I like Ken Russell’s Valentino (1977) more with each passing year and with each viewing. One day it will probably creep up to five stars when I’m not looking. Although I went to see this biopic on Rudolph Valentino five times on its original release (a feat in itself considering the distance and the car I had at the time), it was something of a letdown, coming on the heels of the explosively stylized Mahler (1974), Tommy (1975) and Lisztomania (1975). While I still don’t like it as well as those films (and probably never will), it does not seem like a letdown today—and it may be the director’s most accessible work. It is also perhaps the most visually stunning of all his movies.
Structurally, Valentino can be said to be Russell’s Citizen Kane (1941), since he approaches the story as a series of flashbacks, with various people from Valentino’s (Rudolf Nureyev) life telling their versions of the tale at his funeral. (He actually directly references Kane with an orange standing in for the famous snow globe.) It’s certainly a very workable and very cleverly constructed framing story, but it’s actually more than that, since some of the film’s best moments are in these scenes—not the least of which is the jaw-dropping entrance of Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron in a very funny, malevolent performance). Unfortunately, the desire of United Artists to keep the picture at a length that guaranteed four shows a day cost some of this footage—including the film’s central irony about idolatry. As shot, the audience was made aware of the fact that all the funereal fuss is actually over a wax figure of Valentino, but this was cut out. All that remains is the now somewhat inexplicable final scene of the actual body lying on a slab in a refrigerated room away from the furor.
The movie is a blend of fact, fantasy and legend—which is perhaps the best possible approach to a subject who can best be described in exactly those terms. Most of the characters and their names are wholly authentic. What they do is often another matter, since they tend to comport themselves in a highly stylized, larger-than-life Hollywood manner. Did Jesse Lasky (Huntz Hall—yes, of Bowery Boys fame) have an enclosure off his study that housed a white gorilla? No—and the gorilla is actually in a zoo in Spain—but it fits the oversized nature of the great movie moguls of that era. Did Valentino have a public boxing match with a reporter (Peter Vaughan) in order to prove his manhood? Well, no, though there was a private bout, and the film turns this into the grand spectacle of importance it was in Valentino’s mind. At every turn, it’s a movie that’s interested in being true in spirit, not in fact.
The film was not an easy production. Nureyev was not the most cooperative of performers and he made life on the set difficult for everybody, though he does come off pretty well in the film. Matters were not helped by the fact that Russell’s 20-year marriage to Shirley Russell (who had designed the costumes for all his films) was falling apart during the shooting. Little of this shows on the screen, but a little of the strain creeps in. Russell himself all but disowned the film for years, though this may have more to do with the fact that its failure at the box office dealt his career a blow from which it never really recovered. He has since softened in his stance on the results—which is a good thing, because it’s clearly a part of his most creative era.