Though it may be damning Valentino with faint praise, Ken Russell’s notorious biopic is not as bad as its reputation suggests. Sure, some outrageous liberties have been taken with the truth, and the title role is played by a Russian ballet dancer in his acting debut. Yet the bare bones of the film star’s life remain and Nureyev's performance, with its stilted delivery and grand gesticulations, is actually among the film’s chief assets.
Opening with scenes of frenzied fans vying to gaze upon his dead body, Valentino follows the well-worn path of reporters questioning acquaintances. Covering his years as a New York taxi dancer is Bianca de Saulles, followed by screenwriter June Mathis, co-star Alla Nazimova and wife Natasha Rambova.
Each have their own story to tell, yet the loudest voice in that of director Ken Russell. Focusing on the uncertainty surrounding Valentino’s sexuality, our first glimpse of the Latin Lover has him dancing cheek to cheek with Nijinsky. Disparagingly referred to as a dance of the sugar plum fairies, Valentino’s unease with being constantly described as a pansy and powder puff eventually leads to his fateful decision to prove his manhood, in a boxing match conducted in the middle of ballroom dancers.
Which pretty well places Valentino comfortably within Russell’s canon of films - over-the-top cinematic flourishes producing films that are never boring, but at times downright unwatchable.
“I only want to be accurate up to a point. I can be as inaccurate as I want – it makes no difference to me. I’m writing a novel. My films are novels, based on a person’s life, and a novel has a point of view. I’m not interested in making documentaries”
Ken Russell (director)
It was Pola Negri, not Alla Nazimova, who paraded herself and fainted at Valentino's funeral.
Rather than the extravagant three round boxing match depicted in the film, Valentino and O'Neill sparred (purely for the press) atop the Ambassador Hotel. According to one report, Valentino dropped his larger opponent, after which he helped him to his feet and apologized.
Though the character of Mr Fatty is assumed to be Fatty Arbuckle, his portrayal as an obnoxious lout bears little resemblance to the famed comedian. Incidentally, at odds with the film’s depiction of their relationship, Valentino and Arbuckle were good friends.
Movie recreates, with varying degrees of accuracy, scenes from Camille, The Sheik, Blood and Sand and Monsieur Beaucaire. Fittingly, the most faithful recreation is the tango scene from Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (featured at the start of the clip below).