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 Russells 1988 film Salomes 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 doesnt 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 isnt 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 authors own life and especially by casting the singular Imogen Millais-Scott in the title role, Russell ensured that its enticements reached far beyond Wildes 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 directors canon.
Salomes Last Dance takes place on Guy Fawkes Night, 1892, a moment roughly equidistant between the artistic highpoint of Oscar Wildes 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 brothels staff.
As Taylor transforms quite believably into the plays Dionysian Herod, Wilde takes his place on the couch, an audience of one. Though hes most shocked to see Bosie appear onstage as a caged, freshly captured John the Baptist, its the coughing, malnourished cockney chambermaid who executes the nights most stunning transformation. Servile and apologetic in her black-and-white uniform, Rose slips into Salomes beaded garment and becomes a self-possessed scourge of fate. Hers is not a subtle performance, but then, Wildes sumptuous dialogue, full of vividly sensual descriptions and haunting refrains, doesnt 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 Wildes 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-films opening scene, its dialogue taken (like most of the movies dialogue) directly from Salome. She looks like the reflection of a white rose in a silver mirror. Roses 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 Syrians bizarre appreciations of the princess.
Those who know the play will see both John the Baptists and Salomes demise coming, though only the most astute viewers will anticipate that the spear that pierces the Daughter of Babylons heart must also mortally wound the woman who portrays her. Rose cant 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 characters story end?
Salomes Last Dance is, in some senses, the perfect expression of Russells sensibility: a ribald, high/low pastiche of Christian mythology, decadent literature, and campy historical fiction. (It packs enough outr 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; Hodges John the Baptist even looks like Tim Currys Dr. Frank-N-Furter.) But its also a web of astutely interconnected observations about the Salome archetype in general, the play in particular, Wildes biography, and Russells own career. Critics were quick to identify the parallels between Salomes obsession with John the Baptist and Wildes 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 authors arrest. The homoerotic tension (in what is, after all, a predominantly male brothel) bleeds into the plays heterosexual tragedy via Wildes tryst with the gold-faced brothel denizen portraying Herodias pageboy, which leads Bosie to betray his lover to the police. In the productions 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 Russells 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 1969s 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 Salomes Last Dance for just $800,000 as part of a three-film deal with the tiny, short-lived Vestron Pictures. Russell didnt 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). Thats certainly the most I hoped for the first time I watched Salomes 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 isnt a chambermaid, then Salome; shes 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-Scotts unusual appearance put even more pressure on her performance, dictating that her transformation into a seductress would have to come entirely from within. But whats 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?
Most critics at the time of the films release, perhaps exhausted by Russells 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 Ive ever witnessed. Shes barely mentioned in Roger Eberts 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-Scotts 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 films metanarratives dont even end with Russells multi-layered finale. History has provided an eerily fitting coda: the star of Salomes Last Dance never made another movie. Roses breathtaking first and last performance was also Millais-Scotts. 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 doesnt seem to have happened.
As neatly as this ties up the story of Salomes Last Dance, its 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 hadnt seen her since. Reminiscing about Millais-Scotts performance, he recalled, I tested other girls on Salome, I tested half a dozen, but they couldnt 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.