Saturday, September 10, 2016

VALENTINO 1977

“But if you’ve got the story, why do you want the truth?”

Though the question is asked of a newspaper reporter by a character in this, Ken Russell’s 11th feature film, the above-quoted inquiry could well be one posed to movie audiences by any director daring (foolhardy?) enough to venture into the shark-infested waters of the biographical film.
Biopics and their dubious degrees of accuracy have, in all probability, been the topic of comment and controversy since as far back as Georges Halot's Execution of Joan of Arc (1898). Taken to task for their myth-making, fact-manipulation, and outright fabrication; biographical movies have always walked a tightrope straddling documentary and wholesale fiction. At their best, they humanize and give dimension to otherwise remote historical figures, presenting their subjects' lives and achievements in some kind of social or cultural context. At their worst, they’re misleading works of absolute fiction, pawning off hoary narrative clichés as truth simply through the thumbtacking of real names onto over-familiar narrative archetypes and hackneyed tropes. 
Rudolf Nureyev as Valentino in Ken Russell's artful recreation of the 1921 silent, 
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Entertainment industry figures, with their brand-name familiarity, built-in glamour, fame-idolatry, success-ethic traditionalism, and potential for soapy melodrama and scandalous sex; have always been popular choices for biopics. This in spite of the fact that they also court the potential for embarrassing impersonations, cheap-looking reenactments, actors looking absolutely nothing like the person they're portraying, and a public over-awareness of personal history that wreaks havoc with any desire to deviate from the facts.
But while an anachronistic, out-of-whole-cloth piece of movie fabrication like 1965's Harlow (which barely seems to take place on this planet, let alone the Hollywood of the 1930's) can be painful to watch, the truth is that a blatant disregard for historical accuracy doesn't automatically doom a biopic any more than just-the-facts-ma'am verisimilitude guarantees its success.
Rudolf Nureyev & Leslie Caron in a prototypically
 stylized Ken Russell take on Alla Nazimova's 1921 silent film Camille 

Biographical movies are a sub-genre unto themselves, and as such, unlike documentaries, their very nature presupposes and accommodates the application of a contrived dramatic structure to otherwise haphazard real-life events. And while in many instances this only serves to make the already tenuous connection between the subjectivity of truth and the relative weightlessness of facts even more tangential; it at least provides filmmakers with the latitude to invest historical "truth" with a little creative ingenuity.
I've always held that the employment of a deliberate artistic sensibility is what accounts for the phenomenon which makes a brilliantly-crafted, yet highly-fictionalized and historically inaccurate film like Bonnie & Clyde (1967) somehow "feel" more fact-based and realistic than say, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid; an equally fictionalized film based on the lives of historic figures, which (due to its adherence to the conventions of the western "buddy picture") feels positively artificial.

If one of the main differences between a documentary and a biopic is the documentary strives to take an "as is" approach while the biopic demands a distinct point of view; then I find I’m always willing to surrender a certain (flexible) degree of historical truth when a filmmaker has a creative and artistically valid reason to use the biographical film genre to illuminate a broader human truth.
Rudolf Nureyev as Rudolph Valentino
Michelle Phillips as Natasha Rambova 
Leslie Caron as Alla Nazimova
Felicity Kendal as June Mathis
Seymour Cassell as George Ullman
In the interest of truth-in-advertising, the title of this film should really be Ken Russell’s Valentino. Making few allusions to historical accuracy beyond its costuming (the brilliant Shirley Russell) and art direction (Philip Harrison); Valentino bears Ken Russell's pyretic, idiosyncratic stamp on every eye-popping frame. Something which turns out to be a very good thing, indeed, since the script— penned by Russell and Mardik Martin (New York, New York)—so often allows the film's central enigma, Rudolph Valentino himself, to go MIA for long periods of time. Even when he's onscreen.

Silent film legend Rudolph Valentino, dubbed "The Great Lover" by his legions of female fans, seemed a shoo-in subject for the biopic treatment in the nostalgia-besotted '70s. But much in the way Fellini’s Casanova—released in the US about six months prior to Valentino—disappointed and alienated audiences by its almost perverse refusal to satisfy expectations (the public anticipated an extravagantly romantic roundelay about the famed 18th century womanizer,  but what they got was an intensely anti-erotic meditation on the soul-killing effects of loveless sex); Ken Russell’s neutered, demythologizing approach to the legend of Valentino left audiences bewildered.
Valentino paying tribute to Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun for Nazimova's cameras 

As envisioned by Russell, Rudolph Valentino (Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, grappling with an Italian accent and surrendering somewhere around Transylvania) is a moral innocent who only dreams of owning an orange grove, victimized by Hollywood's venal greed and the grasping self-interests of the women drawn to him. Indeed, Victim of Romance, the name of the solo album released by Valentino co-star and former The Mamas & The Papas songstress Michelle Phillips a few months before the film's premiere (Tie-in…cha-ching!), would make a dandy Valentino subtitle.

When introduced, Rudolph Valentino makes living as a taxi-dancer for lonely society ladies, but lives by his own Old-World code of honor: “They buy my flattery and my time, but my love is not for sale! He holds women in high regard (he answers a starlet’s penitent confession of sexual promiscuity with, "All women are meant to be loved.”), but his irresistibility to the opposite sex—combined with a tendency to surrender all-too-easily to his own romantic fancies—makes him an easy mark for users and manipulators. Which, in this film, turns out to be everybody...women, most fatefully. 

Leland Palmer as Marjorie Tain, Valentino's always-inebriated exhibition dance partner
"Well, God help you, junior. If you ever have anything worth taking,
some bright bitch is gonna give you the ride of your life!"

The film depicts Valentino’s rise from tango dancer to matinee idol as a largely passive journey, the dashing and occasionally unintelligible ladies' man buffeted along by fate, circumstance, and the dominant whims and ambitions of the women who cross his path. From discovery to stardom, two marriages, studio suspension, a bigamy scandal, artistic pretensions (we never learn if he even thinks of himself as talented), to his death at thirty-one; Valentino is seldom shown to be the catalyst for anything that happens to him.

