Tuesday, August 14, 2012


When I was in college, I loved Ken Russell movies. He was the first director in whose films I could find a discernible style: over-the-top acting, grotesque supporting characters, colorful costuming and art design, outrageous emotional outbursts; all the kinds of things that attracted the attention of this young man in the process of becoming a gay adult. Thirty-five years on, I find his work not having a lasting hold on me, though part of the problem is the fact that his movies from the 70s are difficult to find so I haven’t been able to re-view many them in the DVD era. But this one aired a while back on Turner Classic in a lovely widescreen print and it held up much better than I would have expected.

Rudolph Nureyev plays silent film idol Rudolph Valentino. The film is set in 1926 at the time of his funeral which was perhaps the first modern celebrity-death media circus. As the various women in his life visit the funeral parlor, the story of his rise to fame and fortune is told in flashbacks. He starts as a taxi dancer/gigolo (with rumors about his homosexuality whispered about), becomes part of a nightclub act, humiliates the actor Fatty Arbuckle, and is discovered for the movies by screenwriter June Mathis (Felicity Kendal), who seems to be the only person who cared unselfishly for Valentino. He becomes a huge star and marries the actress Rambova (Michelle Phillips) who becomes a controlling monster and a bad influence on Valentino's career. When his masculinity is questioned in the press (he's called a "powder puff"), he challenges a reporter to a boxing match; he wins the match, barely, but does grave injury to his ulcer and dies that night, alone, at the age of 31 (though in real life, he died of peritonitis after an appendectomy).

The film looks great and, like most of Russell's biographical works, treats a real life as just a light framework for Russell's wild imaginings—this was taken to an extreme in LISZTOMANIA, a film I adored at 19 and am afraid to watch now. There is never a pause in the parade of grotesque incidents so we don't really get to know the characters, but as plastic exaggerations employed largely as living set decoration, they suffice. It takes a while to get used to Nureyev's stylized acting, but I think he does an admirable job creating a suitably exotic character. Phillips is dreadful, but looks every inch a silent movie diva, and that's what was important to Russell. Leslie Caron is OK as Nazimova, another diva Valentino fell in with, Carol Kane and Leland Palmer are fine as other passing fancies, but Kendal fares the best performance-wise. Seymour Cassell does a nice job as Valentino's manager who, like Kendal, actually does seem to care for the person behind the legend. There are several interesting setpieces, but the one that remained seared into my mind for years (and still holds up) involves cross-cutting between Nureyev and Phillips arguing and copulating on a dining room table while his fan club members are outside chanting desperately to their idol. Not a great film, but one worth seeing, and one that deserves a DVD release. [TCM]  

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