Watching the young, talented and beautiful Vanessa Redgrave doing her best in CAMELOT made Fiona want to see her in ISADORA, whose ending shocked her as a child. It’s still a well-staged grisly finale. “Is Vanessa the first actress to win an Oscar for something where she gets her tits out?” she asked. Could be, But Karel Reisz’s film didn’t quite satisfy, so we then watched Ken Russell’s TV version of the life, Isadora Duncan, The Biggest Dancer in the World, already written about here.

ISADORA kind of vanished for a long time after its release, though clearly it showed up on telly where young Fiona caught it at a tender age. We could see why it had slipped out of view — Ken’s film manages to pack more cinematic punch, more insight, more lurid details, and, perhaps surprisingly, more character sympathy, into 65 minutes (feels more like 45) than Reisz’s can achieve in two hours and change. Weirdly, the pieces were made just two years apart, based in part on the same source (friend Sewell Stoke’s bio), and Reisz used Melvyn Bragg as scenarist — who also worked on Ken’s THE BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN and THE MUSIC LOVERS.

Russell’s film has Stokes himself narrating with queenly elegance, and his sympathetic tones help make Isadora, seemingly a narcissistic megalomaniac, come across appealingly, as at least a dedicated artist who was willing to put up with hardships. Reisz’s takes the coward’s way out by having Isadora narrate her past TO a fictional biographer, “Roger,” played by John Fraser in long-suffering gay best friend mode. This is not my favourite device: it’s awful in CHAPLIN and it’s pretty bad here, but at least they move about as they exposit.

ISADORA feels like Ken Russell Lite — it lacks the insane energy and tonal peculiarity (Russell depicts the death of the Duncan-Singer children with a single, static shot that looks like a Buster Keaton composition). When Vanessa first started talking, I said “This is going to take some getting used to,” but five minutes later I was accustomed to her American twang — she commits to it and it’s totally consistent. The nudity is both surprisingly full-on and very tasteful.

Jason Robards Jr had failed as a prospective movie star by the time he’d learned to be a commanding screen presence, so here he’s consigned to a supporting role as a husband, along with James Fox and one Zvonimir Crnko in a Boris Johnson fright wig.

“I don’t know why I should care,” I complained, midway. Sometimes, with movies, you know why you should care, but just don’t, can’t. This movie was so devoted to cataloging its heroine’s awfulnesses that it never found a reason for her to get interested. You CAN be attracted to characters who are not conventionally sympathetic, clearly, but Isadora’s various artistic quests never became things I could invest in, maybe because her terrible personality was standing in the way, maybe because the dances didn’t convince me I was in the presence of greatness. The classical music helped. The Maurice Jarre didn’t. Reisz shoots the dancing a little uncertainly, unable to decide between a Ken Russell handheld savagery or a Fred Astaire elegant wide. Admittedly, it’s a difficult job, there’s hardly any footage of ID dancing, and what exists is brief and uninspiring.

It’s a GREAT ending, except that a car crash as ending always seems arbitrary, however impressively horrific. Bragg and Reisz try to get out of that by folding it into a mystic vision of doom, which kind of works, whereas Ken incorporates his own version of Russian montage to bring all the life together in one fatal moment. Both good approaches, actually.

Preston Sturges’ mom, Mary d’Este, is a supporting character, so that’s good. Her bio might be better material — you’d get to have Aleister Crowley squaring off against young Preston, a kind of Dennis the Menace figure (US version).

ISADORA stars Guinevere; Lord Alfred Douglas; Chas; Howard Hughes; Billy Forner; Mrs. Wallis Simpson; Babe ODay; Officer on Carpathia (uncredited); Right Door Knocker(voice); Merlin; Burpelson AFB Defense Team Member; Poole’s Father; Second Officer of Shona; and Man with Flowers in Hospital (uncredited)

Isadora, The Biggest Dancer in the World stars Mrs Chasen; Brian Pern’s Father; Rev. Samuel Runt; Imre Toth; Olive Rudge; Sister Judith; Nosher; Gory the Gorilla; and Rex Ingram.


14 Responses to “Isadoras”

  1. This film was cut about quite a bit. It started at around three hours and shown with reserved seats under the title ISADORA. This did not last long, at least in the U.S. and the film was shortened by at least 45 minutes and re-titled THE LOVES OF ISADORA. One critic at the time, not thrilled with the cut version, advised audiences to see it before the studio cut it to 30 minutes and changed the title to I LOVE IZZIE. I saw the film a few years ago—allegedly the director’s cut—and was mostly disappointed by Redgrave. It is rare, at least in my experience, when she is anything less than brilliant. I definitely need to see the Russell version.

  2. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I just saw WHITE WORM for the first time. I don’t like THE DEVILS, but WW is FANTASTIC! Saw the tv stuff is now listed by Criterion.

  3. Oh great — there’s a TON of TV stuff — the later ones are underrated, interesting. The Strauss film is still BANNED. But those BBC Monitor pieces put out by the BFI are amazing.

    I think Redgrave does everything she’s been given well, but the character is kind of intolerable here. Surprisingly, Vivian Pickles is much warmer.

    White Worm is a laff riot. The Devils uses the same excess to serious ends.

  4. The Reisz is nice but Ken Russell RULES

  5. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I am addicted to Altered States, in small measure because the generally obnoxious William Hurt can lean into his true nature. But the meditation of inside/outside space (via sound, camera movement… EVERYTHING!) is just astounding to me.

  6. Russell’s films are always exploding through physical reality to visualize thoughts and feelings, so it was a wonderfully propitious choice, even though he was something like fiftieth in line for the job.

  7. The Strauss film was going to be exhibited back in spring 2020, as the Strauss family’s copyright finally ran out. Whether it went ahead seems ambiguous, as I remember events were already cancelling themselves 3-4 weeks before the UK government declared lockdown :

  8. Looks as though wordpress ate my link. Try again:

  9. Yay! I seem to remember seeing this at the time, but then forgot it. Now we need a restoration and release. I managed to see a bootleg but it had turned pink.

  10. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    The opening sequence, including the credits of Altered States has the camera looking/moving through multiple transparent planes (glass but more than glass). And the SOUND(!!) reinforces this idea that, as a viewer, you’re moving from one semi-permeable membrane after another, seamlessly. More Freud than Freud!

  11. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    through, not from…

  12. Titles by Richard Greenberg, who had just done Xanadu and Flash Gordon…

  13. Daniel Riccuito Says:


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