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A stardom doomed by expectation

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, Emily W. Leider, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 514 pp., $35

May 11, 2003|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is the author of, most recently, the memoir, "Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip." His film biography of Charles Chaplin, "Charlie," will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival later this month.

This much almost everyone knows about Rudolph Valentino: He died at a tragically early age (31), and his sudden, shocking passing set off the first (and still perhaps the most lunatic) orgy of mass mourning in the history of premature celebrity deaths. Some 30,000 near-rioutous citizens turned up outside the funeral home when his body was placed on view. There were suicides, conspiracy theories, grieving collapses (notably by Pola Negri, who insisted that she was the last and truest of his loves).

There were, naturally, many who claimed to be in spiritual communion with Valentino's shade. His death has entered the popular histories as one of the defining events of the Roaring '20s, a prime example of how the new mass media drove certain impressionable, if not contemptible, levels of society into potentially dangerous realms of celebrity frenzy.

In "Dark Lover," Emily W. Leider's exhaustive but tone-deaf biography of Valentino, she suggests his death was not merely shocking but stupid as well. He had been suffering abdominal pains for weeks before they attained an unbearable crescendo in the early morning hours of Aug. 15, 1926, after some mild carousing the night before. He was admitted to a hospital suffering acute appendicitis and perforated gastric ulcers. She thinks that Valentino delayed the operation for several crucial hours (allowing peritonitis to gain a grip on him) because he did not want the surgeon's knife to mar his perfect, widely displayed and admired body. She suspects, as well, that a common curse of his region -- "May you die in a hospital" -- was on his mind. In his native southern Italy, real men (and people had been questioning his masculine credentials for years) did not surrender to soft pillows and tender nursing. Life and death was a matter of fate, which medicine was powerless to affect.

I suspect that Leider is right about these matters, especially because in his final illness Valentino kept asking people if he was behaving well under the impress of pain. And because she has completed quite a persuasive portrait of an agreeable but not very bright young man, living always in and for the moment. Unable satisfactorily to define his own character and therefore unable to assert or defend himself, he achieved, to his own astonishment, movie stardom as something he was not: a rapacious and dashing seducer operating in exotic climes and times. In fact, Valentino was a louche and feckless man-child of a familiar Mediterranean type: sleek, sleepy, slender males basking in the sun at cafe tables, nursing their espressos and their dreams of casual female conquests. They are dangerous largely to Anglo women who have not encountered their cautionary fictional representations in hundreds of novels and screenplays. Valentino (born Rudolpho Guglielmi) thought vaguely of joining the army but flunked the physical. He considered landscape gardening, but nothing much came of that, either. He drifted to New York, became a taxi dancer -- he had a natural, sinuous grace -- and possibly something of a gigolo. By 1914 he was working in the movies, mostly as a heavy, since swarthy sorts were not, in those days, permitted to be leading men.

A screenwriter named June Mathis thought this nonsense. She insisted on casting him as an Argentine playboy who tangos his way to a redemptive death in World War I in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." He was a sensation, and as Leider says, he opened the way for alternative versions of movie heroism. Valentino seemed to take a sensuous pleasure in his own beauty and to offer women a new kind of sexual adventure, something at once more playful, dangerous and mutually pleasurable than his more stolid screen competitors (or his fans' husbands) provided.

Yet there was a disconnect between his screen image and the real Rudy. The early '20s were a great age of historical romance in the movies, and it suited the studios to locate him well away from contemporary life, where his example might be too dangerous for women to bear. But this often trapped him in roles more muscular, more up-and-doing, than suited his nature -- all those sheiks and matadors -- and he frequently became comically popeyed under the strain of being someone he wasn't.

Worse, as the press avidly reported the details of his private life, it became clear that he was anything but sheik-like. His first marriage was likely unconsummated, his second a wimpish surrender to the talented but wildly pretentious designer Natacha Rambova, who famously gave him a "slave" bracelet, which he proudly wore to the sneering contempt of American males everywhere. They sensed in him a powerful androgynous strain -- he was always, it seems, a better pal to women than he was a lover -- something languid and passive that played out, as well, in the way he managed (or failed to manage) his career.

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