The life of silent-screen star Rudolph Valentino would seem ideal for biopic treatment. In addition to the usual rise-and-fall drama associated with any actor’s career, the narrative is infused with sex because Valentino was the greatest heartthrob of his time, driving legions of female fans insane with lust. The same elements that make the story attractive for cinematic treatment invite excess, however, so when producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler teamed with flamboyant British filmmaker Ken Russell, they were asking for trouble. Sure enough, Valentino is loud, silly, and vulgar, stringing together real and imagined episodes from Valentino’s life to create an adolescent fantasy about a superstud driven by supersized passions.
The picture begins at the actor’s funeral, and each time one of his past lovers approaches the casket, the film flashes back to Valentino’s involvement with that woman. And even though Valentino is relatively tame by Russell’s standards, it’s outrageously lurid and stylized compared to any normal Hollywood movie. Using the fashion excesses of the Jazz Age as their inspiration, Russell and his team fill the screen with decadent décor and ridiculous costumes, ensuring that every frame is suffocated in art direction. Some of the sets are spectacularly beautiful, particularly the interiors of mansions toward the end of the picture, but when characters are walking around with capes the length of swimming pools and hordes of native bearers, it’s clear that historical accuracy wasn’t the guiding aesthetic.
Again opting for style over substance, Russell cast the lead roles brazenly, to the picture’s detriment. The stunt casting at the heart of the film is the appearance of celebrated Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as Valentino. Appropriately enough for a story about a silent-film star, the gimmick almost works when the character doesn’t speak, because Nureyev is darkly handsome and his physical grace is spellbinding. Russell plays to the performer’s strengths by accentuating Valentino’s origins as a dancehall gigolo, so Nureyev gets to perform in a variety of dance styles, and his movements are wonderful to watch. Yet the spell is broken whenever he speaks, since Nureyev has a thick Russian accent made even more difficult to understand by his weak attempt at mimicking Valentino’s Italian accent. He ends up sounding a bit like Bela Lugosi, which is more than a little bit distracting. Nureyev is also a terrible actor, mugging his way through scenes with bulging eyes and campy hand gestures.
As Valentino’s first important patron, narcissistic silent-screen star Alla Nazimova, Leslie Caron is equally bad, giving a performance so cartoonish that it enters the realm of Norma Desmond surrealism. Pop singer Michelle Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas, is marginally better as Valentino’s second wife, Natacha Rambova, a would-be auteur who derails her husband’s career with her megalomania, but Phillips can’t make Russell’s florid style or the script’s purple-prose dialogue seem credible.
Beyond the bad acting, what really sinks the movie—or sends it into the I-can’t-believe-I’m-watching-this stratosphere, depending on how you get your cinematic kicks—is Russell’s unhinged dramaturgy. Almost pathologically incapable of restraint, Russell turns everything into an excuse for grotesquerie or opulence, if not both simultaneously. The movie’s sex scenes are laughable, like the lavishly choreographed nude romp with Nureyev and Phillips in a desert tent, echoing Valentino’s signature role in The Sheik (1921).
In the picture’s most outrageous scene, Nureyev ends up in jail on a bigamy charge—but not just any jail, an over-the-top Ken Russell madhouse. As harpy-like hookers claw at Valentino from the next cell, freakazoid inmates including a toothless masturbator stalk him within the cell until he trips and falls into a giant pile of vomit, and then a malicious guard (Bill McKinney) pokes Valentino’s stomach until the actor, who has been denied bathroom privileges, urinates in his pants. Ken Russell: always a class act. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)