Bonus Features: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Our current Movie of the Month, Ken Russell’s lurid living-tableau Salome’s Last Dance, is a metatextual adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s banned stage play, Salome. It’s a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Russell’s specialty. His metatextual approach to Salome allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapidfire dry humor (as the jeering audience for a brothel-staff production of his own play) and the director’s sopping wet everything else. It’s an example of a provocateur artist lovingly tipping his hat to an even more infamous provocateur artist from our literary past, and not the only example from Russell’s own catalog.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to explore similar instances of Ken Russell paying homage to the over-the-top weirdo artists who inspired him.

Gothic (1986)

The only other literary figure in Ken Russell’s collection of provocateur homages is the poet Lord Byron, who looms large as a horndog villain in the hallucinatory horror-drama Gothic. In Gothic, Russell dramatizes Byron’s infamously sweaty night swapping ghost stories & hallucinations with fellow writers Mary & Percy Shelley while growing increasingly mad with horniness (and laudanum!). It’s a historic event that’s been made legend by teenage lit nerds & Kate Beaton comics, if not only for inspiring Mary Shelley to pen her novel Frankenstein and, thus, effectively inventing the genre of science fiction. When seen through Russell’s eyes, however, it’s an event most interesting for its unhinged social chaos and the monstrous behavior of the evening’s host, Byron, in particular.

Whereas Salome’s Last Dance turned Oscar Wilde’s play into a series of outrageous living tableaus, Gothic reinterprets an infamous moment in literary history as a cheap haunted house chiller. After a group séance conjures a demon that disrupts their ghost story trading with some “real” (i.e. hallucinated) scares, the story that inspired the film mostly devolves into manic haunted house gags that Byron lords over in hopes of isolating every last one of his guests for an intimate sexual encounter. Like with Salome, this event is also presented through a metatextual framing device, with modern tourists snapping photographs of the estate where Byron’s horned-up antics tortured two fellow literary geniuses for his own amusement – something Russell himself can’t help but gawk at in admiration.

Gothic is Ken Russell striving to be on his worst behavior despite an unusually tight budget. It’s the exact kind of maniacally perverse spectacle you always hope for from him, staged with the resources of a Kate Bush music video stretched out to feature length. The way it depicts the Shelleys’ romantic dynamic is also surprisingly on-point about the misogyny at the core of Free Love politics, but it’d be a lie to suggest that’s the #1 issue on its mind. Mostly, the film is presented as an amoral appreciation of Lord Byron’s laudanum-fueled prurient villainy.

Lisztomania (1975)

If Gothic finds Ken Russell’s wildest impulses restrained by a 1980s music video budget, his mid-70s rock opera Lisztomania is a glimpse of what he could do when fully allowed to run wild & torch piles of studio money. Hot off his sole mainstream hit with Tommy, Russell cast The Who frontman Roger Daltry as Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in an even more obnoxious, unwieldy exercise in pure style. Lisztomania is all shrill, gleefully vapid, dialed-to-11 excess from start to tend – a Pure Sinema indulgence that’s just as obnoxious as it is magnificent. It’s essentially Ken Russell’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, with all the triumphs, sleaze, and annoyances that descriptor implies.

In a proto-Velvet Goldmine meltdown between reality & fantasy, Russell positions Liszt as a glam rockstar heartthrob more befitting of the 1970s than the 1800s. The film opens backstage at a wild orgiastic party preceding one of his concerts, where hundreds of squealing teen girls demand that he play “Chopsticks” on loop in a fit of 19th Century Beatlemania. Liszt truly was a Teen Beat heartthrob in his time, and the movie remains “true” to the bullet points of his life in that way as he pursues his “art” at the expense of his his family & comrades. It’s impossible to claim that a movie where Listz’s friend/rival Richard Wagner is a literal Nazi vampire whom Liszt must smite in order to save the planet is historically accurate, but the film is at least spiritually accurate in touching on the broader details. Lisztomania is mainly a celebration of Franz Liszt as a himbo partyboy pop icon, with very little energy put into tempering or contextualizing that indulgence.

I don’t know that this registers as one of my very favorite Ken Russell pictures, but it does feel like one of the most Ken Russell pictures. If you think watching a series of films wherein a 1970s British auteur pays homage to composers, artists, and literary giants of the past sounds stuffy or pretentious, I offer this horned-up nightmare as a counterpoint. It’s an anti-Nazi glam rock opera that features vampires, Frankenstein monsters, forced-femme fantasies, paper mâché dicks, and Ringo Starr as the goddamn pope. What a beautiful, cacophonous mess.

The Music Lovers (1971)

This manic love letter to a provocateur artist of the past is aimed at 19th Century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play. It’s a lewd, lurid joy as always, but it’s one that smartly saves its most over-the-top indulgences for well-timed bursts. As a result, it very well might be my personal favorite film of this bunchSalome’s Last Dance includedif not only for knowing how to choose its Moments wisely. If the dialed-to-11 zaniness of titles like Gothic & Lisztomania test your patience as if you were babysitting a hyperactive child, I highly recommend giving The Music Lovers a look so you can experience those same manic highs in small, manageable doses.

The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova, whom Russell portrays in the film as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife due to his strongly queer sexual preferences, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, his stalker/patron, etc. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the final sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.

Watching this particular batch of Ken Russell films was an extremely rewarding exercise for me. I expected these titles to be some of Russell’s stuffiest and best-behaved, given the high-art pedigree of their historic subjects, but they turned out to be just as wild as his no-fucks-given 80s frivolities like Altered States & The Lair of the White Worm. Even The Music Lovers can be wildly over-the-top when it chooses to be, an occasional self-indulgence that landed the film fiercely negative contemporary reviews for its historical inaccuracies. As someone who cares way more about cinematic hedonism & over-the-top artifice than faithfulness to source material or historical fact, that self-pleasing blasphemy pandered directly to what I love about movies. I’m now starting to consider Ken Russell one of my very favorite directors (as opposed to just the director of Crimes of Passion, one of my very favorite movies).

-Brandon Ledet

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