At an early point in Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance (1988), Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) is surprised to see an amateur production of his banned play Salome interrupted by a photographer taking a flash picture of the proceedings. The photographer is none other than Russell himself, who is playing a visiting dignitary in the show, prompting Wilde to remark, “If your acting is as grossly indecent as your photographic studies, Kenneth, we should be in for an outrageous evening.” And indeed, this no-holds-barred filming of Wilde’s play—opened up to include Wilde as the audience for the production, which takes place in a brothel—is nothing if not outrageous.
The outrageousness is especially apt considering the film’s history. The idea started around 1974 when Russell and his then-agent Robert Littman—fortified with a few drinks—called various studios with the idea that Russell could film Lindsay Kemp’s production of Salome for 120,000 pounds. Everyone wanted it—till they learned Lindsay was a man in drag. Alan Ladd Jr., however, didn’t care. He saw it as a chance to balance out some expensive productions and said yes, but then Russell backed out after seeing the play a second time and going cold on the idea.
Flash-forward to Russell’s Vestron Pictures deal in the late ‘80s and a revival of the project—still at a bargain rate and with a female Salome (Imogen Millais-Scott), in addition to a biographical framing story that parallels Wilde’s betrayal by Lord Alfred Douglas (Douglas Hodge) with Salome’s betrayal of John the Baptist (also Hodge) in the play. Largely confined to one set (but what a set!), the film amazingly never feels stage-bound, and for my money is the best of Russell’s late 1980s work. It’s outlandish, oversized, campy, profane and, finally, strangely moving—in a way that only a Ken Russell film can be. Don’t miss the chance to see it—the DVD is long out of print (though you can find it for $200-$400 from private sellers on Amazon).