Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Valentino On Valentine's Day

...Or what happened when The Great Auteur took on the story of The Great Lover.

Yes it's Ken Russell directed biopic, Valentino (1977)

Look at that eh? Doesn't it look fabulous?

So why does it fail so utterly?

I still can't quite come up with a reason. It just doesn't work. A match made in heaven with Hollywood backing ($5 Million, what was Ken's most expensive film to that date) simply bombed; a critical and commercial failure.

Ken himself was quoted as saying it was "the biggest mistake of my career" and would later denounce it completely after a viewing left him wondering "what idiot made this?" 

He wouldn't make another movie in Hollywood until Altered States three years later, and that was as a hasty replacement for original director Arthur Penn.

Could the blame be laid at the door of the film's star, ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev? Well, it's fair to say he wasn't a natural actor and that the pale Russian wasn't a natural fit for the tanned Italian. But he handles it as well as possible and is naturally fantastic dancer in the film's many dance scenes. Where he fails possibly is in not convincing as the hapless, manipulated himbo the film's scrip tries to persuade us Valentino was. The script asks for our sympathy, poor Rudolph was a figure met with both extreme love and extreme hate, a puppet dancing to the tune of many a master. Rudolf on the other hand, never loses his haughty prima donna facade. He is the type of man who we know from legend can get whatever he wants from a hissy tantrum. His natural dancer's temperament is hard to hide.

Indeed one has to wonder why Ken cast him, especially as in the late 1960s he was the reason why Ken's mooted biopic of Nijinsky (whom Rudolf was eager to play) was nixed. 

Oh and the scene in the tent with him and fellow non actor, The Mamas and The Papas Michelle Phillips, proves that at least Rudolf was a big chap! One for the ladies there.

No, the fault is sadly the script and the way Ken approached the film. We're told it is a film that takes dramatic licence with the facts. For dramatic licence read completely falsifies several events; notably the events that lead to the film's climax. Valentino was indeed called a 'powder puff' (there had long been offensive, scurrilous rumours about his sexuality and Ken himself believed that Valentino was gay, though he didn't actually depict him as such here) by a reporter and he did indeed challenge him to a boxing match to prove his masculinity, but the match never actually occurred. Nor did the drinking match either, and therefore neither were reason for the perforated ulcer that brought about Valentino's tragically early demise at just 31 years of age.

With so much fantasy, one wonders why Ken didn't just write a complete work of fiction and create a character to head the film, especially as he never truly seems to grasp the figure of Valentino, be it through poor acting from his chosen lead or an uncertain handle on the character all round.

The film's multi narrative also proves frustrating and it's not always clear who is actually telling the story. Of them all the best is Felicity Kendal as the woman who discovered Valentino and brought him to the movies; June Mathis (telling her story to a pre Cheers John Ratzenberger no less!) It's a real shame this was Kendal's only role for Russell, as she deserves far better material than what was on offer here and could have been an interesting regular for him.

Ken has a pleasing eye for the faux glamour, the grit in the pearl of the 1900s and The Roaring Twenties - in much the same way he captures the feel of the rotting pox beneath the powdered faces of the aristocracy in The Devils say - but on the whole this is a rather empty affair for Ken, bereft of the usual quirky and flamboyant cinematic flourishes we are used to. It's unfair to say Ken only ever had true success with his biopics of composers, but you can see why those who hold such a belief would point to this as a reason to support such a claim. Without the music, the impressive big characters of the tortured geniuses that he had depicted before, things all feel a bit flat. Even his most vivid scene, a true grotesque in which Valentino jailed on his wedding night for bigamy is force fed a diuretic and has his toilet bowl taken away from him. The horror of watching the star urinating himself, slipping in the puddle as he tries to fight off the unwanted violent advances of some of his fellow imprisoned 'fans' one of whom is a masterbating Dudley Sutton (a Russell regular) as 'Willie The Wanker' is a truly offensive sight, and again there's no evidence it actually occurred (though he was held in custody overnight for bigamy charges, an experience which distressed him for the rest of his life) But unlike the offensive scenes of Ken's other movies, there's simply little merit for it's inclusion here.

The climax is also strangely at odds with Ken. A cruelly sadistic-as usual-Peter Vaughn bullies, jeers and fights Valentino yet the underdog wins out, not once, but twice. It's the kind of sentimental fantastical turn of events that you'd expect Russell to pour scorn on normally, yet here he is, giving us his Rocky moment.

In conclusion; sorry Ken, a rare misfire and it's clear he knew all too well it should have been, could have been so much better.

Oh well, here's some fabulous pictures and it is true to say it is a film that does look glorious on occasion

The Gaucho

The Soldier on film

Teaching Nijinksy the Tango

The infamous jail scene

The Sheikh of Araby

Carole Kane and William Hootkins as Fatty Arbuckle and his Gal

The Great Lover about to become The Great Fighter?

Saluting his adopted homeland


  1. I had no idea Ken admitted to not liking this one - he was normally hyperbolically defensive of just about everything he did.
    When I went to see him being interviewed a few years ago he said the only film he regretted directing was "the one about the spoonbender".

    I'm sure you know the story he tells about the hose used to simulate Rudolph's old man in the urination scene...

    1. I think he regretted Valentino because it made difficulties for him in the States, he crossed a lot of swords with the Hollywood machine and it was the first instance of the money drying up afterwards.

      Haha yes a Uri Geller biopic *rolls eyes*

      Indeed, in which he touched the wrong 'hose' Haha