I’ve mentioned it in prior Biopic Theater entries: the less time has passed, the more fictitious Hollywood gets. Because people are still alive, directors and screenwriters certainly don’t want to name names. Easier to smear the name of the person no longer living than those they left behind. Hollywood allowed 25 years to pass before tackling the life of Rudolph Valentino, one of the first major movie stars, but too many people were left breathing, including a few of Valentino’s lovers. With that caveat, Hollywood settled on depicting Valentino’s reputation as a gigolo, only instead of that becoming one element of his life it’s depicted as his whole life, leaving audiences with a boring romance boasting little authenticity or interest outside of some rather spot-on casting courtesy of Anthony Dexter’s Valentino.
Rudolph Valentino (Anthony Dexter) rises up the ladder to fame despite his love for married actress Sarah Gray (Eleanor Parker).
You might recall the other prominent Valentino biopic I reviewed last year directed by Ken Russell. As time’s gone on I can appreciate Russell’s intentions, probably because I’ve watched a few other Russell-directed films and he certainly loves slathering on the excess. His excessive and sexually-charged exploration of the man they called “The Great Lover” certainly lived up to that despite its glaring, and often funny, flaws. I apologize because his biopic is the one to watch if you’re looking for Hollywood’s best take on the silent film star.
I know better than to expect Hollywood to devote an ounce of time towards authenticity, but Valentino shows how lazy a word “authenticity” becomes for those writing the scripts. We start in medias res, which plays more like there wasn’t an easier way to start the film short of jumping right in. Rudolph Valentino (Dexter, who, in certain angles, is a dead ringer for The Sheik) starts off a dance routine that plays as spontaneously as a paparazzi photo in today’s day and age – suffice it to say the whole thing screams of planned. After the dance where everyone laughs at their miraculous grasp of dancing, Valentino goes out to meet his lady love Sarah Gray and that’s our set-up.
Knowing little about Valentino, neither movie about him has presented a 100% true depiction of his life, although I’d give the edge to Russell considering so many of the main players were deceased; he actually uses real names and studios. You really have to know your Valentino history to deduce who’s who, although his films are mentioned properly. The Sara Gray/Joan Carlise story forms the basis of the entire movie, essentially showing that Valentino owed his success to Gray, their work together was legendary (and because of their love for each other, coupled with Gray being married, they never worked together again), and that she unintentionally brought about his death. I’d believe the movie wants to follow the “he lived as he acted” storyline of other biopics (see Gable and Lombard) but I’m not certain. The ending presents a clever “reveal” of the identity of the infamous Woman in Black who put a rose on Valentino’s grave for decades after his demise, but it’s hard believing it, as with much of the movie, when the facts are so hard to grasp. Eleanor Parker as Gray performs decently, although she’s the woman torn between two lovers and there’s never that “true-life Hollywood” quality you’re seeking. Parker’s character could have been anyone, and, similarly, anyone could have played the character. It’s very similar to Ann Blyth being in The Buster Keaton Story, a journeyman’s role.
Anthony Dexter suffered the slings and arrows of typecasting after his starmaking turn as Valentino. Physically, he’s a near dead-ringer for the man, but the minute he opens his mouth the “fresh off the boat” element to his character is gone. Valentino was an immigrant actor born in Italy. Unfortunately, Dexter sounds as Italian as an Olive Garden breadstick! He sounds no different that Ray Danton or any other B-list hoodlum actor and that removes that exoticism Valentino was known for. There’s nothing exotic about a man who sounds like he came from Nebraska (as Dexter did). I’m not saying Nureyev was better – he sound Russian no matter what – but at least that legitimated the exoticism Valentino was known for, somewhat.
Ultimately, Valentino has little to say. This is probably because, only 25 years after his death, people knew the work and mystic of Valentino better. They lived during that time and experienced the romance, the hysteria, the totality of his personality. No matter who played the character, audiences in 1951 knew what they needed to know because they experienced it first-hand. Almost 65-years later, with Valentino being expanded upon in biographies and his films, the audience needs to be given a bit more unless they’re willing to explore outside the film screen – and, with this series, you should always do outside research. Dexter is good, but it’s laughable that he’s not rocking an accent that people know about. Parker is good, but she’s better than this. The story about an iconic comes down a salted romance that never comes to a boil.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.