Even his reputation as The Great Lover is chiefly a PR creation born of the effect his masculine beauty and physical grace has on a newly-liberated female population, giddily exercising the prerogative of male objectification. In portraying the silent screen Latin Lover as but a passenger in the vehicle life, Valentino often suggests a Brilliantined Joe Dallesandro prototype: the androgynously beautiful male of enticingly ambiguous sexuality, possessed of just the right amount of charismatic vacuousness upon which one can freely project fantasies of desire.
Depending on the Kindness of Strangers
Carol Kane as a movie actress who helps give Valentino a leg-up in the movie business

Meanwhile, Valentino’s own desires are routinely presented as ineffectual, asexual, or latently homosexual. This leaves him only two dominant character traits: 1) His dream to have his own orange grove, and 2) A prickly, “he doth protest too much” sense of outrage whenever aspersions are cast on his masculinity. And indeed, speculation about the true nature of Valentino’s sexual orientation crops up so often in this movie it becomes the film's defining leitmotif.
I personally find it intriguing that Russell chose to depict Valentino as a man as elusive to himself as he is to his fans. A man certain of his sense of honor, but little else. The only problem with limiting so many of Valentino's most dynamic scenes to sequences of inflamed outbursts over having his masculinity impugned is that Valentino (at least as realized in Nureyev's haughty indignation) doesn't come across like a honorable man defending his name so much as an on-the-defensive closet-case (a la, Liberace) always a little too at-the-ready to fight and publicly proclaim his heterosexuality.
Is He or Isn't He?
Valentino teaches Nijinsky (Royal Ballet dancer Anthony Dowell) the tango
 

With the women in his life posited as the shapers of Rudolph Valentino’s destiny, Ken Russell is free to abandon the traditional rags-to-riches / disillusion-to-reclamation format of most biopics, and instead takes a page from the Citizen Kane handbook. Valentino's life is told in flashback via the unreliable narrators who represent the most important women in his life.
The women: socialite Bianca de Saulles (Emily Bolton); screenwriter June Mathis (Kendal); actress Alla Nazimova (Caron); and designer/Nazimova protégée/ Valentino 2nd wife Natasha Rambova – nee Winifred Shaughnessy– (Phillips).  All have come to pay their final (in some instances, self-serving) respects to Valentino at the New York funeral home where his body lies in ostentatious display.
Each woman, in turn, is grilled by a motley phalanx of cartoonishly boorish “Noo Yawk” reporters straight out of The Front Page; the multi-character narration providing, if not exactly illuminating insight into the deceased, then an enlightening view of the deep chasm that can exist between a man and his public image. It also provides Russell ample opportunity to make several interesting (if relentlessly cynical) points about identity, gender, sex, image, identity, art, commerce, and the fanaticism of fame-culture.
Linda Thorson as restaurateur Billie Streeter & Emily Bolton as socialite Bianca de Saulles

Using the funeral home and the attendant public pandemonium surrounding Valentino's death as a framing device between flashbacks, this otherwise refreshing emphasis on the female perspective is dampened by the fact that, when contrasted with Valentino's genteel malleability and honest motives, the broad strokes with which some of these women are painted has them veering toward caricatures, or worse, grotesques.

Once the flashbacks have ended and the film fades out on the solemn image of Valentino's corpse lying on a slab in the morgue, only then does it dawn that Ken Russell has pulled off the audacious feat of making a movie about a world-renowned lover that is, in itself, thoroughly devoid of love or romance. You think back over the film and realize that at no time does Valentino ever realize any of his romantic dreams, or successfully carry out a seduction. (Even the film's most explicit "love scene" is a masturbatory parody of fan-worship, with a star-struck actress realizing her dream of being alone with The Great Lover, yet only able to work herself into an orgasmic frenzy by ignoring the real, flesh-and-blood article and losing herself in solitary fantasy.)
Emotionally Isolated
Valentino and actress Lorna Sinclair (Penelope Milford) depicted 

as sexual strangers joined in isolated fantasy

If the difference between a documentary and a biographical film is a point of view, then in the case of Valentino, Ken Russell's would appear to be using the life story of one of the film industry's earliest superstars to dismantle the myth of fame and celebrity-worship. Also, to maybe have us ask us to examine what difference exists, if any, between the story and the truth.
The heads of United Artists, MGM, and Paramount discuss 
how best they can profit from Valentino's death 

RECEPTION
Valentino was released amidst much publicity fanfare in October of 1977. Bolstered by a sexy poster that emphasized raciness and the film debut of its lead (Nureyev IS Valentino!), it arrived at the tail-end of a spate of nostalgia-laced movies about the film industry: The Day of the Locust-‘75, Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood-’76, The Last Tycoon- ’76, and Nickelodeon- ’76). Unfortunately it followed on the heels of several poorly-received Hollywood biopics—Gable & Lombard, Goodbye Norma Jean, W.C. Fields & Me - all 1976—suggesting that audiences had perhaps had their fill of Marcel waves and art deco.
Budgeted at $5 million, it was Russell’s most expensive film to date, and I was over the moon with anticipation. At this point in time I was already a huge Ken Russell fan, though, discounting his BBC TV documentary on Isadora Duncan that aired on PBS, I had only seen three of his films: The Boy Friend , Tommy, and Lisztomania. Valentino was Russell’s follow-up to 1975s Lisztomania, a boxoffice flop that lost the director a bit of the Hollywood cachet he’d earned following the breakout success of Tommy.
I saw Valentino its opening weekend at the Royal Theater on Polk Street in San Francisco. The 100% male -presumably gay- audience made me feel like I was in a porno theater. Advance publicity for Valentino suggested a return to the Ken Russell of Women in Love, Mahler, or Savage Messiah, but the audience I saw it with that day was wired for the camp overkill of Lisztomania. From the moment Nureyev opened his mouth and the film began its drag parade of unsubtle, highly-stylized performances, Valentino became a victim of its excesses.
Chorus girls sing a song lamenting the emasculation of the American male
thanks to "Rudy, the Pink Powder Puff" 

