Bold casting, high production values, glitzy cinematography and over-the-top direction. It can only mean one thing: Ken Russell filming the life story of Rudolph Valentino, doomed Latin lover of the silent movie era. His death in 1926, aged 31, was among the most sensational and unexpected events of the Jazz Age. Valentino was arguably the biggest movie star at the time. His brand of masculine sex appeal had men and women all a quiver and trade rags gossiping about the threat he posed to wholesome American ideals. Basically, his fiery passion was deemed a bit too full-on for American men to handle. How could they compete at home, when their wives were thinking only of Rudy?
Valentino’s sometimes controversial rise to the top of the Hollywood A-list provided Russell with a chance to make a Dionysian extravaganza about the new gods of the twentieth century and the industry’s salacious early days. Most scenes are delivered in that winningly grandiose Russellian aesthetic, a place where high art and low art collided and produced a febrile result. Some would argue too febrile. Made at Elstree in 1976 – there was a space opera shooting on another soundstage at the same time – Valentino is a curious picture in the wild cinematic world of the one and only Ken Russell. For starters, he didn’t think much of the end result, and it’s not as bonkers as other pictures he made.
The casting of Rudolph Nureyev is, at first glance, problematic, but Russell’s experimental concept was not only to make a fantasy biopic of Valentino’s life, but to make an investigation into what makes a star shine more than other performers in the arts. With his bony Slavic features far removed from the smouldering southern Italian looks of the man he was playing on the big screen, Nureyev makes the most of the role – especially the few early scenes where he dances – and is quite a fascinating screen presence. As stated, this is, in essence, the true point of the movie: a study in stardom and being a star. It is often noted how the camera can fall in love with performer, but it must always be remembered it’s the intent behind said camera’s controlled gaze which produces whatever alluring effect appears on the screen. Nureyev is not the best actor in the world, but neither was Valentino. As ever with this director’s sometimes outré creative choices, you have to like it or lump it.
So, it might jar and be of course patently ridiculous, Nureyev’s as Italian as a Dr. Oetker frozen pizza, but that is to misunderstand Ken’s ambition for the movie. Does it work? Not quite, but Valentino is far from bad for trying. The new BFI Blu-ray comes packed with bonus material and an excellent booklet. The best of the bunch is newsreel footage documenting Valentino’s funeral. The streets of New York are lined with mourners. It looks like a state funeral for a king or queen, not for somebody involved in the movie business.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn