I've seen roughly a dozen or so Ken Russell features, and I still can't decide whether he was a mad genius or a truly terrible filmmaker. Both, maybe? He has less restraint than almost any filmmaker I can think of, flinging everything he can think of at the wall and hoping something sticks. His films are all orgasm and no foreplay, which sounds fun in theory but often proves exhausting in practice. When he connects with the right material – say, the demented musical Tommy or the gloriously bonkers sci-fi flick Altered States – his films can be ridiculous fun. Just as often, however, his works are self-indulgent displays of excess that wear out their welcome long before the credits roll. Valentino is in the latter category.
The film details the life of silent film legend Rudolph Valentino (played by Russian ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev), an Italian-born actor who made a living in New York City as a gigolo and dancer before breaking into the film industry. Russell covers every major chapter of Valentino's professional life, but the structure is slightly unusual: he opens with Valentino's wild riot of a funeral (thousands of fans - mostly women - rioted around the funeral home upon learning of Valentino's death), using testimonies from grieving ex-lovers and friends as an opportunity to look back on various portions of the actor's life.
Russell directed a lot of biopics during the 1970s, and most of them suffer from the same problems: the director can't resist sensationalizing every juicy biographical detail available to him. The basic details of Valentino's life are more or less (okay, it's definitely less) accurately presented here, but Russell's direction is so flamboyant that it often feels like we're watching a caricature of a life. The actors are encouraged to go as far over the top as possible: William Hootkins' turn as silent comedian Fatty Arbuckle ranks among the most irritatingly bombastic performances I've ever seen: the guy is only onscreen for five or ten minutes, but it was all I could do to avoid hitting the "stop" button on my remote. That's the worst example, but almost everyone is overplaying the material they're given, turning what might have been a moderately interesting biopic into an unbearably exhausting exercise in hysteria.
On the flip side, Nureyev's turn as Valentino is almost shockingly dull; a charmless, flavorless performance that only comes to life with Nureyev is tasked with dancing. Russell must have determined that Nureyev's considerable skills as a dancer would compensate for his limited abilities as an actor, but he guessed wrong: the allegedly overwhelming sexual magnetism Valentino projected in silent epics like The Sheik is nowhere to be found, though Russell tries to compensate for this by having Nureyev get naked as often as possible. The “Italy by way of Moscow” accent Nureyev serves up certainly doesn't help matters much.Valentino wanders through a series of love affairs over the course of the film, forming relationships of varying success with the troubled Bianca de Saulles (Emily Bolton, Moonraker), actress Jean Acker (Carol Kane, Annie Hall), actress Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron, An American in Paris) and set designer Natacha Rambova (Michelle Phillips, The California Kid). Alas, Nureyev doesn't generate convincing chemistry with any of them, and none of the women are particularly well-defined.
Admittedly, Russell does manage to serve up a fairly intriguing exploration of Valentino's oft-debated sexuality, insinuating that he may have had bisexual inclinations and examining the way that the actor challenged conventional notions of masculinity. Public debate over whether or not Valentino is a "real man" leads to a late-film boxing match with professional boxer Rory O'Neill (Peter Vaughn, Game of Thrones), who seems intent on demonstrating that Valentino is incompetent in more traditionally masculine athletic events (alas, O'Neill seems to underestimate the athletic prowess required to be a great dancer). This, of course, is turned into something more madly feverish than any boxing match in the Rocky series.
The film's approach to dramatizing Valentino's life is perhaps best encapsulated by its depiction of the time Valentino spent a weekend in jail after being arrested for bigamy. In real life – according to reports, anyway – it was merely an embarrassing inconvenience. In Russell's film, it turns into Valentino's personal hell, as he endures a beating from prison guards, wallows in vomit, attempts to escape the leering presence of a masturbating cellmate and fends off the violent advances of shrill, disease-ridden women in the adjoining cell. Does is sound like bonkers fun? Maybe you'll think so for a little while, but Valentino sure does manage to make two hours feel like five.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Year: 1977