Nureyev in the part of Valentino

Rudolf Nureyev Valentino

VALENTINO (1977) by Ken Russell
127 minutes.
Cinema release: 1977
Video cassette release 1994 MGM Home Entertainment
DVD release March 2003
Actors: Rudolf Nureyev, Leslie Caron, Seymour Cassell, Felicity Kendal, Michelle Phillips, Linda Thorson, and Peter Vaughan.

Nureyev’s passion for the cinema began in his earliest childhood: he went to the cinema in Ufa to see every Soviet and foreign film screened; thus, it was that he discovered Rudolph Valentino’s films. Two films illustrate Nureyev’s forays into the cinema: “Valentino” by Ken Russell in 1977, and “Exposed” by James Toback in 1982. The role of Rudolph Valentino, the famous silent screen actor who started his career as a “taxi-dancer”, was offered to him by Ken Russell. Robert Chartoff, the producer, appointed Russell director of the film which was based on a script devoted to the life of the 1920’s star written by Mardek Martin.

Russell originally thought of Nureyev for the role of Nijinsky seeing as legend dictates that Valentino gave the famous Russian Ballet dancer tango lessons during their tour of New York. The film was to trace the life and career of Valentino but the director could find no-one suitable from amongst the famous actors of the 70’s. The obvious answer finally dawned: Nureyev was the living symbol of everything that Valentino stood for: both were stars of international calibre, they personified the dazzling success of an immigrant in his host country, were endowed with mysterious and ambiguous personalities, as well as a sexual charisma that affected both men and women. Nureyev, to whom Vittorio de Sica had already suggested playing the part of Valentino, accepted Russell’s idea, but shooting was held up for a whole year because of his commitments. What’s more, Nureyev did not want to take a complete break from his career for the five months it was going to take to make the film. Consequently, he insisted on being able to practise every day, even if it was on the set itself, and he also managed to give several performances in London.

Noureev - Valentino

Nureyev, as with each new activity, buckled down in earnest and studied the script. “On first reading, Valentino seemed to me a rather unpleasant character. He let himself be manipulated by everyone and insulted by the critics without retaliating. I felt particularly challenged by this question of fighting back, of self-defence. As a person, I think he was totally confused. He was in an impossible situation. But that’s what success is. You are envied, more and more is demanded of you, you are bullied, and if you stand up for yourself, you are slated.” Their relationship with the public and fame is another point the two men had in common.

Nureyev’s Russian accent also had to be transformed into an Italian-American accent. Marcella Markham, his teacher, said: “The problem is that Nureyev has an excellent ear. He achieved the accent that I wanted him to have very quickly, but, being surrounded by English accents, he copied them without even thinking as soon as the shooting started!” Valentino was victim to many attacks from the press, and one day when journalist Rory O’Neill had attacked his virility, Valentino wanted to challenge him to a duel. But duelling was against the law, and so Valentino demanded that he be able to avenge his honour by fighting his opponent in a boxing ring. Nureyev took boxing lessons for this scene.

The film portrayed the famous actor’s entire career, notably with scenes of the matador from “Blood and Sand”, the tango from “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, the Sheik, and many more characters besides. The film also included numerous scenes of the life of the actor with Michelle Phillips as former dancer Natacha Rambova, his second wife, Leslie Caron as Alla Nazimova, the agent, and a galaxy of miscast actors: Leslie Caron, a dancer, could not dance. Michelle Phillips, a singer, could not sing, an English dancer, Anthony Dowell, played a Russian dancer, and a Russian star played the part of the “Latin lover”. Nureyev gave more substance to the character than was invested by the initial script. Rudolf transformed Rudolph.

The film was not to meet with the success the producers hoped for, and Ken Russell was slated by the critics. Nor was Nureyev, the actor, despite his magnificent screen presence, able to succeed in convincing the audiences.