The year is 1926 and silent film superstar Rudolph Valentino, renowned throughout the world, has just died of a burst ulcer. His body lies for viewing in an open casket, but as well as his friends the public are outside, staging what amounts to a riot, demanding that they be allowed in to see their beloved star. So furious is their passion that they break a large window and pour in, leading the authorities to try and contain the chaos, but eventually it dies down and the reporters move in to quiz the people attending who actually knew the deceased. And so in flashback we find Valentino (Rudolph Nureyev) before fame came knocking, as a professional dancer entertaining the ladies in a ballroom.
It's difficult to understand the impact that Valentino's death had on the public, especially to those legions of fans, both female and male, who had fallen in love with his image of animal magnetism and dashing romanticism. There had been an attempt to film his story before in the fifties, but this was a British version from director Ken Russell, who scripted with former Martin Scorsese associate Mardik Martin. This could have taken a respectful tack, but judging by the over the top stylings of Russell's other biopics that wasn't exactly what we'd be getting and sure enough it does turn crass eventually. However, for the first hour he is comparatively restrained, meaning fans of his have to wait for almost half the film to be over until the fireworks really begin.
In the title role, Nureyev was a man who had fans of his own and they would be pleased to see him allowed to strut his stuff on the dancefloor - this could be a musical if there was more singing in it. That said, as far as the acting goes he prefers big gestures as opposed to subtlety, like his director I suppose, making hand signals that look at times as if he is directing traffic. We first see him in action dancing with Nijinsky, a blatant reference to Valentino's apparent sexual ambiguity that frustrated him throughout his fame, and this scene is echoed in the climactic boxing match where Peter Vaughan drags him around the ring in a cruel parody of the dance. But this film paints him as a ladies' man, and the fact that women adored him made him suspect in the minds of the American male.
The great love in his life is Natasha Rambova (The Mamas and The Papas singer Michelle Phillips), who orchestrated his career to the point that she would be co-directing his films whether the actual director wanted her to or not. We see recreations of the famous Valentino works such as The Sheik, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Son of the Sheik, but they're rather dry until Russell settles on a Hollywood Babylon approach to his story. The most infamous sequence has Valentino jailed overnight for bigamy, where he is assaulted by a furiously masturbating Dudley Sutton and made to piss himself by savage prison guard Bill McKinney, but rather than shocking, it's ridiculous and changes the tone entirely (Russell later admitted the film played better without this scene). That said, the lavish production wakes up to quite an extent when the delirium takes over, whether it's Valentino's bedding of a starlet (Penelope Milford) to prove his heterosexuality or a fevered seance with his wife. You wouldn't get a biopic like this these days. Music by Stanley Black.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.