Searching for the new Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino
Rudolph Valentino

As the nights draw in, the BFI is offering something to keep us warm and purring with satisfaction. The institute’s blockbuster season for 2015 is Love, a celebration of everything sexy, sentimental and swooningly romantic. It’s a capacious theme, but a winning one. For myself, I am never happier than when I am sobbing my heart out at an old film.

You’ll be glad to hear, however, that I managed to restrain myself on Tuesday morning, at the official press launch for the season, which offered a whirlwind romance with the history of love on screen, from GA Smith’s A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899) to Brief Encounter (1945) to Trainwreck (2015). The BFI’s Rhidian Davis gave the presentation, which was a real joy, but his love train hit a bump when he arrived at the modern romcom. Judd Apatow’s growing influence over the genre was, he said, as if the little boys who wince when film stars start kissing are now directing the love scenes themselves. Modern romance is drowning in irony, and Seth Rogen is no Hugh Grant, he lamented.

That sounds about right – but I hope it’s not true. Perhaps this is just nostalgia, I thought, crossing my fingers. Maybe we never get over our first screen crushes, or could it be that old age knocks the corners off our screen romances, making vintage affairs seem more universal? Romance has been declared dead before, in fact. I have written a chapter for the BFI Love compendium, all about romantic films in the silent era – and believe me, at the dawn of the 1930s, plenty of critics believed that synchronised sound had murdered the art of love on screen.

The question that really made me channel my inner Carrie Bradshaw, with a winsome tilt of the head as I pushed open my laptop, arose at the Q&A afterwards. Jenni Murray was the chair, and her panellists perched on Mae West pout sofas were the BFI’s Davis and Laura Adams, director Mike Newell and screenwriter Tess Morris. It was Murray I think, who asked: where are the new Valentinos? The panel was stumped. Do we even, they pondered, need Rudolph Valentino any more?

For many a silent film fan, that’s a terrible question. Who could live without Valentino? Who would want to? Certainly, when he died young, hundreds of young women famously felt unable to carry on. For many a cinephile full-stop, the thought of a world without a Valentino figure is a glimpse of a hideously barren future. If we agree that the cinema taps into our collective subconscious, then where would our dreams be without a dream lover? Won’t anyone ever seduce us, and leave us breathless again?

Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky in The Son of the Sheik
Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky in The Son of the Sheik

Valentino was not the only handsome man to step in front of a film camera, and not, I would venture, the greatest actor of all time. So why is it so hard to imagine anyone setting hearts a-flutter in the same way again?

Valentino arrived in Hollywood from his native Italy via a stint as a “taxi dancer” in New York. I would like to think that we are more sophisticated about ethnicity today, and we don’t bandy the phrase “Latin lover” around as much as we used to. But it’s true that there have been a few non-American, and decidedly tall, dark and handsome, leading men causing a particular kind of excitement over recent years. Their exoticism adds to their eroticism – if only because we first encounter them in films from Europe that are more explicit, or sexually liberal than their Hollywood counterparts, which may bear comparison with Valentino’s days as a professional charmer. But the careers of Antonio Banderas, Gael Garcia Bernal et al have not soared in Hollywood in the same way that Valentino’s did.

Shah Rukh Khan
Shah Rukh Khan

Outside Hollywood and Europe, there may be Valentino-types that we haven’t met yet. A glimpse of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge at the BFI Love event made me wonder whether Shah Rukh Khan was not the Bollywood Valentino? There has to be a reason that he is the biggest star in the world, and that film is still playing to full houses in a Mumbai cinema, 20 years after it was released.

Exoticism was not the only factor in Valentino’s mystique. From his immaculate dress to the furore over his “slave bracelets” to scurrilous Hollywood innuendo of the “pink powder puff” kind, Valentino’s heterosexuality was always under strain, even if in appearance only. Whether he was really gay, straight or bisexual is almost irrelevant: the air of sexual mystery that surrounded him adds to his allure.

These days we might like to think that we are more open about sexuality, but Hollywood is depressingly old-school, a place where gay actors are either closeted or pigeonholed. James Franco may be giving the “is-he/isn’t he?” vibe his best shot, but that kind of flirtation is old news now. In fact, that joke isn’t funny any more – if it ever was. There is a growing awareness that it is easy for straight guys to act gay for a role (as in Brokeback Mountain or Beyond the Candelabra), while gay actors have to act straight to get work. And surely these days no one expects that a supposedly gay hunk has yet to meet the right woman – a fond and reckless hope that may have added to Valentino’s appeal back in the day.

