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The Legends Of Alla Nazimova and Mary Pickford

By Steve Vineberg

PICKFORD: THE WOMAN WHO MADE HOLLYWOOD, By Eileen Whitfield. University Press of Kentucky, 442 pages, $25.

NAZIMOVA: A BIOGRAPHY, By Gavin Lambert. Alfred A. Knopf, 420 pages, $32.50.

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  For those who truly care about acting, the subjects of these two new biographies, the Russian stage actress Alla Nazimova (1879-1945) and the silent film star Mary Pickford (1893-1979), are compelling and mysterious figures -- legends in the history of 20th-century performance whose work we know more by reputation than by our own experience of it. Nazimova's interpretations of Ibsen's women are celebrated (she played Nora, Hedda, and Mrs. Alving, as well as Hedvig in The Wild Duck and Rita in Little Eyolf), but she gave the last of them in 1939, and her film version of A Doll's House in 1922 has been lost, like almost all of her silents. The pictures she made at the end of her career, in the '40s (like Blood and Sand and The Bridge of San Luis Rey), are extant, and though the auxiliary roles she plays in them reveal an extraordinary presence, they certainly don't showcase her.

Having begun as a child actress on stage, Mary Pickford entered the movies at 17, in 1909. Most of her movies have survived, but her career exceeded the passing of silents into talkies by only a few years (she made her last film, Secrets, in 1933), and her pictures have seldom been revived. (A touring retrospective is planned, with restored prints of 22 Pickfords, beginning late this year.) I've seen only two of them -- The New York Hat, a beguiling short she made for D.W. Griffith, and a wonderful gothic called Sparrows that's available on a Kino video. Even more than Lillian Gish, Pickford embodied the silent era. Gish managed to transcend it, continuing to work on stage, on television, and occasionally in movies while Pickford hibernated, becoming a steadily more fragile remnant of something vanished.

Gavin Lambert in Nazimova: A Biography and Eileen Whitfield in Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood argue that these two women were pioneers, true modernists who helped move performance away from the declamatory, self-conscious acting that had dominated the previous century. The Nazimova who emerges in Lambert's book is a brilliant psychological realist, trained by Stanislavsky, who hasn't lost, however, the 19th-century idea that a star should be a mesmerist -- he calls her "a star personality with a dynamic instinct for theatre who was also an actress with an equally dynamic instinct for characterization."

"Nazimova created a kind of perfume in the air around her," the actress Peggy Craven says of her Ranevskaya in the 1933 Civic Repertory revival of The Cherry Orchard. "You couldn't breathe during her silences." And Pickford, who preceded Lillian Gish into Griffith's movies, elevated the degraded reputation of movie acting by discovering a method for rendering it absolutely natural, removing "every weapon of the stage actor's arsenal while adding an unprecedented intimacy."

Both volumes are invaluable; both are extremely pleasurable reads. But they're not on the same plane. Whitfield's book is a dazzling accomplishment -- not only an illuminating, beautifully written, and finally deeply disturbing exploration of a profoundly unresolvable personality, but as engaging, informative, and richly detailed a study as anyone has done on the early days of the movies. Lambert's biography of Nazimova is somewhat pedestrian in style, and as a portrait of a fascinating woman it's juicy rather than trenchant.

Not that juiciness is a quality to be devalued in a biography. We get a vivid picture of Nazimova's appalling childhood in Russia, where she was abused by her father and shunned by her stepmother; of her affair with the alcoholic actor Pavel Orlenev, who brought her to America (Lambert describes this as a Star Is Born scenario); of her bizarre longterm attachment to Charles Bryant, her frequent leading man on stage and on screen, to whom she was never actually married but pretended to be for years; and of her increasingly lesbian lifestyle. It's a dishy life story, and the damnedest people make guest appearances in it: Valentino, who was married to her collaborator and assumed (but perhaps not actual) lover, Natacha Rombova; Mabel Dodge Luhan, who married one of her inamorati, Maurice Sterne; Emma Goldman, who bankrolled Orlenev's New York appearances; the horror-movie director Val Lewton, who was Nazimova's nephew; the filmmaker Dorothy Arzner, who had a brief liaison with her; even Busby Berkeley and Nancy Reagan, who were the children of close friends. (Nazimova was Reagan's godmother.)

