At Rudolf Valentino’s New York funeral in 1926, a huge crowd gathered, full of hysterical and incredulous people mobbing the venue. No one could believe that this man who was so beautiful and young, so full of life, could have died so suddenly of appendicitis. So huge was his fan base that there were several reports of women killing themselves in despair.
Much like Valentino’s fans, this film that forms a biography is strange and hysterical.
Opening at the matinee idols funeral, his life is displayed in lengthy flashbacks from the women who loved him. From his early married lover when he was just a dancer to the woman who brought him before the eyes of studio bosses and loved him secretly, each has a different part of him to show, a different segment of his life, and each has something they wanted from him. Plagued by the hounding reporters, they defend themselves, their lover or perform their grief, highlighting that this was an actor whose life was lived so publicly.
Full of colour and melodramatic performance, staging and costume, it plays as a story larger than life. Ken Russell as a director is very distinctive, and the BFI have really gone all out celebrating him here in this disc, and others that will be released later this year. The choice of Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian ballet star, as the Italian actor is odd. He’s camp, he can’t act, but he has a sensuality and grace that definitely do capture something of the hypnotic power that Valentino possessed. The cast really ham it up too, with huge gestures, sparkling costume and often grotesque performances. There’s just so much of everything, colour, light, sound, movement, emotion, women. It’s packed with symbolism and awkwardness. It’s all so camp.
Perhaps if you want a strict biography of the man, then you should pick up a book. The film does portray real people and actual events, but there’s so much caricature here that everyone and everything is rather sent up and parodied. It’s all a performance. But that’s hardly the point of the film. It’s a strange and mesmerising masterpiece of British cinema, capturing the essence of the man and his life, the theatricality of the Hollywood lifestyle in the roaring twenties and the shallowness of it all. The beauty and the grotesqueness. It is so different from other mainstream films, that it’s become a classic for a very good reason.
EXTRAS: Oh my God, do we have extras! An audio commentary with Tim Lucas, the editor of Video Watchdog, the original TV spots and trailers, Dudley Sutton Remembers Ken Russell and filming Valentino (22 mins), which is a BFI produced interview with the British character actor. The Guardian Lecture: Ken Russell in conversation with Derek Malcolm (89 mins), an audio recording of a lecture about the film with stills which gives some interesting insights into the director. Lynn Seymour remembers Rudolf Nureyev (9 mins) where the famous Canadian ballerina and choreographer talks about her long time friend, poignant and fascinating. Tonight: Nureyev on Ken Russell and Valentino (10 mins) originally broadcast in 1977 about making the film and working with the director. Stills and Special Collections Gallery (10 mins) one for the die hard fans, you have to sit and watch images. The Funeral of Valentino (9 mins) real news reel footage of the mob at Valentinos funeral in New York, crazy and sad. Illustrated booklet with extensive credits and newly commissioned essays.