Valentino (1977)

“There [will] never be another Valentino — there will never be anyone remotely like him. He was a god!”

Synopsis:
The untimely death of silent screen star Rudolph Valentino (Rudolf Nureyev) prompts the many women in his past to reminisce about his troubled rise to superstardom.

Genres:

Review:
Ken Russell’s star-studded depiction of Rudolph Valentino‘s meteoric rise to fame — and his tragically early death at the age of 31, which reportedly prompted at least two suicides — displays much of Russell’s distinctive flare for colorful pageantry and liberal interpretation of historical facts. Famed ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev is surprisingly well-cast in the title role, and is given ample opportunity to show off both his dancing chops and his well-toned body (most film fanatics are probably unaware that before coming to Hollywood, Valentino worked as a nightclub dancer and tango partner in New York). The film’s many supporting actors and actresses (Seymour Cassell, Leslie Caron, Carol Kane, and Felicity Kendal, among others) are generally fine in their respective roles as the various men and women who flitted through Valentino’s life; much less successful, however, is Michelle Phillips (of “The Mamas and the Papas”) in a key role as Valentino’s overbearing wife, Natasha Rambova — Phillips is no great actress, and comes across here as simply whiny and shrill.

As one might expect from any Ken Russell “biopic”, Valentino does little to illuminate the mundane details of the actor’s past, instead focusing primarily on his public persona and the seemingly endless string of scandals he was embroiled in. Indeed, the entire second half of the film concerns itself with Valentino’s struggle to defend his masculinity in the face of assertions that he was more “powder puff” than All-American Male — a thematic concern bolstered by an earlier scene in which Valentino is shown dancing “intimately” with the Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (Anthony Dowell). Nonetheless, Russell simultaneously goes to great pains to show us how extraordinarily appealing this sexually provocative actor was to females of the day — the opening scene of the film is particularly effective at recreating the chaos caused by the (mostly female) fans clamoring to get a closer look at their beloved Valentino’s dead body. Ultimately, while it’s not entirely successful as a narrative, Valentino does admirably convey the larger-than-life popularity of this iconic cinematic “Latin Lover”, and will likely be of passing interest to film fanatics for this reason alone.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rudolf Nureyev as Valentino
    Valentino Nureyev
  • Seymour Cassell as one of Valentino’s promoters
    Valentino Cassell
  • Shirley Russell’s baroque costumes
    Valentino Costumes

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look by all film fanatics. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Valentino (1977)”

  1. Not a must, but Ken Russell fans won’t ultimately be disappointed.

    First viewing.

    There is very little middle-of-the-road with a Russell film. You’re either with him or you aren’t. He can be an acquired taste. He can serve up straight drama while tacking on excess if he feels that’s still appropriate for the piece he’s working on. He can also at times change tone and become slightly more exaggerated than is called for (as if reminding us that film can also be frivolous for its own sake). In other words, when watching a Russell film, you may have to prepare yourself to follow his moods as you’re also following the narrative. That’s certainly true here.

    I liked ‘Valentino’ more than I expected to. I agree that the performances are fine (tho I don’t think Phillips is all that “shrill” in her role – but when she is, it seems to come organically from the character, who is a little ‘out there’ at times). Nureyev is, in fact, surprisingly effective. One of the standouts for me, though, is Felicity Kendal as studio exec June Mathis – a very natural and knowing turn there. A number of the supporting actors also come off well (including Leland Palmer, Huntz Hall, Peter Vaughan and Penelope Milford). (Actually, the performance that seems a bit too much and needlessly abrasive is William Hootkins’ portrayal of Fatty Arbuckle as an obnoxious buffoon.)

    Russell’s script (with Scorsese collaborator Mardik Martin) is occasionally flippant early on but its flashback structure, jumping from individual to individual who was close to Valentino, is fluid and flows nicely overall. DP Peter Suschitzky (who had just filmed ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ as well as Russell’s ‘Lisztomania’) is certainly on the same canvas as Russell’s colorfully expressive mind and the film is bolstered by Philip Harrison’s art direction and dependable Shirley Russell’s costumes.

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