Ken Russell’s Excesses
Ken Russell’s “Valentino” really has nothing to do with the character in the title of this film. What it does show is imagery and charisma but no credibility. “There is absolutely no logic as to why a writer can get it so wrong…or, perhaps, he was playing with the words as Russell played with the pictures.” As Valentino, we immediately see that Rudolf Nureyev cannot act but neither can anyone else.
Released in 1977, “Valentino” begins with the news of the famed actor’s untimely death at the age of thirty-one. Newsreel footage shows how his legions of female fans are inconsolable over the news, mobbing the funeral home where his body lies in a scene that is essentially a riot. It is, in Russell’s grand tradition, an exercise in excess and strange visual style.
After that opening sequence, order is restored and there is some calm. From there, we learn how Rudolph Valentino (Rudolf Nureyev) touched the lives of a few different women he was involved with over the years. This is set up through a series of flashbacks as each one of these women show up to pay their respects and get in on some photo opportunities. The first is June Mathis (Felicity Kendal), a screenwriter who was involved with the actor. Through her story we learn how Valentino immigrated to the United States from Italy, where he was born, how he worked menial jobs at first and then got work as a dancer, hoping to earn the money he would need to buy a farm in California. When he runs afoul of some mobsters, he splits to Los Angeles but still hopes to buy that farm one day. In L.A., he finds work dancing in nightclubs where he starts to draw more attention than he initially expected.
One night he pulls Jean (Carol Kane) out to the dance floor, much to the dismay of her jealous date, Fatty Arbuckle (William Hootkins). Surprisingly quickly, he and Jean are married and he decides, after learning about the film business through her, that he should try acting and it’s hear we learn how June Mathis would wind up ‘discovering’ him. Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron) shows up to grieve, giving the photographers exactly what they want. She then talks about how Valentino was cast as Armand and she as Camille in the production of the same name. Of course, this turns out to be doomed in its own way. Natasha Rambova (Michelle Phillips) follows, telling of a love triangle of sorts and how she knew Valentino was destined for stardom. When she and Valentino worked together on “The Sheik”, they would become intimate and when he would split with his wife, they would travel together for a while. They are married south of the border before the divorce is finalized, however, and they are, upon their return to California, charged with bigamy which leads to a lengthy downward spiral of events for the couple culminating in a scene where Valentino challenges a reporter to a boxing match for casting aspersions on his sexuality (a fascinating sequence in which Russell shows us how boxing and dancing sort of morph into the same thing, at least in his world). At the same time, the health problems that would eventually claim Valentino’s life begin.
It really does not matter that the facts of Valentino’s life are wrong because Russell directs this picture with an insane amount of style, but not at the cost of substance. There’s a lot that goes on and the visuals do an excellent job of complimenting the storyline and the storyline does an equally excellent job of complimenting the visuals. Russell recreates some famous scenes from a few of the actor’s better known works (giving the picture some occasional ‘film within a film’ moments where Russell goes all out in blending fantasy with reality) and we see some fantastic set design. There are a lot of period appropriate art deco motifs that are duly exploited for the camera and scores of colorful costumes, backdrops and furniture pieces on display in pretty much every frame of the film. Visually, this is an amazing film, a picture ripe with sumptuous visuals and an expertly choreographed exercise in taking things completely over the top as Russell is known to do.
The story is well told even if it is not the real stout. It does summarize the star’s life with little regard for accuracy. Russell was open about not going strictly by the book on this one, and that’s covered well in the commentary included on this disc. The performances are quite interesting. The role of Valentino might have been better suited to someone with more traditional acting experience than Nureyev but he moves gracefully and impressively during the film’s many dance sequences and if the resemblance that he shares to the film’s subject isn’t uncanny, it is close enough.
About halfway through the movie, Valentino is arrested and forced to spend the nigh, in a jail cell where the jailer denies him bathroom privileges and the other prisoners maul him and taunt him about his virility. This is very much in the mode of Mr. Russell’s most overpowering moments those that have simultaneously provoked admiration and outrage, but it has no place in an effort as a typically tame as this one. “Valentino” is Mr. Russell’s least disturbing movie. I must admit that even with all of the excesses that Russell is famed for, I watch whatever of his that I can get my hands on.
Let’s face it—Valentino with all of his glamour was something of a bland figure, more of a star than he was an actor, and Mr. Russell’s best films have been about artists. Valentino’s greatest dream was to leave Hollywood and grow oranges. Valentino’s sexuality was nil, at least as far as Mr. Russell’s interpretation is concerned, so these is no place for the tortured erotic wrangling that we see in other Russell films.
It is fascinating that the emphasis here on Valentino has to do with his old-world ideas of manly honor. When Nureyev’s Valentino is abused or, he looks wonderful, even regal. The screenplay, however gives us a Valentino who is somewhat meek. Nureyev interprets that character to be lordly to the point that he seems to enjoy the affronts to his dignity. Valentino and Russell seems to agree on the way we see Hollywood. Valentino is surrounded by (and a party to) the most aggressive kind of vulgarity.
Nureyev’s performance, as was expected, of course, is graceful. He is incapable of making an uninteresting gesture. He is at his most stunning when he tangos in a dimly lit nightclub and fighting for his life in a noisy, crowded area one wall of which hangs a tattered American flag. The movie failed at the box office but it is now gaining cult status. As fantasy, the film works and the blu ray of it is absolutely gorgeous to watch.