“Valentino said there’s nothing like tile for a tango!” — Norma Desmond to Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
A short sighted, slightly chubby, dandyish Italian boy named Rodolpho Guglielmi comes to America to make his fortune in the early part of the twentieth century. He sees himself as an aristocrat, but he has to take menial jobs to get by and is even homeless for a brief period. Eventually, he becomes a “taxi dancer,” which might also mean “gigolo”; in any event, he acquires lots of experience in catering to women’s fantasies. Later, he will claim that he taught the great ballet dancer Nijinksy to tango; if this isn’t true, it should be. (Many years later, another great ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, will play this long-dead and still famous Italian boy in a crude Ken Russell movie, doing a springy-legged tango with an actor hired to play Nijinsky.)
He starts to do extra work in films, but gets arrested in a brothel; it is rumored that the arrest is the retaliation of a jealous, vengeful husband, a man who is later killed by his wife. The boy’s life is an often sordid mess; he never consummates his first marriage to Jean Acker, a lesbian who will spend the rest of her life trying to exploit her brief tie to him. D. W. Griffith turns him down as “too foreign looking,” and he serves his apprenticeship playing various heavies, including a “cabaret parasite” in a Clara Kimball Young vehicle, Eyes of Youth (1919). Screenwriter June Mathis sees his possibilities and makes sure he lands the lead role of Julio Desnoyers in Rex Ingram’s proto-blockbuster The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1921). At that point, Rudolph Valentino emerged, a still-mysterious sex idol, worshipped by some women fans, aped by some brave twenties men, but mostly derided for his vanity and his early metrosexuality, eternally kissing hands and applying pomade to his hair (at one point during his stardom, he even sold and promoted cosmetics for men).
Valentino is often laughable, and too heavily made-up, in the roles he played before Four Horsemen, and he’s often laughable in a lot of the roles he did later, but when he takes the screen for a close-up he usually stops his movies in their faded tracks. In long shot, he can be self-conscious, sheepish, but in close-up, the camera loves his mix of hard and soft, of calculation and vulnerability. He was famous, both then and today, for his hypnotic stare; he’s a trance actor, a sort of movie drug. Valentino was best when he was very still and doing nearly nothing in close-up; he was someone to dream over, the ultimate silent star. When he died at age 31 from peritonitis caused by a perforated ulcer, he was already starting to age a bit; his mouth had developed frown lines, his hair was going, and his love of spaghetti and long nights of drinking were catching up with him. If he had lived to make sound films, he probably would have wound up playing heavies again, as he had in the ‘teens; if he had made it to the forties, it’s even possible to imagine him doing bits, The Great Lover of the twenties sneered at by Bogart, just as he would have been swept away by Gable in the thirties.
In Four Horseman, he grabs the movie in his first close-up, just turning his head to display his classical left profile, his eyes burning with lust. Cigarette smoke curls out of his nostrils in his second close-up; for the first and only time, Valentino seems truly macho on screen. The subsequent tango scene is justly famous, a sexual congress captured on film, fated to be anthologized forever; Valentino moves so gracefully and instinctively with his dance partner and is so attuned to her that they seem fused into one heaving body. Later on, he tries to generate some steam with cold blond Alice Terry, even caressing her breasts at one point, but Love gives way to War, and Valentino has to prove he’s more than just a sinuous libertine, which means growing some wispy facial hair and sacrificing himself on the battlefield. A lot of women bought what he was selling in the film’s first half; few men ever bought his half-hearted conversion to male heroics.
Four Horseman made Valentino a star, but his career remained disorganized. He’s gone for long stretches of Ingram’s The Conquering Power (1921), a lackluster version of Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet complete with Hollywood happy ending. And he’s an apt Armand but entirely subjugated to the bizarre Nazimova in Camille (1921), an inert movie dominated by the set design of the woman who would become his second wife, Natacha Rambova. It’s tough to tell what Nazimova is doing in this Camille, or even what she thinks she’s doing, but Valentino manages to look at her kabuki gesticulations with longing; there’s an almost Montgomery Clift-like softness about him here; he draws you into his feelings instead of projecting them to the camera.