REACTION
I was 19 and in film school when I saw Valentino (translated: very-self serious and pretentious) and I recall sitting in that theater feeling as though everyone around me had been sent some kind of prep notes on the movie that I’d failed to receive. Here I was taking it all in with deadly sober earnestness, while all around me people were cracking up at Nureyev’s uncertain acting, Phillips’ flat line readings, the curiously dubbed-sound of many of the voices, and the whiplash shifts from broad comedy to melodrama. Picking up on every line of bitchy dialog and every glimmer of homoerotic subtext, the audience wasn't laughing AT Valentino so much as operating from a not wholly unsubstantiated assumption that Russell couldn't possibly be expecting us to take any of this seriously.
I was so thrown by the experience I left the theater not at all impressed with the film and returned the following week to find out if  my reaction had been unduly influenced by the audience (by then word of mouth had begun to spread and I had the place almost to myself).  I could have saved myself the money. I remained steadfast in my initial assessment of the impeccable, often breathtaking period detail and costuming; I appreciated the bitter satire and cynicism; and I honestly loved the lager points the film broached in its brutal evisceration of show business and Hollywood in particular. 
Valentino is blessed with a large and talented cast (Huntz Hall and Felicity Kendal are especially good).
But my favorite performance belongs to Leslie Caron. Playing actress Alla Nazimova
as a woman intoxicated by her own theatricality, Caron fits Russell's style to a T

But I had a better understanding of the source of all that audience derision. The movie just fails to gel as human drama (nor, given the pitch of the performances, opera). But not because of the camp or overkill (although I could have done without that prison scene). Valentino rates as flawed Ken Russell for me because in its 2-hours-plus running time, only two brief scenes—one with Leland Palmer, the other, Carol Kane—ever touched on recognizably human emotions in a way that drew me into the story.
Jennie Linden (Ursula in Russell's Women in Love) contributes a hilarious
cameo as Agnes Ayres, Valentino's desert love-interest in The Sheik

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Watching Valentino for the purpose of this essay was my first time seeing the film in nearly 40 years.
Has the film improved? Well, no. The same weaknesses still prevent it from being one I'd rank among Ken Russell's best.
Has my opinion of Valentino changed? Considerably.
The passing of so many years has made me more aware of how much Valentino is a product of its time. Its cold point of view reflecting the pervasive post-Watergate cynicism and revisionist nostalgia that influenced so many movies of the day (The Day of the Locust, New York New York). Its anti-eroticism, reflective of a late-'70s cultural disenchantment with the idyllic promise of  the sexual revolution, falls in line with a spate of films whose themes challenged the notion of consequence-free hedonism (Saturday Night Fever, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and the aforementioned Fellini's Casanova). In 1977, I was far too callow for cynicism, and 19-year-olds, by nature, have only the faintest acquaintance with the meaning of consequences.
Perhaps it's my age or perhaps it's because Hollywood today is fresh out of ideas and only knows how to remake things; but Valentino, though far from perfect, feels like a much smarter film than I once gave it credit for. It's still an emotionally remote experience for me, but it clearly means to be about much more than just the life of the late Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguella (whew!). It's a film with a point of view, it's the result of a consistent creative vision, and...although it only intermittently succeeds in getting them across....it's a movie of ideas. Besides, sub-par Ken Russell is still head and shoulders over the best work of many directors I can think of.
Ken Russel makes an unbilled cameo as Rex Ingram
director of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

BONUS MATERIAL
Many of Valentino's films-  including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik, and Camille, are available to watch on YouTube. 


Hear Rudolf Nureyev sing (The Muppet Show) - 1978

A terrific assessment of Valentino from one of Ken Russell's countrymen at "So It Goes..."

By all accounts, the making of Valentino was an unpleasant experience for nearly all involved. To read about Nureyev's distrust of Russell, Russell's crumbling marriage, the mutual animosity between Phillips and Nureyev, how Russell came to appear in the film, and the story behind that deleted funeral scene plot twist---I suggest the following books:
Ken Russell's Films by Ken Hanke
Phallic Frenzy- Ken Russell & His Films  by Joseph Lanza
Copyright © Ken Anderson

41 comments:

  1. Insightful review as always Ken. My own thoughts can be found here

    http://randomramblingsthoughtsandfiction.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/valentino-on-valentines-day.html

    Maybe I should give it another spin too, since I was bowled over by the period detail but left cold by everything else

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    1. Thanks, Mark!
      I posted a link to your piece above, I liked it so much. I'm glad you mentioned that Russell himself had voiced his displeasure with the film (not usually a relevant point, I know) but it helps to explain a bit that even HE wasn't able to balance the story and the spectacle all that well.
      Today, with all these blander than bland stars like Jennifer Anniston, Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum clogging the screens, the eccentric casting choices of Ken Russell look rather appealing to me now.

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  2. This is a great reading of a complicated movie, which generated a lot of different reactions when I first saw it. There’s a lot of Russell I don’t like, but this was one of those Russells I didn’t like but wanted to see again. At the time I didn’t get a chance. It’s easier to immediately see the beauty in Women in Love, or to be absolutely delighted by The Boyfriend without any embarrassment, or admit to the headache that is Lisztomania, or sit slack-jawed at Whore.

    But how do you handle Valentino? It’s not Russell’s best, and far from his worst, and yet it’s so Ken Russell. Like you say, it’s made by a man with an unmistakable vision. I saw it again on Blu Ray and developed a whole new appreciation for it. I think it might be in my top-5 Russell films now. And when it comes to making a movie about Hollywood, it’s best to go a little crazy (Day of the Locust—or even Never Give a Sucker an Even Break!). Not crazy: the Anthony Dexter/Eleanor Parker invention, Valentino, from 1951, and boy does it suffer for it.

    Anyway, I’m a sucker for Hollywood movies and Hollywood biopics and would love to read your take on those that are just simply unnecessary. I know you don’t waste the space on those, and that’s one of the reasons I love this blog. You’re here to appreciate—and, in turn, by appreciated by readers!