The main strength of Lambert's book is the attention he gives to Nazimova's acting. He can't write about much of it first-hand, and in any case he's apparently a less skilled reviewer than Whitfield. But he's smart enough to quote others who saw Nazimova and were perceptive about what they saw, like Theatre Guild producer Lawrence Langner, journalist Rebecca Bernstien, director Craig Noel, Harry Ellerbe (who played Oswald to her Mrs. Alving in Ghosts and Tesman to her Hedda Gabler), and Alexander Kirkland, who appeared with her in Turgenev's A Month in the Country, one of her stage triumphs. You get a real sense of what some of these performances might have been like -- of the big moments in A Doll's House, of the mother-son relationship in Ghosts, even of how her attack on Hedda altered over the three decades between her first and final versions of the role.

For a long time Nazimova was able to play much younger than her years; so was Mary Pickford, many of whose most famous roles -- in movies like M'liss and Rags and Tess of the Storm Country, The Poor Little Rich Girl and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Daddy Long-Legs -- were children younger than she was even in her pre-war days as a Griffith ingenue. Whitfield quotes Julian Johnson, who compared her to "the first child in the world" -- a child, evidently, of astonishing emotional variety. Johnson also said of her, "Here was feminine fascination, luminous tenderness, in a steel band of gutter ferocity." Audiences knew her as "America's Sweetheart."

"She is charismatic in these movies," writes Whitfield, "sweet and fiery, proper but furious, humorous and somehow sexually expectant." Her image in her films was "that of a picturesque urban guttersnipe, half savage, half angel, dressed in tatters, living from hand to mouth, untamable. Or she played mining-town Annie Halls, Gold Rush urchins decked out in flannel and feathers -- all of them dead shots -- or illegal immigrants and small-town women encountering, then mastering, city life."

The physical key to that multi-layered image was her hair, which "waved across her head, then streamed down her back in ringlets, perfectly arranged and spun. Today the fashion seems cloying, but in Mary's time ringlets conveyed a complex message . . . luxurious hair was frankly sensual. Modesty insisted it be harnessed. And, once an adult, a woman always, always wore her hair up. In public, Mary obeyed the custom. But onscreen, the tresses inevitably came loose, forming a rampant Pre-Raphaelite mass or the modest, miraculously curling ringlets, arranged like a bouquet around her face. This made her both childlike and erotic." Pickford's hair remained uncut until 1926.

A complex image for a complex woman. Mary Pickford was a celebrated feminine presence, and in her days as Douglas Fairbanks's wife -- between her miserable marriage to Owen Moore, one of her first leading men, and her much longer one to yet another actor, Buddy Rogers, who survived her -- she was the reigning queen of Hollywood. She held court with Doug at their extravagant estate, Pickfair, and toured the world on his arm, greeting the smitten crowds, who too often came in the form of mobs. (Whitfield covers thoroughly the fascinating and rather frightening fandom of Pickford and Fairbanks.) But she was also a brilliant businesswoman and, at the height of her career, as knowledgeable about movies and moviemaking as anyone in Hollywood. After all, it was she -- along with Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, with whom she had an uncomfortable and finally hostile relationship -- who founded United Artists.

She was prissy and savage, compassionate and brooding, generous and miserly, a gracious hostess yet lonely and increasingly reclusive, spending the last nearly half-century of her life entirely removed from the public sphere and even from any sort of social one. She praised Mussolini and Hitler; later, she felt so guilty for an anti-Semitic comment she'd made to a Jewish friend that she became a patron to the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. She adopted two children (during her marriage to Rogers), but from all evidence she was a terrible and sometimes a shockingly callous mother. And -- perhaps unifying, if not entirely explaining, all these contradictions -- she was an alcoholic, the daughter and sister and wife of alcoholics. (Fairbanks was a teetotaler, but Owen Moore was a first-class drunk of the bitter, abusive variety.)

Malcolm Boyd, a young homosexual who became one of her few close friends after she retired, compared her to Mary Tyrone, the haunted mother of O'Neill's great Long Day's Journey into Night, and that's the image that stays with you after you've read Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. (Certainly the stories of her siblings, Jack and Lottie, promiscuous drinkers and druggies, were messy enough for O'Neill's thunderous fourth-act confessionals.) Whitfield makes the case that no one was more instrumental in bringing movies to maturity than Pickford, as an actress and a producer and a celebrity; yet late in life she wanted to build a bonfire and burn the prints of all her movies, which she believed had outlived their time. Whitfield theorizes, "Mary Pickford had lost the belief that her silent-film performances were art, and by doing so, had lost the last vestige of herself." This masterly and moving book ensures that we, on the other hand, can never make the same mistake about her.

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