His next film was a sleaze landmark, The Sheik (1921), the twenties equivalent of soft-core porn, festooned with threats of (fantasy) rape galore. Valentino’s eyes literally throb when he sees his leading lady, rebellious white girl Agnes Ayres, and he uses a fabulous leer throughout the first hot-blooded half, complete with bulging eyes and bared teeth, which points up the silliness of sex without ever ceasing to actually be sexy, which is really quite a feat. “Why have you brought me here?” asks Ayres, after he has whisked her away to his tent. “Are you not woman enough to know?” asks Rudi, so animated that he looks like he was drawn by a particularly lascivious cartoonist. The film is all about the license of the desert and the cultural Other and the anticipation of sex; you can laugh it off pretty easily, but it’s powerful trash and its central premise is still erotic.
“I wanted a mate . . . not a dancing master!” cries an old sea salt after Valentino is shanghaied in Moran of the Lady Letty (1922), which attempts to rectify Valentino’s problem with straight male audience members by making their derision the subject of the film. As in Four Horsemen, there’s a narrative project to Make a Man of Rudi, but it’s consistently thwarted by his romantic close-ups, where his face looks so sensitive to slights, but hidden, too, open to interpretation, caught forever for the hopefully sympathetic, if not lovelorn, eye of the beholder. And he was modern men’s magazine sexy; of course he has to wear a plunging Querelle undershirt onboard ship and pants so tight that you can even see the full Valentino at times. “Rudi looked best nude,” said Rambova, and we have no reason to doubt her word; he was a fitness freak long before men or women sculpted their bodies for pleasure.
The recently recovered Beyond the Rocks (1922) is a lamentably stiff pairing with Gloria Swanson, inhibited by the censor’s pressure; he can look sly in that movie, as if he’s secretly mocking Swanson’s grand lady posing. In Blood and Sand (1922), Valentino is at his most feminine and exuberantly sexualized, enjoying the effect of his tight-fitting bullfighter’s outfits more than the actual bullfights or ridiculous love bouts with fire-breathing vamp Nita Naldi. He always overplayed anger, a weakness that makes so much of his work look like the worst kind of silent drama, limited to crude posing and moralizing title cards.
1922 was his peak, and he slowly slipped under the influence of the domineering, Yoko Ono-esque Rambova, who he seems to have genuinely loved. A sexually ambiguous couple, they did a dance tour across America when Valentino sued his studio bosses for better roles and more accommodating working conditions, and he returned in vehicles that expressed his wife’s view of him as a kind of decadent, rarified, and effeminate male beauty. Only a fragment survives of The Young Rajah (1922), but stills display Valentino nearly naked under ropes of pearls; wandering further into self-indulgence, he even had a book of flowery poetry published the same year Rajah was released. The slow, precious Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) took him so far into perfumed and powdered courtly love that it left him a total object of ridicule, even to some former fans who were used to his preference for period costumes and his narcissistic desire to flaunt his body. Rambova even allowed Valentino to cast a male protégée and probable lover as his younger brother in the picture, which substitutes a fluttery minuet for the driving tango that had made his name.
His life remained disorderly, and even his sheer movie star presence began to deteriorate. “Women — always women!” he cries in Cobra (1925). “If only I could get away from them all!” Being the Great Lover seemed to tire him out; he’s ill at ease and bored in Cobra, as if he wants to escape our gaze. There were two more vehicles before his death, The Eagle (1925), a comedy adventure that plods when it should leap (it proved that he could only be funny unintentionally), and The Son of the Sheik (1926), a slick commercial exploitation of the first Sheik movie that bastardizes and hokes up everything that was genuinely sexy about the first film. In Son he has only two modes, Firm and Sensitive, and they’re both too exaggerated to be affecting; he has better luck crossing his arms and bulging out his biceps as he widens and then narrows his horny slit eyes before taking Vilma Banky by force. By the time of this film’s release, Valentino was dead, leading to a circus-like funeral and a cult that shows no sign of expiring. In his best close-ups, he still half-smiles at us and looks askance, daring us to protect or scorn him for making us realize how close lust is to self-love and contempt.