Saturday 27 August 2016

Nijinsky [1980]

NIJINSKY is an American biographical drama that was directed by Herbert Ross and originally released in March 1980.  It stars Alan Bates, George De La Pena, Alan Badel and Leslie Browne.  Not to be confused with the racehorse, Vaslav Nijinsky was a Ukrainian ballet dancer, world famous in the early part of the 20th century.  His continued renown is of course mainly due to his genius although his name has, since his death in 1950, become something of a byword for the unstable, tortured genius.  This film concentrates on Nijinsky's professional and romantic relationship with Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario manager of the Ballets Russes of which Nijinsky was a member.  Specifically, it concentrates on the breakdown of this relationship as Nijinsky becomes involved with Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian aristocrat obsessed with the young dancer.

It struck me afterwards that this film, like many on a similar theme of forbidden (for which read ' homosexual') love, is destined to end in tragedy, almost literally from the first frame which show a start-jacketed Nijinsky slumped on the floor of an asylum cell.  As Alex Cox once remarked, it is in the nature of Hollywood to encourage white middle-class people to marry and have babies, so it is possible to read into the industry's fondness for homosexual relationship coming to a sad end a subtle condemnation.  However, unlike many similar films of this type, this one shows us that Nijinsky's fate comes about because he, momentarily, rejects the homosexual side of his nature.

Diaghilev and Nijinsky
 The villain of the piece, if one can describe her as such, is Romola.  The book claims to be based on her memoirs and her (heavily edited) volume of her husband's memoirs, so for her to come out it of as the bad egg is remarkable.  However, she died in 1978, probably around the time that this project was getting off the ground, and therefore was not around to condemn the film's portrayal of her.  I'll confess I haven't read her books but I understand they tend to, by turns, emphasise and de-emphasise aspects of Nijinsky's life to burnish his legend.  One particular example is her husband's homosexuality.  Be that as it may, in Ross's film she is the femme fatale who leads Nijinsky away from his great love and dooms him.

Romola first sets eyes on her obsession
The 'normalisation' of the gay relationship is continued in the film's aesthetic: the presentation is tasteful (perhaps too tasteful for some), the settings sophisticated, the atmosphere rarefied.  In other words, the film depicts the relationship in the same terms it would present a straight period romance.  It eschews the idea that such things must be presented against a background of searing realism, as for instance in VICTIM [1961], NIGHTHAWKS [1978] and even MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE [1985].

In this film, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, the Baron de Gunzburg (wealthy sponsor of the Ballets Russes), indeed all the other homosexual characters, appear to be entirely comfortable in their sexuality and unashamed.  As Diaghilev says to his lover, "We are what we are and we should never forget it."  Ross makes a point of placing this exchange during a brief holiday sequence, the two take to Greece in 1912, encouraging the audience to see their relationship in the context of the ancient Greek model.

Nijinsky and Diaghilev in Greece
In actual fact, the reason Diaghilev and Nijinsky are doomed is not the intrusion of Romola de Pulszky into their relationship but the blind infatuation Nijinsky provokes in them both and the extent to which that infatuation leads the infatuated into exploiting the object of their obsessive love.  Diaghilev allows / encourages Nijinsky to begin choreographing some of his productions which not only provokes the wrath of the critics but also alienates the company's existing choreographer Mikhail Fokine and the composer Stravinsky.  More than that though it places Nijinsky himself under enormous pressure which leads to his eventual breakdown.

Nijinsky nears mental collapse while devising the choreogrpahy for Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring'
As a dramatic story, the film has everything - love, pain, art, madness, joy, jealousy, triumph, failure - and as such it is terrifically watchable.  Two or three weak performances are compensated for by having a number of smaller roles played by fine, experienced actors and by Alan Bates's superb central performance as Diaghilev.  Obviously the roles of Nijinsky, Romola (who willed herself into becoming a Ballets Russes ballerina simply to be near the object of her obsession) and Tamara Karsavina, the prima ballerina, had to be filled by professional dancers who would perforce not primarily be actors.  The respective actors George De La Pena, Leslie Browne and Carla Fracci are okay but not outstanding which is why, apart from Bates, director Ross offers us the likes of Alan Badel, Ronald Pickup, Janet Suzman, Sian Phillips, Colin Blakely and Ronald Lacey.

Alan Bates as Sergei Diaghilev (in a still reminiscent of Sir Dirk Bogarde in DEATH IN VENICE)

I've written about Bates elsewhere (specifically in my review of A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG, which you can read here) but I can only reiterate that he is one of my favourite actors.  I remember the grand old curmudgeon of film writers Leslie Halliwell said of him something like 'tends to play thoughtful toughs with soft centres' and it's basically true.  Bates had the face and physique of a Hollywood leading man, all brooding dark good looks, but, like Richard Burton, he was essentially a more theatrical actor and in my opinion was at his best in adaptations of plays and novels.  For example, apart from the aforementioned JOE EGG, his best performances I reckon are in BUTLEY [1974], IN CELEBRATION [1975] and THE GO-BETWEEN [1970].  It's no coincidence that he is in three of the excellent American Film Theatre series, film versions of outstanding theatre productions.

Alan Bates in ZORBA THE GREEK from 1964
Bates was a bisexual man who was married and had children but who also had several long term relationship with men.  I understand that he always denied to himself and to them that he was gay, which seems to me to be a pretty odd claim to make, and he was reticent about discussing his private life in the media.  One has to appreciate that men of his generation (he was born in 1934) lived the formative years of their life in a Britain in which homosexual acts were a criminal offence.  Many men went to their graves without admitting publicly that they were gay - Kenneth Williams and Sir Dirk Bogarde are two examples.  Furthermore, Bates was highly attractive to women and, as a professional actor, was keen to promote that image of himself.

Bates (L) and Oliver Reed (R) in WOMEN IN LOVE from 1969
However, Bates was drawn to characters with a homosexual side.  Diaghilev is an obvious example but there are many others: Rupert Birkin in Ken Russell's WOMEN IN LOVE [1969], with its notorious nude wrestling scene; Ben Butley in BUTLEY; Guy Burgess in AN ENGLISHMAN ABROAD [1983]; Frank Meadows in WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU [1988] and even Sir Hugo Coal in the dreadful THE GROTESQUE [1995].  I'm hard pressed to think of any overtly gay roles played by Bates's contemporaries like Richard Harris or Albert Finney or Peter O'Toole or Sean Connery, let alone half a dozen.

Always stocky, Bates put on a fair bit of weight as he got older and experienced some significant family problems which meant that the films he made in the 1980s and beyond were generally speaking not outstanding and because he never quite became a massive star like those mentioned above he was limited to small supporting parts, the result being that for most people he dropped off the map.  For someone so good to end up playing tiny parts in films like THE SUM OF ALL FEARS and THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES [both 2002] seems a shame but at his best he was one of this country's finest actors and as Diaghilev in NIJINSKY you can see him at his best.

Alan Badel as Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg

Jeremy Irons as Mikhail Fokine
There are too many fine actors in the supporting cast to go into detail about them all so I will limit myself to just a few.  Janet Suzman, who plays Romola's mother, co-starred with Bates in JOE EGG and is a renowned theatre actress in her own right.  Alan Badel made a great many films among which is one of my favourites - Tony Maylam's THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS [1978] in which he is married to Olga Lowe, who plays Signora Cecchetti in NIJINSKY.  Jeremy Irons makes his feature film debut as the prissy Fokine and in a tiny role is, bizarrely, Tomaso Milian Jr, son of Tomas Milian - one of the greatest delirious actors of them all.