Saturday, June 15, 2013

Valentino, The Chic

He was the first male heartthrob of the silver screen, and his death at age 31 in 1926 left him frozen in time as the ultimate Latin lover. Rudolph Valentino is best remembered for his iconic role as The Sheik (1921), ravishing actress Agnes Ayres in the desert with an obscene leer and a manic glint in his eye. Female theatergoers screamed and fainted in the aisles of their local movie houses whenever the handsome face of “Rudy”  was shown in close-up, according to the publicity of the time.  

His darkly brooding exotic looks, fit physique and athleticism contrasted with his catlike grace (he’d supported himself as a dancehall gigolo and was a master of the tango) and flamboyant sense of style. In fact, though he appeared in rugged adventure movies and enjoyed many torrid onscreen romances, his masculinity was questioned and challenged in the press for his entire career. The fact that he married an avowed bisexual, Natacha Rambova, who was rumored to be having a lesbian affair with Valentino’s former costar All Nazimova, fueled the flames of gossip about Valentino’s true sexual identity. Was he really gay?  

Valentino did indeed seem to enjoy the art of dress-up that his acting career afforded him, spendidly attired in period costumery in films like The Young Rajah and Monsieur Beaucaire, and in flashy matador drag in Blood and Sand. The fact that he obviously wore makeup onscreen became another source of derision--critics started referring to him as “Rudy, the pink powder puff.”  

 The pressures of fame took a toll on him, and he relied on heavy drinking to ease his tensions. His liver gave out, he fell ill and died suddenly. His funeral was, by all accounts, a bigger Hollywood production than any of his films.

He’s been dead for almost 90 years, but thanks to the magic of photography and today’s technologies, Valentino’s mystique can go on eternally. 

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