Director: Ken Russell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
You’ve really gotta love Ken Russell. Whatever project he chooses—and they are frequently sexy, operatic affairs that reflect his own sensibilities—he manages to find and remain true to their essential spirit. Valentino is not a literal biography of the great silent film heart throb Rudolph Valentino—the film, in fact, is based on a novel—but one that clings to the spirit of the times and the legendary allure of the man, which is as strong today as it was in his time. As a fan of Valentino—my office is plastered with pictures and memorabilia of the star—I appreciated how Valentino mirrored a wit I have always associated with him.
The film begins with the pandemonium that greeted the news of Valentino’s (Rudolph Nureyev) untimely death at the age of 31. In a faux newsreel sequence, grief-stricken female fans mob the funeral home where his body is lying in state, crashing through the windows in a Technicolor excess of sorrow. After order is restored, one by one come several important women in his life to pay their respects, mug for the newspaper photographers, and tell the Valentino story in flashback.
Screenwriter and Hollywood executive June Mathis (Felicity Kendal), a tearful mask of tragedy that suggests unrequited love, recalls Valentino’s description of his early days as an immigrant from Italy, trying to make enough money from washing dishes, taxi dancing (and Latin loving his paying dance partners) to go to California and buy an orange grove to farm. A dramatic attack on his apartment by some mobsters forces his hand, and he sets off for Los Angeles, where he keeps his dream of farming alive by dancing in nightclubs.
One night, he incurs the wrath of Fatty Arbuckle (William Hootkins) by grabbing the frizzy-haired starlet (Carol Kane) seated next to him, dancing her into a swoon for a packed house of patrons, and stealing her away to be his first wife, Jean. This scene is a splendor of grotesques—Fatty the most grotesque of them all, turning red and slack-jawed in fisheye close-ups—squealing catcalls and hoots. Nureyev shows off some of his exquisite ballet technique while jazzing his duet up with vampy ballroom elegance. Valentino sees Jean’s lavish lifestyle from a second-rate career in movies, and decides to try his hand. Mathis recalls discovering him in a two-reeler and recommending him for his star turn in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A recreation of the famous tango scene from that film is a natural for Nureyev.
Back to the present and the gloriously excessive and comic entrance of Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron). Draped in a foyer-sized blanket of white roses, she collapses over Valentino’s coffin. When photographers ask her to do it again, she obliges with refined vulgarity and launches into a description of her relationship with Valentino. Nazimova singled out Valentino to play Armand opposite her Camille. A seduction scene from the film is shot on a set very similar to the fabulous Art Deco sets of the original film, but Valentino’s aura shone too bright for Nazimova. Having seen Camille, I can testify that it’s a strange telling that has Camille die her fabulously romantic death with Armand nowhere to be found.
Enter Natacha Rambova, a 1920s hippie played by a quintessential 1960s hippie, Michelle Phillips, who tells the reporters that although she had been separated physically from Valentino, they remained spiritually close. In her flashback, she is Nazimova’s lover but clearly sees that Valentino has a crush on her and that his career will be bigger than anything to which Nazimova could ever aspire. On the set of The Sheik, Rambova seduces Valentino with a dance of the seven veils under a gold-and-jewel-encrusted tent of Arabian splendor. When Valentino’s divorce is in process, Rambova convinces him to go to Mexico where they can be married. Upon their return to the United States, they are arrested for bigamy. Studio head Jesse Lasky (Huntz Hall) refuses to bail Valentino out, and he spends a tortuous night in jail where he is taunted by a sadistic guard and the drunks and disorderlies, including a perpetual masturbation machine, for his dandy ways. The scene goes in for hallucinatory visual effects combined with a clownlike atmosphere that could be called Felliniesque.