    I mean, what can you say about Gable and Lombard, really? (still…)


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    1. Hi Max
      I think you sum it all up nicely with "It’s not Russell’s best, and far from his worst, and yet it’s so Ken Russell."
      The Ken Russell part is both the film's boon and bane, I think. Nureyev is a dynamic personality, but my hunch is he didn't surrender to Russell the way folks like Ann-Margret and Roger Daltrey did- allowing for something other than his ballet dancer's imperiousness to give shape to Valentino.
      but it is a remarkable-looking movie, and I agree, when doing a film about Hollywood, it's best to go crazy rather than sedate. No two ways about it, Hollywood is vulgar, and movies that try to portray the industry otherwise always seem suspect.
      Like you, I think I've come to make piece with "Valentino"s vulgarity, and it plays much better to me these days. But it never chokes me up or moves me like like some Ken Russell films.
      And as a fan of MST3K, and The Golden Turkey Awards, I so LOVE ripping into a bad film now and then (Gable and Lombard) ...it's so much fun, and cathartic, too! Maybe someday I'll come to relax my stance on writing about films I'm not overtly fond of. Right now I'll stick to just the enjoyably bad films. Although...the prospect of writing about James Brolin's Gable impersonation is pretty tempting! Thanks, Max!

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  3. As always, 'You're style is gorgeous, Hubble.' ("Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, grappling with an Italian accent and surrendering somewhere around Transylvania." Stop Ken, you're KILLIN' me!)

    Wonderful context here -- I'd (deservedly) forgotten half of the Hollywood bio pics that preceded and immediately followed Valentino which you reference in "setting the scene." And your observation that he was the first poster boy for the newly liberated female libido is just spot on. I think I resisted this one because I always found Valentino himself so uninteresting on screen -- his films tend to look so primitive to me (mostly because of his acting -- I have no problem with Griffith/Gish vehicles of similar vintage).

    And while straight forward bio pics, with authentic recreations of iconic sets, costumes, and performances can be enormously satisfying when done well (the Garland TV bio pic 'Me And My Shadows' comes to mind), I'll take a visionary director ditching the facts in order to (attempt to) make broader observations any day.

    Have long wondered how this might hold up today, and will now seek it out for sure, if only for the eye popping visuals that Russell unfailingly provided.

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    1. Hello Neely!
      Not only am I very flattered every time you return to the blog to read a post, but you are always very kind in your comments. I thank you.
      I really have only seen one Valentino movie (The Sheik), but my feelings about him as an actor mirror yours. He is so dashing in still photographs, but those big facial gestures in his acting are a tad too broad for me to seek out his other films. And as you cite, there are other stars of the era able to demonstrate a more subtle form of acting.
      Bio films so often follow the same format, in some ways "Valentino" is a breath of fresh air, but only stylistically. I honestly think the acting sinks it.
      Unlike the example you use: that Judy Garland TV biopic, and I adored what they did with Liberace's "Behind the Candelabra."
      Like many overworked film genres, bio pics require special handling. Definitely worth a look at...not to convince yourself that the film might be better than you assumed (I doubt if it can pull that off) but certainly for the visuals. I love the way this movie looks.

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  4. Hi Ken,

    Awesome writeup on this rough piece of cinema. I also saw this in the theatre many moons ago and not since.

    I must have gone around the time you made your second visit and as you said word of mouth had killed attendance. I was practically the only one in the theatre though if I'm not wrong I went midweek during the day so that could have had something to do with it though I doubt much since it disappeared very shortly afterwards.

    What I remember about it was the amazing production design, truly the best part about it and Nureyev's nude scenes-he was in his usual peak shape which at least provided some perks since dramatically this was stillborn.

    I do recall bits and pieces of the narrative mostly towards the end when he and that odious second wife of his were doing their dancing tour. Also that very stylized sex scene with Penelope Milford. I'd seen Tommy before this which Russell's florid style suited perfectly but I don't think I knew those two were directed by the same person at the time and this was so inert that it kept me from his work for quite some time. I'm still not a huge fan, he's so variable, but he has some films I think are great.

    Poor Valentino he just couldn't catch a break. Plagued by rumors and users in life, dying so very young and not one but TWO lousy movies about his life after he's gone. The 50's one is crap but at least it has Eleanor Parker and Patricia Medina to soften the blow. Leslie Caron is fun in this and has enough presence to wear Navimova's wild clothes rather than they wearing her but the script does her no favors.

    The actual Valentino's death was tragic but it preserved his legacy in a way that I doubt would have been possible had he survived until sound came in.

    From listening to that link you provided of him singing his voice had a good timber and pitch and perhaps because his persona was of the exotic lover his accent might not of been too much of a hindrance but he was such an overemoter I sense that sound might have made him ridiculous. Also almost immediately when talkies came his type went out in favor of the rugged Gable, Cagney and Edward G. Robinson sort of guy. No matter whether he was successful or not the aura would have been diminished and like Ramon Navarro, Nils Asther and Antonio Moreno he would have faded to irrelevance.

    A side note that has nothing to do with the film but does relate to Valentino. In the 2002 film The Trip most of the interiors and many of the exterior scenes were filmed at Valentino's mansion Falcon Lair just before it was torn down. The why of it's destruction is something I'll never understand since from what you see in the film it was still a very beautiful house, and of course a piece of Hollywood history. Anyway I love the film (the production company that produced the movie was named Falcon Lair film as a tribute to the use of the house) and that it now contains so many shots of the house is an extra plus.

    There was that spate of unfortunate nostalgia laced bios and dramas at the time this was out but I don't think the public lost their taste for them so much as the filmmakers killed their interest by not being able to turn out a decent picture from one of their stories.

    Well Day of the Locust turned out pretty well but Won Ton Ton-inept, The Last Tycoon-misjudged, Goodbye, Norma Jean-trash, W.C. Fields and Me-unfocused and dull despite a couple of good performances and worst of all Gable & Lombard a horrendous insult to two great stars with dreadful performances from both leads. Throwing this poorly constructed and acted film on that dumpster fire and it's no wonder the public stayed away in droves.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Your comment about not really knowing "Valentino" was made by the same person who directed "Tommy" highlights what I think was (at least in part) one of this film's problems.
      Tommy introduced Ken Russel to a crowd unfamiliar with his more sedate films like "Women in Love", and coming on the heels of "Lisztomania" I think a certain segment of the audience was expecting that kind of camp/bombast (which I think accounts for the audience I saw it with all behaving as though they were watching an Andy Warhol film).
      But the film was also marketed as a somewhat maintram film for those middle-of-the-road types who were sold on "Gable & Lombard". Neither party was satisfied, and the film disappeared.
      I've not seen either of the other two Valentino films you mention, but the stills for the 50s one looks like it takes place in the 50s!
      Your quick summary of the period biopics released in the late 70s is very much on-point, "the Day of the Locust" not being well-recived, but a film I absolutely adored, the others more or less deserving of their fates I I saw "The Last Tycoon" on cable, so maybe that contributes to my not-so-fond memores of it. Besides, it had Tony Curtis, who has always been hard for me to take.
      Thanks for sharing the info about "The Trip." I had no idea about the use of Valentino's home, that alone makes it sound worth a look. Thanks, Joel!

