Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Dancing days… Valentino (1977)

I must admit to not always understanding Ken Russell. His films seem to suffer from an exuberance of ideas with excessive imagery often counter-pointed with the grotesque and just plain silly. Why, for example, spend a fortune on period mise-en-scène only to undermine it all by having the hero eat chips with Heinz tomato ketchup?

Ken doesn’t go for historical accuracy and is aiming for the “feeling” of his great subjects in a modern context but… why would Valentino be eating ketchup?!  Ken said he was writing a “novel” with his film and mixing fact and fiction was part of that process… he later said that this film was his biggest mistake.

Carol Kane, Rudolf and Heinz...
Anachronisms abound across Russell’s work as do appropriate non-actors from Rick Wakeman as Thor the Thunder God in Lisztomania to all four members of The Who in Tommy to Rudolf Nureyev in this film. Rudy has the right name and some of the same kind of presence but he’s not perfect casting for the great Latin Lover even though he does his best.

Similarly, Michelle Philips of The Mamas and the Papas, is asked to dance with Nureyev and act with Leslie Caron (who can do both really well) and Felicity Kendall (the best actor in the film). Philips is a stunner whose limitations are well placed for Natasha Rambova’s emotional and sexual distance… Valentino just happened to marry two women whose interests were elsewhere and who both had relationships with Nazimova.

Michelle Philips
This has led to questions about Valentino’s own proclivities but what’s so difficult to understand about the status of sex-symbol? He certainly took exception to any questioning of his manhood and even called out the author of an article questioning his impact on American manhood. He ended up fighting the boxing editor of another paper Rory O'Neil (here played by the brilliant Peter Vaughan) and, no doubt helped by the coaching of Jack Dempsey, won.

Peter Vaughan
The fight did not appear to have any link with the actor’s death in August 1926 from peritonitis following complications after an operation for appendicitis but this is Ken’s “Novel” not Rudy’s life…. To better illustrate the story Ken turns the players into comedy caricatures – Nazimova is a scheming mad woman and Rambova is a screaming control freak with Rudy caught in the middle.

Good attention to detail as Rambova's designs for Camille are replicated
It’s clear though that Russell is fascinated by the period and the creative power of these individuals – he recreates elements of Rambova’s marvellous art nouveau design even down to the bobbles in hair look Nazimova had in Salome – a film so out there that Ken could only dream…

But it’s all about Rudolph and the extraordinary outbreak of grief on his untimely death starts the film: riots in the streets outside the funeral parlour, smashed glass as women and men tried to get a glimpse of the body. Russell doesn’t show the four “black shirts” Valentino’s studio arranged and pretended were sent as a show of respect from Mussolini for his fellow countryman but subsequent events showed exactly how wrong a move that was…

June Mathis remembers with that guy from Cheers...
Inside the funeral parlour, the press buzz around as the main players from Valentino’s life mourn and are led to reflect on their role in his life.

First is Bianca de Saulles (Emily Bolton) who knew the former agricultural student – here he dreams of farming oranges yet in reality he hated them – when he had to hustle for a living. We see him dancing with some fella named Nijinsky and they make a handsome couple with an aggressive, balletic Tango (incidentally, the Tango was originally invented as a dance for sailors).
Dancing lessons with Nijinsky?
Then there is June Mathis (Kendall) a writer who first spotted his potential as a dramatic lead rather than the heavies he had originally played and who got him his break in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Before that he’s shown upsetting a Mr Fatty (William Hootkins) – a reference to Roscoe Harbuckle who deserves better – before stealing off with his lady friend, Jean Acker (Carol Kane).

Nazimova grieves
He marries Acker and follows her into the movies and, with Mathis’ help, to stardom.
Back at the funeral, Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron) arrives to stunning effect perhaps also standing in for the absence of Pola Negri who genuinely did make a scene. Leslie Caron is having a ball here though and is well cast as the mature ex-ballerina turned actress.

Nazimova and Rudy’s ex Natacha Rambova (Michelle Phillips) arrives and we enter the heart of the story. Rambova fixes quickly on the Italian stallion and we’re never quite convinced that the two connect even though Rudy is clearly infatuated with her. Even in the film’s most iconic (or at least publicised) moment – the couple nude in a desert tent – Rambova teases without actually completing the moment… Is she only interested in advancing her own cause through him or is there a genuine reciprocation?
In-tents relationship...
Rather than following her dance of the seven veils to its natural conclusion she seems to rush her demi-lover away so he can save himself for The Sheik’s big rape scene the following day. The moment duly arrives with Agnes Ayres (Jennie Linden) hamming it up outrageously – honestly Ken did you not like silent films at all?!

What she says...
So it goes as Valentino goes from strength to strength with his hippy-drippy muse and her micro-management. The two decide to wed in Mexico as technically he is still married to Jean Acker. Nazimova shops them though and they end up in jail where, denied bail by studio boss Jesse Lasky (Huntz Hall), he has to endure a night of humiliation in the maddest most grotesque cell Russell could dream up… ah, but it’s symbolic

Back outside it’s now a battle between the studios and Rambova for control over the priceless “asset”… something that vaguely resembles the power struggle of real life and that’s the film’s major problem: if you know anything about the actuality of Valentino’s life you’ll be frustrated by the film’s presentation of his final months. Yes there was that boxing match – yet Rudy didn’t die directly afterwards… but a month or so later and from an unrelated illness it only matters because it matters!

An' th' winner isss...
Dusty verdict: Some good moments but to be viewed with historical sensors switched off and credibility checked in at the door… Russell has such a powerful vision yet always seems more than capable of self-sabotage: just one darned thing too many after another (the ketchup).

The film does look good though and is now available on Blu-ray as well as DVD from Amazon and the usual suspects…

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