On the set of Monsieur Beaucaire, Rambova and the film’s director Sidney Olcott (John Justin) call directing cues together in a hilarious scene highlighting Rambova’s megalomania. During a break from shooting, two stagehands positioned on the catwalk above the soundstage wonder if Rambova calls the shots in bed, too. They toss down a pink powder puff, which lands squarely on Valentino’s lap. Rambova, outraged, insists that the perpetrator of this insult come forward or she and Valentino will walk off the set. Although Valentino finishes the picture, Rambova insists he refuse future work at Paramount until Lasky meets their demands. Lasky suspends him, and the pair end up penniless on a beach. They are approached by George Melford (Don Fellows), who books the pair to do personal appearances on behalf of Mineralava, a beauty product for women. We are treated to another stunning duet with Nureyev at center stage and Phillips managing to stay out of his way. George becomes Valentino’s manager and eventually negotiates a sweet deal with Lasky, including a huge raise and script approval. It’s back to Hollywood for the Valentinos.
A climactic moment comes when Valentino reads a newspaper article that casts aspersions on his manhood. Russell has given us a scene earlier in the film in which Valentino is dancing, ballroom style, with the famous ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (Anthony Dowell), so as to plant doubts about Valentino’s sexuality in the minds of the viewers of Valentino. I never really believed it from Nureyev’s performance (though the dancer was himself homosexual), and this feeling was true to the real Valentino, whose wholesale purchase on the hearts of American women put him in opposition with the ideal of American manhood the popular culture wished to keep alive. In any case, Valentino challenges the reporter to a duel, which for legal reasons, becomes a boxing match. Rory O’Neil (Peter Vaughn) stands in for the reporter—and O’Neil just happens to be a boxing champion. The match is a mini ballet. As O’Neil pounds Valentino, the matinee idol’s body is a rubber doll of fluidity. O’Neil, in an echo and parody of the earlier dance with Nijinsky, twirls a semiconscious Valentino around the ring. Nureyev’s grace during this tragicomic scene is awe-inspiring. Miraculously, Valentino recovers and clocks the middle-aged champ in a stunning series of combinations and a smashing knock-out blow.
By now, Valentino has been exhibiting signs of the ulcer that would eventually perforate and kill him. Nonetheless, when O’Neil asks for a rematch—a drinking contest—Valentino accepts and again bests him. The film omits Valentino’s later films for United Artists, concentrating only on the contract stipulation that barred the disruptive Rambova from the set. Russell ends with Valentino’s death, in a regal scene that has the actor stretched on a slab in what almost appears to be a white marble tomb.
Valentino is a gorgeous film that revels in its lush colors—particularly pink—and lavish sets and costumes. The Sheik costumes are just as the many photos of Valentino had them, including a small detail I remember from the film—a wristwatch. A scene in a speakeasy has a bevy of girls dressed as pink powder puffs putting on a show as entertaining and insulting as any on film. Russell’s extravagant imagination is all up there on screen, and yet, as I said in the introduction to this review, the film really captures the fable of Valentino. For example, one scene has Mathis watching one of Valentino’s films in a darkened theatre. The audience is comprised entirely of women. The utter contempt American men showed for Valentino is evident in the behavior of the prisoners and guard at the lock-up, the studio bosses who wouldn’t bail him out, the boxing crowd (that is, until he proves himself in the masculine American way), and the journalists who built him up and tore him down.
The choice of Nureyev to play Valentino seems an odd one, but in general, it was a gamble that paid off. Nureyev, like Valentino, had unconventional good looks from certain angles. His beautifully sculpted and strong body could also look slight. As a homosexual, he certainly would have related to the hate directed at Valentino, and as a world-famous ballet dancer, he would also have been able to relate to Valentino’s fame. While I can’t really say he “acted” very well, he created an impression that I found believable and endearing.
All of the main actresses must have been told by Russell to keep the needle in the red zone. Leslie Caron and Felicity Kendal, both decent actresses, camped shamelessly through their roles. Michelle Phillips, I’m convinced, really was a terrible actress when she made Valentino and thus fit right into the shrill femininity Russell seemed to want to capture—a reflection of the Valentino mania of the time. I found these ungenerous portraits of women a bit offensive, but as an artistic interpretation of a temperment that surrounded this man, I respect Russell’s choices.
Valentino satisfied me like a chocolate mousse topped with three feet of whipped cream. Not just for Valentino fans, Valentino is a riotous, daring adventure in filmmaking that is a real treat.