Have you ever watched something so glittering, so opulent, and so mind-boggling you’re simultaneously dazzled and repulsed? That’s how I’d describe my experience watching Ken Russell’s Valentino. Its grandiosity covers up the flaws of its storytelling and acting despite top marks for production design and costuming. The problem lies in the over-the-top acting (possibly to match the lack of talent exhibited by our leading man) and baffling transitions preventing the movie from devolving into boredom, but also from being anything you’d want to see more than once.
After the death of famed actor, Rudolph Valentino (Rudolf Nureyev) the women in his life recount his rise to fame.
I’ve discovered two Valentino biopics and it’ll be hard for the 1950s take to top the lunacy of this one. Despite the presence of source material (Brad Steiger and Chaw Mank’s book, Valentino, An Expose of The Sheik) the movie is touted as loosely based, a blend of fact and fiction. If you’re like me and only know of Valentino’s immense popularity and untimely death than Russell’s take won’t give you any insight into his personality outside of playing on what’s popularly understood about the actor and notching it to 100. Everything about the movie is pumped up, a biopic on steroids, so by the time Leslie Caron arrives as Alla Nazimova in a procession with men dressed like The Sheik you’ll say “That’s it?” Caron’s entrance sums up the movie entirely: Gaudy, bizarre, with absolutely no context leading up to it. It makes no sense but you can’t look away.
The movie packs in the 1970s stars with Caron, Michelle Phillips and the famed Nureyev in our title role. Caron plays Nazimova like she’s auditioning for Dracula’s daughter, but she pulls off the power-hungry egomaniac. She’s still an actress regardless of the role’s camp. It’s something Michelle Phillips fails to achieve as Valentino’s wife, Natasha Rambova who is a screeching shrew according to the film. Phillips is miscast from the first minute, playing the dark-haired Rambova as a blonde California princess. The character is also portrayed as highly mystical and consulting bones and a paranormal entity like a 1920s sorceress. The casting of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was bizarre in 1977 – from what I’ve heard – and I can’t figure out Russell’s intentions for casting him other than popularity. There’s a passing resemblance to Valentino, and both were dancers, but Nureyev is unable to mask his thick Russian accent and his line readings sound like they inspired Tommy Wiseau. For a minute I thought he was dubbed (I believe Emily Bolton as Bianca was dubbed but I’m not sure), but eventually realized he’s so loud in his script readings it comes off that way.
Ken Russell is regarded for his frantic, convulsive filming, and, for a biopic, structure is heavily needed or else audiences are left utterly confused. There’s a beginning and end to the feature-the movie ends with Valentino’s death-but there’s no sense of timing for everything in-between. If not for characters mentioning dancing engagements or specific movies you wouldn’t realize where Valentino is, what he’s doing, and why. Carol Kane plays a small role, listed on IMDB as “Starlet,” yet Wikipedia lists her as Valentino’s first wife, Jean Acker. The movie never gives her a name, and we’re led to believe Valentino’s gone to Hollywood, made several movies, been married and divorced, in between Kane’s sequence. Whether she plays Acker or just some bizarre starlet remains a mystery. As it stands, the movie is about a character named Valentino who made movies and bedded women before dying. The only sense of depth to the Valentino’s character is his deep desire to own an orange grove, a dream deferred as Valentino, in his death throes, grabs for a bowl of oranges on his table. The script also explains Valentino’s demise as a quasi-suicide with Valentino perforating an ulcer due to a night of boxing and heavy drinking.
The editing is so frenetic the two-hour runtime sails by. There’s no downtime, but, as mentioned previously, there’s no sense of place or meaning to any of the sequences. A prime example, the film opens with the introduction of a woman named Bianca (the aforementioned Emily Bolton) who was an early paramour of Valentino’s. The two engage in a brief love affair before someone comes to kidnap her child (I’m guessing, it’s unexplained) before she returns to her husband and kills him. It’s literally three separate scenes, all lasting less than a minute, strung together with no explanation. The entire movie feels like one big non-sequitur.
Valentino is a beautifully produced movie, but it lacks any flavor, depth, or genuine affection for Valentino himself. The movie is so hyperbolic in its acting and presentation, forsaking emotion and authenticity for soulless glitz.
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