Valentino (1977) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Valentino (1977)

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Danny DISLIKEAfter surviving The Sheik yesterday, I figured now would be an opportune time to check out some literature about its star attraction, Rudolph Valentino. This was greatly aided by the fact that I had in my possession one of a handful of screen adaptations of his life story, Ken Russell's Valentino.

Using Valentino's infamously riotous funeral as the backdrop, we see his story as each woman in his life arrives and tells their side.

Now, before I get into the plot details, this movie is infamous for its liberties. So when I'm going through the plot and I mention something that happens that is a complete fabrication, I will italicize it. This won't be terribly confusing at all, I promise.

Rudolph Valentino is a gay gigolo dancer who is in love with a married woman. They are in love and he promises to take her and her son away to the farm he wants to start. Valentino has an agricultural degree and always wanted to own a farm. However, the woman ends up murdering her husband for the love of Valentino. There's a dissolve and he's a cabaret dancer, insulting the fastidious Fatty Arbuckle with a cheeky dance. He marries a woman, Jean Acker, for her wealth before leaving her amid rumors of homosexuality. Valentino constantly feels his masculinity is threatened, and after his tumultuous second marriage sets upon his life goal of owning an orange farmHe then dies after a boxing match and a drinking challenge go horribly wrong.

To save you a trip to Wikipedia, here's how things really happened:

Rodolfo Guigliemi is a tango dancer who is in love with a married woman. However, it's a one sided affair, though Valentino does testify to help her get a divorce. Valentino has an agricultural degree, but, truthfully, always hated farming. However, the woman ends up murdering her husband for the custody of her kid. Rudolph changed his name and headed to Los Angeles, where he made friends with other actors like Fatty Arbuckle. He marries a woman, Jean Acker, who's a good friend, before leaving her amid rumors of homosexuality. Valentino resents the implication that he has made the American male more effeminate, and after his tumultuous second marriage sets upon paying off his numerous debts. He dies due to an infection that set in after surgery for appendicitis.

Now keep in mind that a good story is a good story, no matter how far removed from the truth it is. But go ahead and look at that paragraph full of the italics again. What do you see?

Crap. A ton of sordid crap layered on a halfway interesting life in order to make it racy, bizarre, and controversial. Oh, and ridiculously cliched: his life goal is to own an orange farm? Really?!

Okay, so the movie plays up all those aspects to ramp up the camp. Sadly, however, most of the flick is still a dull slog, save for a few over-the-top amusing scenes. I can actually list the three of them, if you want:

1. When Valentino arrives in Los Angeles, he's a cabaret dancer along with an alcoholic who soon flubs their performance. In the audience is famed comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

In real life, Arbuckle was a decent guy who taught Charlie Chaplin, discovered Buster Keaton and Bob Hope, and was a shy, pleasant man. Unfortunately for him, in 1921 he went to a party that ended with a woman dead and himself accused of rape and manslaughter, which quickly destroyed his career.

Russell takes that image of the fat cruel lothario and takes out all of the stops. Arbuckle in this film is a gigantic unpleasant man who sexually harasses women and treats everyone else as worms. He laughs menacingly at everyone and takes sadistic pleasure in using his hand buzzer. When Valentino's partner flubs, Arbuckle puts a braying donkey to shame, and soon Valentino has stolen one of Arbuckle's mistresses to dance a half sultry, half goofy tango with him.

Arbuckle's actions and reactions here push it so far over the top that the whole sequence becomes surreal. Here's all of his reactions to the poor tango in one quick take:

Oh yeah.

2. Valentino is arrested for bigamy after he marries too soon after his first divorce (apparently this was a law at some point, who knew). He's left in jail by his studio for publicity and what follows is one of the most over-the-top scenes you might ever see.

Valentino's prison guard begins making overtures to him, while two of the other male inmates join in the torture. The other one simply likes to laugh and masturbate, and the prison guard offers Valentino to him, continually referencing the eighth wonder of the world apparently in Valentino's pants. A chorus of three female inmates in the cell next to them also desperately try to grope him and ask to see his manhood.

Eventually Valentino is lifted up to the top bars where we see an unbelievable grimace on his face. Cut away, never mention it again.

3. Probably the only part of the movie I genuinely liked on its own terms, Valentino is ordered by his wife to sleep with the lead actress in a film to prove his masculinity. In a stylishly lit sequence, the actress admits a crush on Valentino and completely reenacts all the sexual fantasies she's had about him and orgasms, while he just sits back and watches, laughing at the absurdity. It's the only scene that testifies to his mysterious machismo without resorting to goofy levels of hysteria to try and do it.

And, of course, I didn't make a .gif of that.

Outside of those scenes, though, the movie is pretty mediocre. Taking place from the recollections at the funeral, we're supposed to feel a certain distance from Valentino, giving him a mysterious air that supposedly infused his real life performances. However, in every scene with Valentino, first time (and only time) actor Rudolph Nureyev gives him such a goofy naivete that you never feel like there's anything beneath the surface. It's a character piece about a schmuck who doesn't know he's a schmuck, made by a filmmaker who doesn't know either.

If you do learn anything from this film, it would seem not to be about Valentino, but how Russell interprets life, namely as a string of humiliations and scandals filled with dirt, mud, and all of the disgusting bodily fluids you can muster. The climax of the film involves a boxing fight to defend his masculinity, and the scene plays out with all the nightmarish intensity of the prison rape/molestation scene only much dumber. The entire crowd is rooting for his opponent, a former boxer, and Valentino is ludicrously outmatched. The heavyweight even knocks Valentino out for a brief period and forces him to dance while the crowd laughs and cackles.

It's the scenes like this that are where the camera lingers. All of the earnest attempts to make Valentino sympathetic just fall flat. It's a movie where sincerity isn't mocked but is left to flounder there, empty, leaving the whole film a schizophrenic mess between flat out camp, a few good ideas, and plenty of bad execution.

I mean, after nightmarish hells and some scenery chewing beyond words, the film ends with Valentino collapsed on the floor of his mansion, overcome with illness. In his thrashing, a single orange has fallen in front of him on the ground. He looks at it with a deep sadness and then passes onto the next world, forever torn from the one thing that he'd always dreamed of.


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Valentino (1977)

Trailer | IMDB
Directed by Ken Russell
Written by Mardik Martin and Ken Russell
Starring Rudolf Nureyev and Leslie Caron

Posted by Danny

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  1. I just saw the movie and I loved what you had to say. It was right on target and as you suggested saved me a trip to Wikipedia where I initially was headed. While watching the film I highly questioned plot lines that you later revealed were fictitious. Thanks. Furthermore Russell’s depiction of Valentino in jail being mauled by a bunch of bizarre inmates immediately brought to mind another scene from a film bio of his. That of Glenda Jackson as Tchaikovsky’s wife in THE MUSIC LOVERS being physically abused by the horrific inmates of an insane asylum. Well at least he stole from himself. I found the acting to be really over the top to the point of annoyance but I gather that was the director’s intentions. For me the movie had an almost tongue in cheek quality about it that I found worked against it being a biographical take on an early screen legend. At one point the friend I was watching it with said, “This is a really bad movie and not in a good way.”

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