Valentino (1977) | Ken Russell paints Hollywood’s golden age with a flamboyant flourish and a dark heart

Valentino (1977)

Back in 1977, controversial British director Ken Russell conceived this wildly colourful biopic of the adored silent screen legend Rudolph Valentino, starring the world’s most celebrated dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, in the title role.

Featuring colourful cinematography, evocative art direction, stunning costumes, and a stellar cast, it’s another energetic and outrageous entry in the director’s Twenties Quartet (*) about the breaking of dreams, presenting a vivid picture of the free-for-all life of New York and Hollywood during those golden years between the two World Wars.

Valentino (1977)

Tracing Valentino’s humble beginnings as an Italian immigrant in New York, where he worked as a gigolo and dancer in a fashionable ballroom, to Hollywood, where he seduces famous lovers and becomes an international star, Russell’s film flashes over Rudy’s life through the five women mourning his untimely death at the age of 31 in 1926.

There’s his first love Bianca (Emily Bolton), the bisexual avant-garde actress Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron), his ‘starlet’ first wife Jean Acker (Gotham’s Carol Kane), and his spiritualist set designer second wife Natacha Rambova (Michelle Phillips), and finally the screenwriter who discovered him, June Mathis (Felicity Kendal, in one of her finest roles).

Valentino (1977)

Nureyev, whose own masculine beauty was described as ‘unbelievable’ by co-star Caron, certainly looks the spitting image of the screen idol, but his portrayal is as allusive as the real Rudy. And that’s all part of Russell’s mad genius as he explores concepts of image versus reality and the indestructibility of the artist in his own visual, visceral way.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Russell film without some confrontational imagery (remember Women in Love’s nude wrestling scene or that crucifix scene in The Devils?), and there’s much to choose from, including one scene where Rudy is abused by a group of drunks and perverts in a jail cell, which cruelly shows up the ugliness behind Hollywood’s beautiful facade.

Valentino (1977)

Critically underrated on its release, Valentino was actually a box office success in the UK, staying on top for 17 days before being knocked off it’s perch by something called Star Wars. While Russell later considered the film a big mistake, this sumptuously dressed recreation of Hollywood’s golden age deserves reappraisal, and this new BFI HD is the way to go.

Valentino (1977)SPECIAL FEATURES
• Presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition in the original aspect ratio 1.85:1
• Audio commentary with Tim Lucas (this also appears on the Kino Lorber release)
• Original TV spots and trailers
• Dudley Sutton on Ken Russell and filming Valentino (2016, 22 mins)
The Guardian Lecture: Ken Russell in conversation with Derek Malcolm (1987, 89 mins, audio with stills)
• Lynn Seymour remembers Rudolf Nureyev (2003, 9min, audio with stills)
• Tonight: Nureyev on Ken Russell and Valentino (1977, 10min)
• Gallery (2016, 10min)
The Funeral of Valentino (1926, 9min). This is also on the Kino Lorber release, but benefits from the HD transfer.
• Textless opening and closing credits
• Isolated music and effects track
• Illustrated booklet with an informative essay by Paul Sutton about the film.

(*) Isadora (1966), Women in Love (1969) and The Boy Friend (1971)


About Peter Fuller

Peter Fuller is an award-winning print, radio and television journalist and producer, with over 30 years experience covering film and television, with a special interest in world cinema and popular culture. He is a leading expert on the life and career of Vincent Price and actively promotes the actor's legacy through publications, websites and special events.

Posted on February 29, 2016, in British Film, Might-See, World Cinema and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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