuous threads. There’s little that correlates Fawkes or the Gunpowder Plot to Wilde or Salome. Salome as a figure of myth/history is technically royal and the Gunpowder Plot revolves around an attempt at a religious coup via regicide, but the two events are fairly different otherwise. One could sift to find some relationship between Salome’s existence as Herod’s stepdaughter from a previous marriage and the succession crisis (that at least partially revolved around kingship transferring from Edward VI to Mary, his stepsister from his father’s previous marriage) that eventually led to James I’s reign, but that’s really pushing it. Biblically, Salome isn’t even given a name and is mentioned only as Herodias’s daughter, and we only have a name for her because of Titus Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews (completed ca. 93 or 93 C.E.). There are some who argue that Salome the Disciple (one of the tenders of Jesus at the crucifixion and witness to his empty tomb, depending upon the gospel in question) and Salome the daughter of Herodias could be the same person, and that admittedly makes for a fun redemption arc Bible headcanon if that’s your bag, but most scholars hold that the latter Salome was the sister of Mary.

Beyond that, one is hard pressed to find a connection between GFN/The Gunpowder Plot and Salome/Wilde other than this: despite how they have been interpreted by right wing regressives in the present, the teachings of Jesus were iconoclastic and progressive, and the decapitation John the Baptist as both his harbinger and hype man could be interpreted as the state’s execution of a rabble-rousing progressive dissident; if one sees Fawkes as an analog of Herod II, pushing for a return to a more regressive, conservative form of governance, it almost works. But not quite. Maybe all he wanted was for future viewers to watch the film annually on GFN? Move over, “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?”, it’s time for the real debate: “Is The Last Dance of Salome a Guy Fawkes Night movie?”

One of the things that I found puzzling while watching the film was the presence of ciswomen actors as women in the play and its framing device. Every plot summary of Last Dance online notes that the film takes place in “an all-male brothel,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case for many of the ostensibly cisgender topless women serving in the ensemble or Imogen Millais-Scott as Salome/Rose. It’s possible that I’m very wrong about this (the copy of this film that I saw was the one that’s grainy, free on YouTube, and subtitled in Spanish), but I’m guessing that there was a body double used in the final, full monty frame of Salome’s dance itself, which makes me curious about the casting, given that I can find no evidence that Millais-Scott is trans. Does this casting of a ciswoman as a man-portraying-a-woman read strangely to you, Hanna? Given that Millais-Scott’s powerhouse performance is the biggest draw in the film (at least for me), I’m not sure I would have preferred this be done a different way, but I’m of two minds. After all, men portrayed all roles, including women, for a huge chunk of British theatrical history. What do you think?

Hanna: In general, I was a little torn by this too. Why not feature an all-male performance for Oscar Wilde, especially given the history of British theatre? I would have loved a glitzy, dragged-up rendition of Salome. On the other hand, since the premise of the film is that Salome is so publicly subversive that Oscar Wilde can only view its performance behind the walls of a brothel and women were banned from performing onstage in England until the 1660s, the use of female actresses would technically be the more subversive choice for that time (although that point was probably moot by the late 1800s).

Regarding Millais-Scott’s casting specifically, I actually didn’t think that she was cast as a man portraying a woman; I thought that Rose was a cisgender female chambermaid for the brothel playing Salome, not a male worker, and that the appearance of the body double – dubbed “Phoney Salome” in the credits –was meant to be a prank on Herod within the play (i.e., Herod got horny for an anonymous male slave and Salome never really danced for him) and a scintillating little show for Wilde. I would guess that the bare-breasted guards were also workers in the brothel. That being said, I truly have no idea what actually happened – that’s just my best guess.

If I’m wrong about the casting and Rose/Salome is meant to be a male actor playing a woman in the film, it might have bothered me if the role had been taken by any other cis-woman. As it is, I wouldn’t trade Millais-Scott’s mesmerizing performance for anything, and if it were up to me, I would probably shirk gendered roles and British theatre history to feature her. Her Keatsian monologue with John the Baptist was equal parts hypnotic and bratty, and has significantly contributed to my arsenal of obsessive, lusty similes. That scene alone was worth the $3.99 rental.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I love the costume design in this movie, especially the costumes for Herodias and Salome. It’s all a mix of BDSM, pageant drag, and Victorian fashion. The costume designer, Micheal Arrals, is only credited for this one film, and I can’t find much about him online. I want to know more about this mysterious genius!

Hanna: My first exposure to the story of Salome was stumbling upon the grotesque and gorgeous illustrations that Aubrey Beardsley produced for Wilde’s original run of his play (especially “The Dancer’s Reward”). Those illustrations and Salome’s Last Dance compel me for the same reasons: they are intricately and ornately detailed, a little bloody, and horny as all get-out. Those illustrations were highly regarded by Wilde, and in my opinion, Russell did a fantastic job of bringing that mood to his adaptation.

Boomer: Thank you for indulging me in my recapitulation of various English succession crises. For a film that features an entirely male cast performing a play in which they inhabit men and women’s roles, I recommend Lilies. If you’re interested, the single-Salome interpretation noted above (that she was both Herodias’s daughter and later a disciple), was an idea probably influenced the narrative of the 1953 film Salome with Rita Hayworth in the title role.

Brandon: This conversation concludes five full years of Movie of the Month discussions, a tradition we’ve continued since our very first month blogging as a crew. Somehow, this is the first time we’ve ever doubled up on any one particular director over all those years, having previously covered Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (still one of my all-time favorite films) back in May of 2015. I’m proud of the wide breadth of movies we’ve discussed so far with this project. I’m also proud that when we inevitably cycled back it was for Ken Russell in particular. It couldn’t have happened to a bigger pervert.

Next month: The Top Films of 2020

-The Swampflix Crew

One thought on “Movie of the Month: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

  1. Pingback: Bonus Features: Salome’s Last Dance (1988) | Swampflix

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