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Imogen Millais-Scott’s Last Dance: The Astounding Performance at the Heart of Ken Russell’s Tribute to Oscar Wilde by Judy Berman

Yasmina Tawil

“I will kiss your mouth, John the Baptist.” Her red lips mere inches from his unnaturally wine-colored ones, her nose almost touching his, Salome speaks to the prophet with a slow, incantatory deliberateness. She has lavished florid praise on his white skin and his black hair, to no avail. She has endured his condemnations – Daughter of Sodom, he calls her, or Daughter of Babylon – and taken sadistic comfort in the lashes with which her soldiers punish him for his insolence. She wants John the Baptist to look at her, and thereby fall in love with her, but his faith shields him from her advances. So she makes him a promise that will ruin them both: “I will kiss your mouth, John the Baptist.”

The heroine of Ken Russell’s 1988 film Salome’s Last Dance is sickly pale and boyishly thin, with hair so short and blonde she almost looks bald. Adorned in beads the color of a frozen lake and a crown that could double as a chandelier, she underlines her eyes with thick smudges of silver glitter. Whether at full, booming volume or a falsely intimate stage whisper, her voice remains perfectly controlled. To call her sexuality “feline” might be misleading; her presence doesn’t evoke Catwoman so much as a wide-eyed, hairless Sphinx.

We can forgive this Salome for bearing so little resemblance to the voluptuous, dark-haired dancing daughter of Herodias depicted by so many famous painters, from Caravaggio and Titian to Gustave Moreau and Franz von Stuck – at first because we are supposed to understand that she isn’t really Salome, and then because she sneakily convinces us that she really is. Particularly as interpreted by Oscar Wilde in the play that is the centerpiece of this film, Salome is a story of desire as destiny, inviting peril that is inevitable even in the face of stern, clear warnings. By placing the play in the context of its author’s own life and especially by casting the singular Imogen Millais-Scott in the title role, Russell ensured that its enticements reached far beyond Wilde’s Dance of the Seven Veils, ensnaring viewers as well as characters – and made a movie that deserves a more prominent place than it currently occupies in the idiosyncratic director’s canon.

Salome’s Last Dance takes place on Guy Fawkes Night, 1892, a moment roughly equidistant between the artistic highpoint of Oscar Wilde’s career, the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890, and his arrest on charges of “gross indecency” in 1895. Nickolas Grace is a competent but not quite charismatic Wilde, who arrives that evening at a largely male brothel with his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie (a fittingly brittle Douglas Hodge). As Wilde ascends to meet his procurer, Alfred Taylor (Stratford Johns), Bosie ventures “below stairs.” The jealous author assumes his paramour is meeting a boy they both have their eyes on, but soon learns he is preparing for a surprise performance of Salome, staged entirely by the brothel’s staff.

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As Taylor transforms – quite believably – into the play’s Dionysian Herod, Wilde takes his place on the couch, an audience of one. Though he’s most shocked to see Bosie appear onstage as a caged, freshly captured John the Baptist, it’s the coughing, malnourished cockney chambermaid who executes the night’s most stunning transformation. Servile and apologetic in her black-and-white uniform, Rose slips into Salome’s beaded garment and becomes a self-possessed scourge of fate. Hers is not a subtle performance, but then, Wilde’s sumptuous dialogue, full of vividly sensual descriptions and haunting refrains, doesn’t call for subtlety.

Distant as Rose may be from the composite picture of Salome formed over two millennia of depictions in Western culture, she is the jarringly literal embodiment of Wilde’s vision: “How pale the princess is!” says the “Young Syrian” whose infatuation with Salome will make him her first victim, in the play-within-the-film’s opening scene, its dialogue taken (like most of the movie’s dialogue) directly from Salome. “She looks like the reflection of a white rose in a silver mirror.” Rose’s Salome even more closely resembles the moon as Herodias’ page describes it – “a woman rising from a grave” – in an image that becomes inextricably entwined with the Syrian’s bizarre appreciations of the princess.  

Those who know the play will see both John the Baptist’s and Salome’s demise coming, though only the most astute viewers will anticipate that the spear that pierces the Daughter of Babylon’s heart must also mortally wound the woman who portrays her. Rose can’t help revealing, through her performance, what she has in common with Salome: an annihilating hunger for things she can only possess through their destruction. It is too dangerous for Alfred Taylor to let Rose return to her life as a chambermaid after she has played Salome, just as it is too dangerous for Herod to let Salome go back to being a princess after she has kissed the mouth of John the Baptist. How else could either character’s story end?

