In 1926 the tragic and untimely death of a silent screen actor caused female moviegoers to riot in the streets and in some cases to commit suicide – that actor was Rudolph Valentino. Ballroom dancer Valentino manipulated his good looks and animal-like grace into a Hollywood career. His smouldering love making, tinged with a touch of masterful cruelty, expressed a sexuality which was at once both shocking and sensual.
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.
British director Ken Russell started out training for a naval career, but after wartime RAF and merchant navy service he switched goals and went into ballet. Supplementing his dancing income as an actor and still photographer, Russell put together a handful of amateur films in the 50s before being hired as a staff director by the BBC. Russell made a name for himself (albeit a name not always spoken in reverence) during the first half of the ‘60s by directing a series of iconoclastic TV dramatizations of the lives of famous composers and dancers. And if he felt that the facts were getting in the way of his story, he’d make up his own — frequently bordering on the libelous. If he had any respect for the famous persons whose lives he probed, it was secondary to his fascination with revealing all warts and open wounds.
A film director since 1963, Russell burst into the international consciousness with 1969’s Women in Love, a hothouse version of the D.H. Lawrence novel. No director… read more
Beautiful production values and a sense of period that practically drips from the screen cannot lift this stilted deadweight into the realms of camp (try as it might with a misfiring Caron) let alone a satisfying drama. A shame, considering the promise of the story. A stolid lead, episodic structure and little emotional connection do not help and it's maybe best viewed as a series of vignettes on old Hollywood.
Far from Russell's best, but it's an extremely entertaining mess of a movie. Rudolf Nureyev is not the greatest actor, but brings an offbeat energy to the role to keep up with the over-the-top supporting cast. The plot is muddled, but with lavish production design, and plenty of memorably bizarre set pieces, those who appreciate Russell's excessive eccentricities will find this a very satisfying effort.