Director Ken Russell had started his career directing biographies of great artists, mostly composers, for the BBC. He quickly graduated from straightforward, visually distinctive films like Elgar (1964), to ever more extreme pieces such as Isadora, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966) and Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), the latter drawing fire for the links drawn between composer Richard Strauss and the rise of the Nazis in Germany. He continued in this vein on the big screen with The Music Lovers (1970), about Tchaikovsky; Mahler (1974); and Lisztomania (1975), each more outrageous than its predecessors. Just as Lisztomania had given him the chance to explore the nature of fandom, with the composer presented as a 19th century rock star and rocker Roger Daltrey cast in the lead, so he would explore a similar phenomenon with Valentino. The film even opened with newsreel footage of the furor attending the star's death at the height of his stardom.
Originally, Russell offered ballet great Rudolf Nureyev the role of legendary dancer Nijinsky, who reputedly had taught Valentino the tango. Then the director's wife and costumer, Shirley Russell, suggested he offer Nureyev the lead, citing similarities between the Russian dancer and the Italian film star. Both had risen from humble beginnings, left their homelands and worked in media that used movement in place of spoken language. Nureyev hesitated to accept the role, partly because he didn't care for Russell personally. He also was concerned about moving into a new medium. One friend, actress Loretta Young, thought he was making a mistake playing such a legendary star: "I told him, 'You're an original. Don't try to step into someone else's shoes.'". As much as he disliked Russell, however, Nureyev was intrigued with his directing style. He also was interested in the chance to move into an art form where getting older would not be as severe a liability. What may have attracted him, in particular, was the chance for a break from dancing. He had been working extensively in the past few years, even dancing when he was not feeling well, and felt his body needed a break.
Valentino proved to be anything but a break. The long hours of rehearsals and filming were much different from his life as a dancer. Moreover, he never really gave up dancing during the shoot. He used his lunch hour to do warm-ups and when shooting moved to London, spent most of his evenings rehearsing, planning future dances and even performing. That dedication impressed the crew greatly, particularly when they shot on location in Spain, and he got up two hours before his six a.m. call to swim in the ocean.
No amount of work, however, could turn him into Valentino. Although he had extensive dialect coaching, he never managed to transform his Russian accent into the film star's Italian-accented speech. Nureyev would later complain that much of his dialogue was unspeakable and that Russell, though a brilliant visual director, had little skill at directing actors. For Russell's part, he would say that too much dialect coaching left the dancer with wooden line readings. But when he tried to cut the dialogue and get Nureyev to express the subtext with movement, his star thought the lines were being cut because either the director thought his performance hopeless or he was trying to build up the role of leading lady Michelle Phillips.
The film's co-stars had little rapport on camera and even less off. An inexperienced but natural actress, Phillips moved into films after achieving musical stardom as a member of The Mamas and the Papas. On her first meeting with Nureyev, he informed her, "I hope you understand that I have no interest in women." Phillips quickly noted that he hated having to kiss her on screen. Things got so bad that one of their love scenes ended in a slapping match and he screamed at her, "Just because you play [expletive deleted] in film, doesn't mean you have to be [expletive deleted] in life." She would later refer to co-star Nureyev as the worst working relationship she had ever experienced.
Nureyev's other female co-stars, however, were totally charmed, particularly Caron. Possibly because she had started as a ballet dancer and experienced her own difficulties adapting to film acting, she felt a strong bond with the dancer. She also found him personally appealing, telling the press, "I was instantly touched by him, and by his tenderness. He was an extraordinarily intimate person." The friendship they formed would last the rest of his life. Caron saw in Nureyev the makings of a great film star, if only he weren't working for Russell, whose work she found overblown.
Like most of the film's leading players, Caron played a real-life figure as filtered through Russell's imagination. He added numerous incidents to Valentino's life, including his fleeing New York to escape gangsters, feuding with silent clown Fatty Arbuckle and fighting a boxing match with a reporter who questioned his manhood. Sadly, some of these fictions have been regarded as fact because of the film. Cast as legendary stage and screen actress Alla Nazimova, who introduced Constantin Stanislavsky's acting techniques to American audiences and helped popularize the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov, Caron had no problem giving the flamboyant, heavily stylized performance Russell required. She even viewed it as a welcome break from the innocent image she projected in such films as Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958). Still, Russell ignored Nazimova's artistic accomplishments to focus on her lesbianism and her attempts to influence the women in her circle. As Valentino's second wife, Natasha Rambova, Phillips played a member of that circle. As presented in the film, Rambova dumped Nazimova hoping to exploit Valentino's stardom to build her own fame and make a fortune. Here, too, Russell overlooked her significant contributions to set design, fashion and interior design in favor of a sensationalized image.
Valentino's historical inaccuracies were among the critics' many complaints when it opened in two gala premieres, one in London and another in New York. Pauline Kael, in particular, lambasted the director for misrepresenting Nazimova and Rambova. Both Kael and dance critic Arlene Croce thought Nureyev showed potential as a film star, but most critics thought his dramatic film debut had been upstaged by Russell's delirious direction. There, too, Kael led the way: "There is no artistry left in Ken Russell's work. By now, his sensationalist reputation is based merely on his 'going further' than anybody else....His films have become schoolboy Black Masses -- a mixture of offensiveness and crude dumbness."
In the end, Valentino lost almost its entire $5 million investment. The film almost sunk Russell's career, sending him back to television for three years, until he made a comeback with the controlled delirium of Altered States (1980). In later years, he would accept most of the blame for the film's failure, reportedly walking out of a revival screening while saying, "What idiot made this?" The film also dashed Nureyev's hopes of moving into a film career, though biographers noted that the break from dancing may have paid off. He delivered some of his best stage performances after making the film. He would also attempt one more theatrical feature, playing opposite Nastassja Kinski in James Toback's Exposed (1983).
Producer: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Director: Ken Russell
Screenplay: Ken Russell, Mardik Martin
Based on the book Valentino, an Intimate Exposé of The Sheik by Brad Steiger & Chaw Mank
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Art Direction: Philip Harrison
Music: Stanley Black
Cast: Rudolf Nureyev (Rudolph Valentino), Leslie Caron (Alla Nazimova), Michelle Phillips (Natasha Rambova), Carol Kane (Starlet), Felicity Kendal (June Mathis), Seymour Cassel (George Ullman), Huntz Hall (Jesse Lasky), Linda Thorson (Billie Streeter), Leland Palmer (Marjorie Tain), Lindsay Kemp (Angus McBride), Peter Vaughan (Rory O'Neil), Anthony Dowell (Vaslav Nijinsky), Penelope Milford (Lorna Sinclair), Anton Diffring (Baron Long), John Ratzenberger (Newshound), Ken Russell (Rex Ingram).
by Frank Miller
Nureyev: His Life by Diane Solway
Rudolph Nureyev by Julie Kavanagh
5001 Nights at the Movies by Pauline Kael
Mountain Xpress by Ken Hanke, 8/24/2005