Rudolph Valentino was probably the first film star to truly feel the heat of fan hysteria. When he died there were riots and people committed suicide. It was the early days of 'Tinseltown' and the kind of desperate passion Valentino engendered in his admirers had never been seen before, and has rarely been seen since.
Ken Russell's fantastic biopic begins with Valentino (Rudolf Nureyev) lying in state in his golden coffin, as the funeral parlour windows are smashed through and the hysterical crowd streams in. The movie star’s story is told in flashbacks, by the three women he was closest to in life – June Mathis (Felicity Kendal), the screenwriter who discovered him and who was, although an unrequited love, the only woman who genuinely cared for him – Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron), a publicity-seeking harridan who makes the most splendid entrance to a funeral home ever seen, engulfed in a seemingly mile-long cape and flanked by handmaidens, and Natasha Rambova (Michelle Phillips), Valentino’s second wife, who obsessively attempted to control (and almost destroyed) his career, her every decision dictated by a small sack of fortune-telling bones.
From Valentino’s earliest days as a gigolo/dancer, when a woman murders her husband for him, to the meteoric rise and fall of his film career, his disputes with studio bosses and - finally - the boxing match and suicidal drinking session that led to his tragic death, Rudolph Valentino's story was one of scandal, heightened emotion and glorious excess.
When Ken Russell admits, during one of the Blu-Ray’s many special features, that he doesn't like his film, it comes as a surprise because Valentino is a very good movie indeed. Perhaps, despite its wonderful operatic scope, it's a little bit more 'reined in' than most of Russell's other pictures and, unlike many of his earlier films, there's very little for the censors to get upset about. But it does have Russell’s trademark grandiosity and terrifically black humour, it is always quite beautiful to look at and, at just over two hours in length, it never outstays its welcome.
As with many films of this era, there's also a lot of scope to play "guess the face", with some surprising actors appearing in minor, sometimes non-speaking, roles: Linda Thorson, Anton Diffring, Carol Kane, Alfred Marks, William Hootkins, and Russell stalwarts Dudley Sutton and Georgina Hale, to name just a few. And look out for Russell himself in an uncredited cameo. But the real ‘performance gem’ of Valentino is Felicity Kendal, who makes the most of every moment onscreen. It’s a pity that the majority of her career has been confined to theatre and television because Valentino proves she is also a consummate movie actress.
The Blu-Ray presentation is exquisite and there are a tremendous raft of special features including an audio commentary, an archival interview with Nureyev, and a fantastic conversation with Dudley Sutton about his experience playing Willie the Wanker, in a grotesque drunk-tank scene. It's a shame Russell turned his back on Valentino because it ranks among his best work (despite its failure at the box office, it’s easily one of his most accessible films) and it’s a movie that should be in every cinema lovers collection.
VALENTINO (1977) / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: KEN RUSSELL / SCREENPLAY: KEN RUSSELL, MARDIK MARTIN / STARRING: RUDOLF NUREYEV, FELICITY KENDALL, LESLIE CARON, MICHELLE PHILLIPS / RELEASE DATE: 29TH FEBRUARY