Cult Cinema: Valentino (1977) - Reviewed

Every director has a film in their oeuvre that’s bitten them in the ass.  Whether it be a critical or commercial failure or a contentious production fraught with its own bevy of problems, disaster has and always will visit upon a filmmaker whether they’re accomplished or a novice.  Moreover, a film’s failure can offset or ultimately end careers, sometimes sneaking up on even the most well established movie makers no matter how strong their track record is.

Which brings us to flamboyant master filmmaker Ken Russell who fell so hard with Valentino, his anachronistic and bawdy biopic of famed silent film star and sex icon Rudolph Valentino, that he retreated from feature film production altogether, working instead in television until 1980 when he returned with Altered States.  Compounded with a failing marriage during production, on-set in-fighting between the film’s two leads and financial ruin, Russell was so embittered by the experience of Valentino he would disavow the film altogether.  Between calling it the mistake of his career, Russell years later exited a screening of the film and remarked ‘what idiot made this?’

A bit tragic its creator felt so negatively about Valentino, as it is among Russell’s more sympathetic efforts: an attempt to highlight the highs and lows of arguably the film world’s first heartthrob.  The picture isn’t compromised in any way either, as all the problems studios have taken with Russell in the past are right up there on the screen.  Following in the footsteps of The Music Lovers with just a hint of the wackiness let loose in Lisztomania, Valentino stars famed Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev in the titular role who bears more than a striking resemblance to the legendary silent film star. 

Following the actor’s journey from stage theater to silver screen, Valentino like Russell’s The Music Lovers takes interest in the dualistic nature of the actor mapping out the disparity between his public and private life.  Co-starring Leslie Caron, Michelle Phillips, Carol Kane and Felicity Kendal, this star-studded period drama boasting brilliant production design by Philip Harrison and icy cool cinematography by eventual Cronenberg DP Peter Suschitzky is a full-on Russell film replete with all of his trademark provocations and impish attitudes towards sex and nudity.  In one of the film’s more disturbing episodes, Valentino is arrested on a bigamy charge and has the night from Hell in prison, a sequence sure to make the faint hearted run for the exits. 

Those expecting a straight-laced biography of the actor are in for a rude awakening as Russell plays freely with the facts but ultimately conjures up a picture that doesn’t dishonor the iconic actor being dramatized.  There was a wealth of contention surrounding the casting of Nureyev and it is said neither he nor his co-star Michelle Phillips got along much with some slapping matches occurring in between takes of their love scenes.  But for someone unfamiliar with Valentino’s The Sheik, Nureyev is quite good in the role of a performer whose own life could never live up to the image people fell in love with. 

Having turned down a chance to direct The Rose, a job which ultimately went to Mark Rydell, Russell was then hired by famed producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who reportedly were longtime admirers of Russell’s work. Valentino sadly became the film all three wanted to forget and also became the last Russell film featuring his soon-to-be ex-wife Shirley’s costume designs, all but completely driving the nail into the film’s coffin as far as Russell was concerned. 

Flopping financially, the film also fared poorly with critics, including being called by the Razzies ‘one of the most amusingly bad movies ever made’.  Looking back on it years later having familiarized myself with Russell, the film fits in nicely alongside his other biopics including The Music Lovers, Savage Messiah and Mahler which ultimately focus on the relationship of the protagonist while providing an outlet for Russell’s own playful mischief making.  Far from a masterpiece but also far from the train wreck it’s been made out to be over all these years.  

--Andrew Kotwicki