Redgrave's Isadora Duncan entertains herself while her distracted lover James Fox concentrates on his art in Karel Reisz's lost masterwork "Isadora" (1968)The general personality profile of a lost movie is that it is small and that its original release came with little fanfare. Such films usually come in under the radar. Invisibility is the trademark of a lost movie.
What's difficult to grasp is a major movie that seems to fall off the map. Case in point: Karel Reisz's brilliant, messy Isadora Duncan biopic, "Isadora," which provided star Vanessa Redgrave with her most emblematic, self-defining role. Duncan, a solopistic, sexually uninhibited artist who experimented with dance, liberating it, was also a defiant free-thinker, and the like-minded Redgrave tore into the role as if it were a raw piece of meat and she was starving. It's something to behold.
Unfortunately, the film was undermined by its studio even before anyone, critics included, got to see it. Universal, with Oscars in its eyes, rushed the 168-minute art film into a single Los Angeles theatre for one week in December of 1968 to qualify for that year's Academy Awards. Misunderstood, it was promptly panned by The Los Angeles Times (shades of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo"), although Vanessa Redgrave did get her Oscar nomination - losing, unbelievably, to Barbra Streisand and Katherine Hepburn who won in a tie vote that year.
Anyway, based on this one review, Universal panicked, recalled the film and deleted some 40 minutes (shade of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," a future Universal victim). By the time it opened in New York on April 27, 1969, it had a new title - the generic, TV-movie-sounding "The Loves of Isadora" - and, according to Vincent Canby's dismissive review in The New York Times, it ran 128 minutes. (This conflicts with reports that puts the edited version at 131 minutes, but what's three minutes when 40 have been cut?)
Despite its already troubled history, Universal gave Reisz permission to screen the film in competition for the Golden Palm at The 22nd Cannes Film Festival (held May 8-23, 1969), where Redgrave took home the best actress award. Presumably, the original version was screened at Cannes, given that it played there as "Isadora," not "The Loves of Isadora."
The film then disappeared from the landscape until it was incarnated, briefly, in the 1990s when a "director's cut," running 153 minutes, was released on VHS (a version which was televised by the Bravo cable channel, with some minor editing of nudity) and then it disappeared again.
The final nail in "Isadora's" coffin came at The Orange British Academy Film Awards last February 21, when Redgrave was awarded its highest accolade, the Academy Fellowship, to an approving crowd at London's Royal Opera House. Voluminous clips from just about all of Redgrave's important films preceded the award itself. But not "Isadora."
Not the film that, arguably, contains her single greatest screen performance.
On his invaluable movie blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Dennis Cozzalio prominently displays Pauline Kael's famous comment,
"Great movies are rarely perfect movies." That sums up "Isadora." Perfectly.