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  5. Oh the 50's Valentino absolutely has nothing at all suggesting any other decade but the fifties. I think that even with films set in Regency England and even further back, except in isolated cases, the studios lean towards picking and choosing fashions not so much for their historical accuracy as for the perception of what they think the viewer expects and sometimes the star demands to make them more appealing to the eye. Which of course dates the films far more than had they stayed true to the actual look of the time the story is set.

    It was a more frequent occurrence in the studio era, at least on the grand scale of the overall look of the film, and seemed to get worse as the years stretched between talkies coming in and the end of the sixties.

    It seemed particularly egregious when it came to bio pix, off the top of my head I can think of The Dolly Sisters (with Betty Grable and June Haver playing the dark Hungarian sisters!!), The Buster Keaton Story, So This is Love (an absolutely horrid bio of Grace Moore), Look for the Silver Lining (Marilyn Miller), Incendiary Blonde (nightclub queen Texas Guinan), Young Man with a Horn (Bix Beiderbecke-who not even in the slightest way resembled Kirk Douglas), The Glenn Miller Story and of course the awful Harlow where though the quality of those films vary wildly the one constant in all of them is that the look of the film was whatever year they were filmed rather than the period the subject lived in. The Eleanor Parker Valentino fits right into that groove. I will give this film one nod that the Ken Russell movie completely missed, star Anthony Dexter really did resemble the actual Valentino and unlike the rest of the film the makeup people worked to play up that similarity.

    Do see The Trip, which speaking of period detail tries hard to get that aspect right (it's set in different periods of the 70's and 80's) though the low budget shows up in some really awful wigs the leads wear. Aside from the Falcon Lair angle it has a decent at times very moving story, several familiar faces, good acting and a fun performance by Jill St. John as the ex-showgirl mother of one of the lead characters.

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    1. Those older biographical films were truly a mixed bag. often they worked best if you approached them as fiction. In most cases, the less you knew about the real-life personality, the better.
      And their lack of concern for period authenticity is near-legendary.
      Just thinking of The Dolly Sisters makes me laugh...I never knew WHAT period it was supposed to be taking place in with those wartime hairdos!

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    2. Oops, forgot to thank you for recommending "The Trip" I think someone referenced in in the comment section for "The Oscar" and I forgot to check to see if Netflix had it. Thanks, Joel

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    3. I ADORE The Dolly Sisters for the big splashy entertainment it is but even more than either Valentinos or any other biography I can remember it really has almost zero correlation to the actual sisters story outside of Jenny's car accident. Even that is glossed over, I mean lickety split Betty's Jenny is right back looking her old glamorous self and out there hoofing away whereas the accident crushed the real Jenny's spirit, she had committed suicide in Rosie's apartment by the time the picture came out. But that would have never worked in a 40's Fox musical! The film's costumes and hairstyles are pure 40's showgirl, fabulous but completely unsuited to the sisters peak period of the 1910's & 20's.

      Speaking of this film I've never quite gotten the appeal of June Haver. I like her well enough, she was lovely and pleasant but as the bridge between Grable and Marilyn Monroe she just had nowhere near either's pizzazz. She also received her own solo legendary performer's largely factious story to enact playing Marilyn Miller in "Look for the Silver Lining" where again beside the fate of Miller's first husband, the dreamy Gordon MacRae in the film, the story is pure fiction but bright, shiny and loaded with great music.

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    4. Yes, it's sometimes rather shocking how little so many of those older bio flicks hew to the truth of their subject's lives. Especially if it is a musicalized bio.
      The Dolly Sisters is great Technicolor camp. I find it almost unbearably dull when the musical numbers stop, but it is pretty amazing and over-the-top when the girls perform.
      my partner teases me about my aversion to Betty Grable...she's really harmless as an entertainer and one wonders how anyone could find fault with her, but she really hits a nerve with me and I'm not sure why. Something about her overripe-to-bursting facial features-overemphasized by that industrial strength makeup they used back then.
      June Haver is like the female Van Johnson to me...the appeal and breadth of their careers is unfathomable.

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    5. Oh Ken!! First Joan Blondell and Ann Sothern and now Betty Grable!! ACK! Next thing I know you'll be telling me you're immune to the wonders of Betty Hutton, Alice Faye and Claire Trevor and I won't know what to do with myself!!

      Seriously though we all have performers we don't respond to that others think are just the best thing ever.

      Personally I'm allergic to all things Betsy Drake and Carol Lynley, can only wrap my head around Jennifer Jones's success as an actress through the prism of her marriage to Selznick-there is no other fathomable reason-for the life of me will never understand Ruby Keeler's mega success during her active years and find Loretta Young, after her very early years, akin to a mechanical doll who indicates emotion more than actually feels or conveys it! I have many more in the modern era (Zellweger, Kidman, Paltrow etc.)but that's another story.

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    6. Yikes! I can't believe you remembered the ladies whose screen presence I've cast aspersions on in the past! Well, the one thing you've assisted with is grouping them so that any objective observer might see that at least I'm consistent in my dislikes. Grable, Sothern, and Blondell all share a similar quality for me (a kind of hyperthyroid blowsiness).
      As for the others, you've listed three of my favorites. Betty Hutton is a riot, Alice Faye has a wonderful sardonic way about her, and Claire Trevor is superb.
      And while I like Carol Lynley (to a point) Betsy Drake is merely bland. The star I can't abide for a second is Jean Arthur.
      (At times like this I wish "Cinema Dreams" had a chat room so I could go off topic at length!) I've got to look into how those things work...
      Anyhow, outside of Jennifer Jones, I'm with you when it comes to the other ladies you've named (Keeler in particular baffles me). This was fun- and cathartic!

