Archive for Isadora Duncan


Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2023 by dcairns

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.

Great Directors Made Little #1

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , on March 12, 2010 by dcairns

Preston Sturges.

There’s also a still of him in Sturges on Sturges attending school in a classical Greek tunic (his mother’s idea). I always felt sorry for little Pres because of this, figuring that any kid turning up at school like that here in Scotland would have the crap knocked out of him, double-quick. But Sturges was in Bayreuth, where maybe they had different standards. Although he does recall being shoved off the stage of a ruined Roman temple by a homicidal fellow five-year-old.

Blame it all on Isadora Duncan. When asked if all Americans wore Greek tunics, she replied, “Oh no, some wear feathers!”

I knew about the Isadora Duncan connection, but it was only a few years ago that I realized that Mary Desti, Preston’s mom, was “scarlet woman” to the black magician Aleister Crowley. Little Preston and “the Great Beast” loathed each other, and I like the idea of a playlet exploring their rivalry. Something like HOME ALONE, but with more ritual masturbation.

Self-Portrait of the Artist

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting, Television with tags , , , , , , , on October 9, 2009 by dcairns


Those early BBC arts drama-documentaries directed by Ken Russell really are something. One almost hesitates to sing their praises in the UK since for years the perceived wisdom has been that they’re Mad Ken’s best work, that he went into decline (a) as soon as he started making feature films (b) as soon as he’d made THE MUSIC LOVERS (c) after he had his nervous breakdown and lost his catholic faith making THE DEVILS (d) after he went to America or, for all I know, (e) when he went on Celebrity Big Brother.

First into the Panasonic was Always on Sunday, AKA Henri Rousseau, Sunday Painter, scripted by Russell himself with regular collaborator Melvyn Bragg. In the very early films KR made for the BBC’s flagship arts show, Monitor, he was not allowed to show the artists except as a pair of hands, painting or conducting or whatever. Russell kept fighting for the right to use fully-fledged dramatic techniques, and by the time of his Rousseau movie he’d more or less won — the film is a combination of narrated passages (Oliver Reed intones Bragg’s commentary) and mini-scenes involving actors. Beautifully, Rousseau is portrayed as a Yorkshireman, seemingly to suggest his simple honesty.

vlcsnap-250728Alfred Jarry gets pataphysical.

Like a lot of Russell biopics, it’s in part a self-portrait, with Rousseau/Russell the misunderstood artist whose work is ridiculed during his lifetime. Poor Ken couldn’t have known how true this would be. Just wait till he dies — hopefully some decades from now — there’ll be a national outpouring of grief to rival the Princess Diana farce and the Valentino funeral rolled into one.  “Unappreciated” barely begins to describe the Russell oeuvre, which has been trashed, mocked, condemned as obscene, censored (“They took out anything that had to do with Art,” said Ken of the MPAA’s evisceration of CRIMES OF PASSION, whose Beardsley and Hokusai prints were the first to go) and banned outright (the zealots of the Strauss estate are still suppressing The Dance of the Seven Veils).


“Eh, ‘e’s a grand animal, a lovely animal, you are, a real… oh lovely one… Aaaaarrr! look out, he’s coming to get yer! Arrrrr! ha ha ha!”

A more iconoclastic production, Isadora, The Biggest Dancer in the World, features Vivian Pickles (Harold’s mom in HAROLD AND MAUDE, and if you’ve seen that film you can picture this performance) as the champion of free expression, and leaves one a little uncertain whether Ken has any respect for his subject at all. It’s a problem critics frequently had with his 1970s composer films. In fact, Russell adores Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Liszt, but he blows their idiosyncrasies up to such a massive scale that he can come off as mocking or hostile. He isn’t really.

The film begins with a fast montage of the scandals and disasters in Isadora’s life, moving at Mack Sennett speed and changing style and tone with dizzying abandon. Here’s how Ken initially presents the death of her children in a car accident —


This opening is the equivalent of the newsreel in CITIZEN KANE, a frequent structural touchstone for Russell. The grotesque events treated as black farce in the opening are revisited more tenderly in the ensuing film. Although Isadora is frequently ridiculous — “In my heart I’ve been a communist all my life — I’m a queen of communism!” — I think Ken sympathises with her eccentricity, impracticality and inappropriateness. How could he not?


Ken obviously benefitted from his apprenticeship at the BBC. In producer Huw Weldon he had an authority figure whom he could rebel against and respect at the same time. Russell-haters will feel that the limited budgets and b&w photography of these films also kept him grounded, kept his outrageous visions within respectable boundaries. That may be true, but it wasn’t a stable, sustainable situation. Russell’s nature ensured his transformation into a gaudy butterfly of the cinema.

TVs Culture Show has placed a blue plaque at Ken’s birthplace, but I’m holding out for a fifty-foot-high marble statue in the Lake District. Might I suggest this pose?


US customers:

Ken Russell at the BBC