When Valentino first appeared in 1977, it pleased almost no one. Ken Russell fans greeted it somewhat tepidly, because it was much less experimental than his last three films — Mahler, Tommy, Lisztomania. The rest of the world found it too experimental and over-the-top, especially since the ad campaign stressed that it was from “the producers who gave you Rocky,” a movie about as far afield from a Ken Russell picture as might be imagined.
Valentino was Russell’s most expensive movie to date ($5 million, which seems absurdly cheap now), and its failure at the box-office dealt his career a blow from which it has never fully recovered. (Russell himself once walked out of a retrospective screening of it, wondering aloud, “What idiot made this?”)
But time has been kind to Valentino, which looks more experimental now than it did then (while simultaneously seeming more accessible). It’s still “over-the-top,” but that’s not a bad thing when you’re talking about a huge, flamboyant, operatic movie — terms that can be applied to the bulk of Russell’s work.
In many ways, Valentino is Russell’s Citizen Kane — at least in terms of its construction. It starts with Valentino’s (Rudolf Nureyev) funeral and is built around flashbacks from the people who knew him or used him or loved him or hated him — in some cases all four at the same time. In this way, Russell pieces together — as a biographer might do — as complete a picture of his subject as possible, attempting to capture the essence of the silent-film star, while in the bargain creating both a satire of, and a valentine to, Hollywood.
Blending fact, fantasy and legend, Russell succeeds more often than he doesn’t, even if post-production monkey-business by the studio killed one of the film’s central ironies. (As shot, all these people are fawning over a wax dummy of Valentino, while the real body lies on a slab elsewhere. All that remains of this is the final shot in the film. Where is the much-need restored version of this film on DVD?)
By turns comic, shattering and moving, the movie is filled with wonderful scenes and splendid performances, especially from supporting players like Felicity Kendal, Seymour Cassel, John Justin and Huntz Hall (yes, the Huntz Hall). Leslie Caron is a fabulous and funny Alla Nazimova, and while neither Nureyev nor Michelle Phillips are perfect in the leads, their performances have worn well.
Valentino may be the most beautiful-looking film Russell ever made — which is saying something. It exudes a richness and sense of a love of film that pays ample rewards. Flawed it is, but it’s also genuine filmmaking in the best sense of the word.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of Valentino on Sunday, Aug. 28 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, then turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot at left.)]