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    7. No love for Jean Arthur huh. I can't say I'm a tremendous fan of hers but she doesn't drive me from a film. She had a certain spark but I've never been as enraptured of her as many often thinking that depending on the part Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell or Jean Harlow could have done just as well in her roles.

      It was disheartening however when I found out that behind the scenes she was a nightmare, a frosty distant woman who barely interacted with cast or crew, so insecure that she was always sure she was lousy constantly fighting with her directors who would rattle through since she would deliver once the camera turned. It shouldn't but it's affected my reaction to her work ever since.

      Same thing happened when I learned that Irene Dunne, while not difficult like Arthur on set, was likewise a glacially remote person whose warmth was restricted to the cameras. It's made me more aware that they're acting than say someone like Judy Holliday (if you say you don't like her I really will cry bitter tears!!) whose genuine natural warmth radiates through her performances.

      And yes I could talk strengths and demerits of classic actresses, and some actors, endlessly too!

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    8. I never knew anything about Jean Arthur, but it still surprises me how often there is no way to tell (by a star's screen persona) what they may be like in real life. And I know what you mean...in most cases it doesn't make a difference, but if we find out something we find particularly distasteful about an actor, it does affect our reaction to them onscreen.
      And I do like Judy Holliday! Although my partner is largely responsible for getting me to appreciate her appeal. I just never paid much attention before.
      Thanks for the fun side-topic!

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  6. Hi Ken - I am so glad you've covered this weirdo film, one that has bothered me for almost 40 years! It is indeed a mess, but has such flashes of brilliance and dark wit, is a sumptuous visual feast and an uneasy intertwining of camp and spirituality and metaphysics.

    When this movie came out, I was not old enough to see it, but a coffee-table-type color book about it was published, featuring photos from the film, which I was allowed to buy. Inside were photos of a heavily made up and flamboyantly costumed Rudolf Nureyev, undraped photos of him with Phillips and a very scary/fabulous Leslie Caron...I was enraptured. The text of the book was all about Ken Russell's artistic philosophy (can't remember what it said, though!!). Years later, I did see the film and hated it, but since then have watched it again and again.

    I do love Tommy, it is one of my favorite films and is so brilliantly done, a masterpiece, and does homage to the amazing Who album upon which it was based. And I do love Ken Russell's always-flamboyant style. But I agree with you, that Valentino is not a good movie, but you just can't look away.

    And I recently bought the wonderful HD blu-ray version and it is visually stunning! A movie I hate, but LOVE to watch over and over again...isn't that weird?

    Love that you have spotlighted this one, Ken--I hope to write about it one day myself!!
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      Your reaction to "Valentino" seems to be the common consensus: you know it doesn't exactly "work", but it's not exactly an out and out foul ball, either.
      "Flashes of Brilliance" about sums up what makes it worthwhile, yet not wholly satisfying.
      I wasn't aware there was a "Valentino" coffee table book released at the time! Given that both "Showgirls" and "Evita" had coffee table book releases coinciding with their openings, maybe that's a red flag of some sort!
      I saw "Valentino" with a friend, and he's always loved it...I was disappointed. Now, I just miss Ken Russell and forgive his lapses. I'm just grateful for ANYTHING that doesn't have a superhero or sci-fi CGI in it.

      But the man who gave us WOMEN IN LOVE, THE DEVILS, MAHLER (love that movie), TOMMY , & THE BOY FRIEND really had the potential to do a better job with "Valentino." I'm not sure how one categorizes it, but it's not enough for me to say Russell's worst is better than most directors' best. For better or worse, Russell has to be held to a higher standard- certainly one he could easily reach - and "Valentino" falls a bit short.
      But like you said...I find I can watch it again and again, too. That IS weird!
      Thanks so much, Chris!

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    2. Ken, Look!! (Before it's gone)

      http://www.ebay.com/itm/The-Nureyev-Valentino-Portrait-Of-A-Film-ALEXANDER-BLAND-Ken-Russell-B27-/131617073460?hash=item1ea4fd2934:g:45oAAOSw0HVWDQ2Q

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    3. Thanks so much for that, Poseidon! so THAT's what the book looked like! So great to get a bit of a look at it, and so very exceptionally keen of you to track it down so swiftly!

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    4. THAT'S the one, Poseidon and Ken...and includes nudes of the Michelle Phillips and Rudolph Nureyev tent scene, as well as tableaux of every sequence in the film!

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  7. Hmmm... I don't think I'll be ordering this one. All too well, I remember my disappointment in VALENTINO. In my 1977 post-adolescent earnestness, the Ken Russell I loved was the director of SAVAGE MESSIAH and WOMEN IN LOVE and THE MUSIC LOVERS. I wanted daring. I wanted trenchant. I wanted something important to lift me up and give me thrills. Never, ever have I cared much about how a film looks. I'm just not all that visual. This film has great visuals, but not much else. My recollection is that it amounts to so very little, but it's pretty. Nah.

    I do mine the script and the performances for every nugget of gold I can find there. Nureyev is simply miscast. He can't handle dialogue. It wasn't good in 1977. And it didn't get any better in 1990 when I saw him in THE KING & I at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. His best moment was The March of the Siamese Children. Standing there silently, interacting physically with the children, he commanded the stage. Dialogue was not his friend. But too often, this was not the role for Nureyev. (Don't even ask about Liz Robertson teaching Nureyev to dance. Weird.)

    Perhaps if he had appeared in a silent film about the silent film star, everything would have turned out differently. An aging ballet star needs new outlets, but acting was not a good one for Mr. Nureyev. It wasn't a great choice for Michelle Phillips, either. And Leslie Caron can't carry a film titled VALENTINO all alone.

    It's nice that Nureyev's beautiful nude body was preserved on film. The record it created of his body might be the film's most important contribution.

    I didn't get my really darkly crazed Ken Russell back until CRIMES OF PASSION. That one I loved.

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    1. Makes me wonder if what was lacking in "Valentino" was a strong sense of who the man was for Russell. Apparently Russell was most keen on doing a film about Nijinsky (with Nureyev), when that fell through, rather than proceed with a project emanating from a personal passion, he accepted the offer to make "Valentino." I've never read if the producers put him under any pressure to deliver a more mainstream film than was his usual, but apparently he had to fight hard for the very Russell-ian jail scene, but lost the battle for the final twist for the funeral home scenes.

