Valentino • Julia
• Ken Russell's taste for surrealistic fantasy renders him incapable of creating a serious film biography, as his latest movie, VALENTINO, makes abundantly clear. Russell, who co-authored and directed the film, has created some dazzling special effects, which underscore both the fascinating and the repellent aspects of idol worship. Hundreds of fans chant a midnight litany outside Valentino's mansion; and shortly after his death, a wailing mob attempts to break into his casket while his body lies in state. But on the biographical level, as a study of the silent film star, Valentino is too melodramatic and too broadly acted to be taken seriously. In the title role, dancer Rudolf Nureyev makes an impressive acting debut in what is essentially a lightweight characterization.
The film interprets Valentino as a gifted, somewhat vain dancer who is easily manipulated by the women in his life. The women themselves do not come off at all well: Leslie Caron camps outrageously as a lesbian prima donna; Michelle Phillips alternates between cold calculation and hysteria as Valentino's superstitious wife; Carol Kane plays a naive star whose salvation lies in the fact that talking pictures haven't been invented yet; and Leland Palmer gets to show off little of her dancing talent as Valentino's drunken stage partner. Ken Russell's lack of enthusiasm for Hollywood is well known, and colors the entire movie. But in achieving what amounts to his revenge on macho trips, idol worship, gossip journalism and the rest of Hollywood's excesses, Russell has inadvertently created an excess of his own: a biography which incorporates the worst aspects of 1940-style melodrama.
—Charles F. Barr
• Once every four or five years there appears a film directed by Fred Zinnemann. The rarity of this great Viennese director's works constitutes a great loss to his viewers. All his films are noteworthy for the clarity and incisiveness of their story line, the care and perceptiveness with which the characters are delineated, and the revealing atmospheric touches, the careful attention to the most minute details, and most of all the unerring developmental sense with which the story unfolds and is propelled toward its climax. Occasionally his films are exciting without being involving, as in his 1974 film The Day of the Jackal. But on other occasions, as in The Search, The Men, High Noon, The Nun's Story, and From Here to Eternity, the qualities that make for an engrossing movie are combined with a subject-matter that is highly charged emotionally, and the result is an experience of such intensity as is seldom seen on the screen.
JULIA is such an occasion. One could fault the characters (not the characterizations) for numerous things: one could say, If Lillian Hellman was fighting against totalitarianism, why did she marry Dashiell Hammett, a member of the Communist Party? And why did she make a pilgrimage to Russia? One might say in reply that one enemy at a time is enough, or that she was acquainted with the evils of Nazism but not of the Soviet Union, or, most plausibly, that this is a film based on Hellman's autobiography, and presents her life-story as it is, not as it ought to be.
The portrayal of Lillian Hellman by Jane Fonda is flawless—a study in emotional depth, sensitivity, restraint, and inner radiance—and is by far her best acting role to date. The portrayal of Julia by Vanessa Redgrave is also, in its unique way, glowing with warmth and vibrating with excitement. Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett is solid and sensitive, and Maximilian Schell and Hal Holbrook are convincing in bit parts, but the film belongs to the two women.
At first, as one settles down, one thinks that this is going to be a mood-picture; and it is indeed a mood-picture, masterfully sustained throughout. But it is also much more: it is a suspense film as well, the suspense being all the more meaningful because of the empathy that has been built up between the viewer and the major characters. The moment-to-moment details of the train ride through Nazi Germany pulsate with excitement only because we have become so attuned to the inner workings of the minds of the protagonists.
In other hands, the film could have become either boring or maudlin with zero effort. In the hands of a master of his art such as Zinnemann, every detail becomes freighted with emotional impact. A seemingly casual word, a glance from one eye to another, the way a mouth is drawn, the external containment of emotion while the subsurface seethes with it—all this reveals far more than dialogue alone; the film's impact is greater for what is not said than for what is. The sight of leaves in an autumn forest can make one feel them under one's feet; a glance, barely noticeable, carries with it such a telling implication that one shudders; a tight-lipped receipt of a long-distance telephone call echoes the tension of a cord about to snap or a world about to plunge into war; a flashback no more than thirty seconds long, recalling what life once was, can engulf one in dizzying waves of nostalgia. That such effects can be achieved in this jaded time is a tribute to Zinnemann's depth of human insight and his mastery of the medium required to express it.
To say that this is Zinnemann's best film would be an exaggeration, for he is his own ablest competitor. But to say that it is the most clearly articulated, the most moving, and the most sensitively rendered American film to appear in 1977 would be, if anything, an understatement. The film is a fulfillment of Aristotle's ideal of dramatic catharsis: it is emotionally draining, and yet fulfilling and ennobling at the same time, for it raises the level of one's perception of the world and one's awareness of the tumultuous inner life of those who inhabit it.
• Two futuristic novels, both current best sellers, have appeared which deal with the consequences of runaway inflation in the United States: The Crash of '79 by Paul Erdman and On the Brink by Benjamin and Joseph Stein. Both novels are full of action and are ideally adapted for cinematic treatment. It will be interesting to see whether Hollywood decides to make these two revealing and exciting novels into films, and thus perhaps help to prevent the occurrence of the events which the novels describe.