Nowadays, the actors whose sexuality really intrigues are those who don’t seem to conform to one type – Channing Tatum, say, seems to be about as macho as they get, but his enthusiastic performances in the Magic Mike series, which ware officially aimed at straight women, drench his persona in homoeroticism. Likewise, the male bonding at the heart of the powerful Fast and Furious franchise tips over into something a little more sexual, to the delight of fan-fiction writers everywhere.

Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey

Did someone say fan-fiction? It seems to me that there is a direct analogue to Valentino in contemporary Hollywood, and yes he’s very handsome and not American in the slightest.

Valentino’s breakthrough role came in The Sheik, an adaptation of a smash hit romance novel by Edith M Hull, which was notorious for a love scene that blurred the lines between sex and violence, love and abuse. When the film came out, women swooned for Valentino as a man it was dangerous but inevitable to fall for, although they did criticise the film for being less explicit than the book. A sequel, more or less a remake, was of course inevitable. Ninety years laters, we could be saying the exact same thing about Northern Irish Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey.

Unpalatable to many, but irresistible to many more, kinky Christian Grey has become a dream lover to millions. He might not be “nice” but fiction allows you to enjoy things that aren’t in complete safety. Does that make Dornan, the man who plays him on screen, the new Valentino? Time will only tell – he’s going to cement his fame in the 50 Shades sequel, but his next unrelated film, Jadotville, is going straight to Netflix.

Perhaps Dornan’s “type” is a touch too dangerous for a romantic hero. After all, his breakthrough role was as the family man-slash-perverted-serial killer in The Fall. That would make him more of a nightmare than a dream.

So where can a female audience find a dream lover that is just dangerous enough? One who is mysterious, and lethal, but incredibly hot – more importantly, a man you can fall for body and soul? Perhaps I have been looking at this all wrong. It’s the not the star, but the film you need to search out.

At the conclusion of Davis’s love trip, he pointed up the fact that teen romances such as The Fault in Our Stars or The Notebook offer the full-blooded romance so lacking in supposedly adult love stories these days. While the overgrown teenagers are making romcoms, some serious romantics are making love stories for teenagers. So that means Ryan Gosling could be our next Valentino, or Ansel Elgort – but for one film only.

Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen
Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen

We need to be more specific though, and also to find a hero with staying power, one who will hang around long enough for infatuation to turn into devotion. If there is a Christian Grey for teenagers, it’s Edward Cullen – a man so attractive Bella can’t leave him alone, but whose biology makes him both mysterious, and terribly dangerous. And Cullen is really the original Grey, not a diluted version. 50 Shades began life as Twilight fan fiction, the emotional and sexual response of a grown woman, EL James, to Stephanie Meyer’s stories for young adults.

Valentino may never have played a vampire, but he certainly played a few vamps, and lovers who were also villains. It’s so easy to imagine him in the role. “What if I’m not the hero,” Edward asks Bella. “What if I’m the bad guy?”

So Robert Pattinson is probably our next best thing to Valentino – but you might have to be a teenage girl to really understand why. He has the looks, the non-Hollywood accent, the devoted fanbase and that essential aura of sex, peril and European ennui. He may also be deadly straight, but the same cannot be said about his ex and co-star Kristen Stewart, who is still talking about their painful breakup in interviews, while championing LGBT rights. And even us oldies are into him now, as he’s well into his “serious” phase after two collaborations with David Cronenberg. Next thing you know he’ll be going on “strike” and offering to box a journalist.

This Observer article compares Pattinson to James Dean, because he will be playing a friend of Dean’s in a forthcoming biopic, and Pattinson’s response is so perfectly Valentino-ish it’s adorable: “I’m not entirely sure what brooding is, other than a chicken sitting on her eggs. So I’m not entirely sure why that’s considered an attractive trait.”

In truth, I didn’t set out to find the new Valentino – let’s allow him to reign a while longer – but to find out if there was still a place for such a character in modern movies. I think there is. Come a little closer, and I will tell you where to look – not in the films that command most of the critical attention, but in those with a younger, female audience.

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