Salome’s Last Dance is, in some senses, the perfect expression of Russell’s sensibility: a ribald, high/low pastiche of Christian mythology, decadent literature, and campy historical fiction. (It packs enough outré fun to make a great midnight movie, falling squarely between The Holy Mountain and The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the continuum from art to trash; Hodge’s John the Baptist even looks like Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter.) But it’s also a web of astutely interconnected observations about the Salome archetype in general, the play in particular, Wilde’s biography, and Russell’s own career. Critics were quick to identify the parallels between Salome’s obsession with John the Baptist and Wilde’s ill-fated affair with Bosie, who encouraged his lover to sue Douglas’ own father for libel after the Marquess publicly accused Wilde of sodomy, in a case that catalyzed the author’s arrest. The homoerotic tension (in what is, after all, a predominantly male brothel) bleeds into the play’s heterosexual tragedy via Wilde’s tryst with the gold-faced brothel denizen portraying Herodias’ pageboy, which leads Bosie to betray his lover to the police. In the production’s climactic Dance of the Seven Veils, Rose is momentarily replaced by a nude man, further blurring the line between the personal and the theatrical.

Where the film fits in to the late Russell’s own life story is rarely discussed, but no less relevant. After over a decade of relative (if controversial) success, from his Best Director Oscar nomination for 1969’s Women in Love to his zeitgeist-capturing Who collaboration Tommy in 1975 to the critical triumph of his 1980 cult classic Altered States, the notoriously erratic filmmaker became box-office poison in the mid-‘80s. Forced to slash his budgets, he made Salome’s Last Dance for just $800,000 as part of a three-film deal with the tiny, short-lived Vestron Pictures. Russell didn’t just save himself some money (and, one imagines, a whole lot of screenwriting time) by filming a play; he also drew a neat parallel between himself and one of his idols by embedding that play in a fantasy where a misunderstood artist sees his censored creation brought to life in shabby yet unexpectedly ideal fashion. And then he cast himself in it, as a photographer.  

All of these layers of meaning could have resulted in a film that was merely clever (on top of being a whole lot of artsy, trashy fun). That’s certainly the most I hoped for the first time I watched Salome’s Last Dance. What elevates it – what makes this weird, skewed little literary adaptation an astounding film – is Millais-Scott. Like the story itself, she is always working on multiple levels. She isn’t a chambermaid, then Salome; she’s a chambermaid who has the capacity to become Salome, and does so with the frightening tenacity of a teenager who must secretly despise her daily drudgery and idolize stage actors. (Maybe she is even a fan of Sarah Bernhardt, who Wilde had cast in his aborted production of Salome.)

It must have taken both preternatural control and a well-developed sense of chaos to embody a thoroughly disempowered character tapping into her own buried yet bottomless reserves of power and charisma and entitlement. Millais-Scott’s unusual appearance put even more pressure on her performance, dictating that her transformation into a seductress would have to come entirely from within. But what’s really mind-boggling is that the actress, just a few weeks before what was to be her first starring role, came down with a virus that left her nearly blind. What surreal images must Imogen-as-Rose-as-Salome have seen through those wide-open, fogged-over eyes?

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Most critics at the time of the film’s release, perhaps exhausted by Russell’s years of provocation, judged it either a mild success or a slight failure. Shockingly, the vast majority had little to say about Millais-Scott, whose performance easily ranks among the most memorable I’ve ever witnessed. She’s barely mentioned in Roger Ebert’s disappointingly shallow review, although Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Tribune, briefly but accurately described how Rose “throws herself into her part with the demented, eyeball-rolling enthusiasm of Pia Zadora impersonating Mae West.” Only Times critic Vincent Canby seemed to get it, calling Millais-Scott’s casting “a risk that pays off brilliantly” and devoting a full two paragraphs to Rose:

She’s small, slight and blond, with a heart-shaped face and (here, anyway) a Cockney accent. But even when she seems (intentionally) to be having trouble plowing through lines that threaten to run on to eternity, she creates a vividly funny, quite legitimate Salome.

She is part-Lolita, part-Giulietta Masina and part Cecily from The Importance of Being Earnest. Though Bosie’s John the Baptist is not terrific, nor meant to be, there’s a kind of teasing, spoiled petulance in her Salome that somehow holds the amateur theatrical together.

Curiously, the film’s metanarratives don’t even end with Russell’s multi-layered finale. History has provided an eerily fitting coda: the star of Salome’s Last Dance never made another movie. Rose’s breathtaking first and last performance was also Millais-Scott’s. A Guardian story from 2003 offers a hint of what happened: the actress’ lifelong struggle with diabetes thwarted her career. Though she told the paper she intended to return to her work after a kidney transplant in the late ‘90s, that doesn’t seem to have happened.

As neatly as this ties up the story of Salome’s Last Dance, it’s a shame Millais-Scott never had the chance to bring her genuinely unique presence back to the screen – and no one thought so more than Russell. In 2000, he told an interviewer that he had called her in to audition for a frozen-food commercial four years earlier and hadn’t seen her since. Reminiscing about Millais-Scott’s performance, he recalled, “I tested other girls on Salome, I tested half a dozen, but they couldn´t speak or emote. That lovely speech she does with John the Baptist, that was a tour de force, that should have got an Oscar.” Russell was never known for his clear-eyed assessments of his own work, but in this case, he was absolutely correct.