      When I saw "Casanova" there's a strong sense of Fellini not liking the character, but I don't come away from "Valentino" with any sense that Russell felt one way or the other about his lead character.

      I never saw Nureyev on the stage (wish I had...dancing, not acting) but I saw him in "Exposed" with Nastassia Kinski, and after that I was positive his days in film were numbered.
      "And Leslie Caron can't carry a film titled VALENTINO all alone." That made me laugh...Ah, if only she could!

      I haven't seen CRIMES OF PASSION since 1984! Maybe that's another I need to give a second chance.

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    2. I got to see Nureyev dance at the Met in La Sylphide with the National Ballet of Canada. It was in the mid 1970's, on one of my earliest visits to NYC. I was young and it was the first time I ever saw someone take 22 curtain calls. And this was when he was deemed past his prime.

      After I had moved to NYC, I landed a wee gig one summer as a supernumerary at the Met with the Ballet National de Marseilles. The ballet was "Notre Dame de Paris" with Nureyev as Quasimodo and Makarova as Esmerelda. My business was mostly in shadow, in a crowd, and done within the first two minutes of the performance. (But I had the MOST FAB costume by Yves Saint Laurent!) I got to see a lot of the two of them rehearsing. Not American. Neither one of them. Their attitude and demeanor, their dancing, their look... just not American. But fascinating. And I was so grateful to get to watch him work for a few hours.

      He had an intensity that could fill the Metropolitan Opera House. But a motion picture camera seemed immune to it. I think... maybe... he did too much and thought too little. It was all in his body. The camera doesn't care about that. The reference for me is always that long, long, long close up of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, doing nothing but listening, but making it everything. If you and the camera can work together to make something like that, you're good to go. But so few can. Even the greatest artists other art forms can produce.

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    3. What a marvelous memory - to have shared the stage with Nureyev! And to see him dance - what a great opportunity. Th whole experience must have been pretty heady for a young man.
      Interesting subject, too, ruminating on that certain "something" the camera picks up that no amount of real-life talent or charisma can guarantee. Always so amazing when some actors register as almost nil in person, yet on they they are megawatt.

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  8. Ken, I think the perfect Rudy as Rudolph viewing experience is to view the nude photos of Nureyev while reading your far more entertaining post about the film than "Valentino" itself!

    Cheers, Rick

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    1. Hi Rick
      You're too kind. But I like your thinking! Maybe Chris (above) could contribute a few scans from that "Valentino" coffee table book! Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the shout out!

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  9. Terrific post, analyzing the film in both its historical context (of the 70s reflecting on the 20s), its themes (on fame and success), and in terms of Russell's career. You always make such pertinent, complex points about films, I love how you focus on their meaning and not merely their plots. I haven't seen Valentino, but now I'm curious based on your post. I agree that Russell, no matter how outrageous his treatments, always has a point of view (though I think that often outraged his critics), which makes him worthwhile to watch.

    I hope you someday write a post about Russell's film Salome's Last Dance, which I watched about a year ago (on youtube) and really liked. It was one of his late movies (1988), and I think his last with Glenda Jackson; and I think the critics were again outraged, but I recall loving it--it was just DIFFERENT, it has a unique look, subject matter, and viewpoint. And you think about it afterwards, it stirs your mind. It also has a terrific performance by its lead actress. You can catch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMO4Qi4AFhc

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    1. Hi, and thanks!
      Especially for the link to "Salome's Last Dance" which I've never seen(!) i crave anything with Glenda Jackson in it, and a re-teaming with Russell (even if in a small role) is intriguing.
      As for "Valentino" I appreciate your understanding the whole contextual aspect, as it often completely informs how a film plays for me. Sometimes a movie exists a parallel universe: then & now. I can watch a film today as a 58 year old man, and while responding to it from my present, I can't avoid having my 19-year-old past siting next to me, whispering in my ear and reminding that I once though such-and-such scene was breathtaking or startling.
      i find I never want to totally throw away my past feelings for a film, so much as make room for new reactions and responses. And sometimes when that happens, a somewhat underperforming film like this can still be enjoyed in spite of its imperfections.
      Ken Russell is always such an interesting director anyway, "liking" his films is not always the goal. his movies are like adventures- you owe yourself the uncertainty of the experience.

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  10. Hi Ken, I had this film at home on dvd and watched it for the first time when I saw that you had reviewed it. As I know very little about about Valentinao and Nureyev I thought that the film was entertaing but, as you and many of the comments say, a bit cold. The sets and the costumes were dazzling and they are what I remember the most of the film.

    The odd casting was fascinating! Who but Ken Russell would have teamed Nureyev with Michelle Phillips?! I thought Nureyev was quite good. He was sweet, charming and very handsome! I thought he would be a much worse actor. (I remember that I didn't think he was so great in "Exposed" - a forgotten film if there ever was one!) There were no signs in the film that he was difficult. He had many humiliating scenes to perform and I think he was very brave to do this film by Ken Russell, who was known for his vulgarity!

    Michelle Phillips was quite good too, I think. I had never heard her speak or even seen her move before. She's tall and toothy!

    It was very interesting to read what you wrote about people's expectation of the film in 1977 and how no one really was satisfied with the results. Also, I hadn't thought of about how many movies from the 70s were about nostalgia and the more sordid aspects of old time Hollywood. I understand that people grew tired of them.

    So fun to read your insightful review and to see the stills from the film. The scene I liked the most is the one when they were posing for Caron's photos!
    -Wille

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    1. Wille
      Oh my...I totally burst out laughing at the "She's tall and toothy!" line! It just so perfectly fits a "first impression" kind of thing.
      How marvelous that you just now saw the film for the first time. As much as you say you enjoy reading about how I responded to certain films when they were released, it's quite the eye-opener to me to hear what young people today think when first exposed to a film I've known for years.
      Your impressions are refreshing because they take into account what endures about the film: the unusual casting, Nureyev's beauty, the relative effectiveness of Phillips...it's all very interesting to me.
      Best of all, it seems that the film's imperfections don't necessarily preclude it from being a film worth watching.
      in the years we've been together, my partner has become QUITE the film aficionado, but when we first me, he'd hardly seen any films (He's never seen Jaws or The Sound of Music, Star Wars, or West Side Story) so i got the biggest kick out of hearing what he thought of films I'd long grown familiar with. I learn a lot.
      I feel the same about your comments, you don't come from a 70s perspective, you've no nostalgic connection to either the film or Valentino, and thus what you have to say just makes me want to sit up and say more! More! Thaks for that, Wille!

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    2. Thank you Ken for calling me "young"! I like Ken Russel's films. I've seen a few: Women in Love, China Blue, Altered States, Legend of the White Worm, The Boyfirend, Tommy and Whore and I find them all of them very entertaining and wild. The Boyfriend is one of my favourite films!

      The person I was watching Valentino with could not take it and just could not finish watching the film. Neither did he like Altered States. Ken Russel is definitely not for everyone! It's a wonder that Ken got to make so many crazy films! It was the 70s - a time more open for artistic experiments. You are so right that his films stand out against the duller stars and formulaic films of today. We need a new Ken Russell!!

      Thanks for reviewing this fascinating film! I loved getting to see Nureyev and I adore Carol Kane and find Anton Diffring always looking so elegant.
      -Wille

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    3. Hi Wille
      I really do like Anton Diffring a great deal. What a presence (elegant is a good word). It's true when you reference the grudging appeal of Russell's odd and eclectic casting choices.

      I'm not sure it's available where you are, but if you haven't seen it already, I wholeheartedly suggest Ken Russell's "The Devils" it is really the most remarkable film.
      I can fully understand why some people don't find Ken Russell to their taste, but I think more movies should be that "personal" and artistic.
      In order to survive, the movie industry reinforces the idea that a "good" movie is one that appeals to the broadest population; but that's arguably only a definition of a popular film. Even critics and fans adhere to the notion that we must all agree on the same standards for film, but some of the most compelling movies of the 70s have been ones that weren't well received by the public. (my mind goes to the movies of Robert Altman). A director who polarizes audiences...and maybe one who doesn't always hit the mark he's aiming for...seems worthwhile to me. They at least hold the possibility of creating something great barbecue they're not trying to satisfy ALL tastes. Ken Russell, even for all his latter-career looniness is inarguably director who saw things his own way.
      And yes, it would be nice if a new Ken Russell could somehow emerge out of the corporate Hollywood of today.

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  11. Of course I love this film and what you had to say about it!

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    1. Why, thanks, Thom! I know you're a Ken Russell fan from way back. No artist bats 100% all the time, but a sign of a worthwhile artist is when you the work reveals a bit of what the artist was striving for...even if they failed to achieve it in some ways. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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    2. Even sub-par Russell works on some levels, even if just pure camp and kitsch!

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  12. Another detailed and incisive review here Ken! Looks fascinating but what would you rate it out of 5 if you had to? Tricky question perhaps. I've seen a few Russell films but not this one so it's definitely one to add to my list. I agree about the odd casting - Michelle Phillips aka Anne Matheson from Knots Landing? Felicity Kendall? Rudolf Nureyev and I share the same birthday!

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    1. Hello OC!
      Thanks so much for the compliment. Boy, it IS kind of hard rating this film, but on a scale from 1 to 5 I'd have to give it a three. Any higher would simply mean I'm taking into account that they don't make movies like this anymore, my fondness for Ken Russell, and the fact that in today's movie market, this film's quirks have begun to look like assets.
      Being as you and Nureyev share the same birthday, I think you owe it to yourself to give this one a look (I forgot about Phillips as a Knots Landing regular. I never saw the show, but I suspect she was more in her element on TV and perhaps came off better). Good to hear from you, OC, and thanks for reading!

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  13. I know Anthony Dexter solely because of his starring roles in two MST3K episodes (Fire Maidens From Outer Space and 12 to the Moon--both great ComCent-era eps), but as soon as I read that he had played Valentino, I thought, "Well, at least HE looks like him!" Aside from being considerably prettier than the real Valentino, Nureyev always felt miscast to me for many of the reasons you so deftly cited...though it's been many years since I saw this, so once again, your brilliance has compelled me to rewatch yet another film!

    And at least there's some verisimilitude with Nureyev's attractiveness and dancing--I see more than a little director's conceit in Russell casting himself as Rex Ingram, who not only was movie-star-handsome but also barely thirty years old when he directed Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! I feel a great familiarity with Ingram now, entirely because of Michael Powell's autobiography, in which he has a great deal to say about his early film work with Ingram, whose influence on Powell's own directorial style was considerable. So sorry, Mr. Russell, but you're off there by about forty years! (Though sadly, Ingram died at only 57.)

    I've always taken it as a given that Valentino was closeted, but thinking on this further, the perfidious spectre of Hollywood Babylon arose once again. Kenneth Anger asserts that both of Valentino's wives were bisexual, then lays on the inference with a trowel. (Let's not even start with the underlying homophobia there...oops!) I wish I had known at age 19 how important it is to take such shit-stained scuttlebutt with an XXXL pinch of salt, so that in middle age, I wouldn't be still trying to free myself from Anger's cynical, über-bitchy perspective and tall tales masquerading as fact.

    tl;dr Dunno if Valentino was gay or not. *insert here extended rant about the rigid enforcement of labels for sexual orientation*

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    1. Hi Lila
      I too think Nureyev was ultimately miscast, but forthe very reasons you cite (beauty, charisma, grace) I can see why he was considered and why I am stumped to come up with who would have been better.
      According to a bio of Russell i read, there was to be another actor playing Ingram (perhaps one that looked more like the real director), but that he showed up to work drunk and Russell stepped into the role last minute. Russell's widow is on Twitter a lot, I should tweet to see if it's a story she can confirm.
      As for his sexuality I know what you mean about the rigid enforcement of sexual labels. I unfortunately tend to advocate for their consistent use (for now) because the people most vocal about wishing we didn't label stars gay, straight, bisexual, or whatever, are the ones who wish things could go back to where they were: when everyone is assumed and presumed to be straight.
      My hope is one day sexuality ceases to be so politicized and heterosexuality the presumed norm...then I think labels really wont matter.
      By the way, I'd forgotten about Hollywood Babylon! It was such a must-read at the time!

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