Valentino (Leicester Square Theatre) Slap Shot (Plaza One) What is a man? In a time of crumbling certitudes, film makers dig away almost obsessively at attitudes to masculinity. That we are still in a fairly primitive phase of rethinking the whole idea of maleness can be seen in the way that most (especially American-made) films which raise the issue continue to do so only within a context of physical brutality and violence. The idea that gentleness is part of manhood lurks around the edges of two new releases but doesn't stand a chance against the filmmakers' loyalty to old, powerful stereotypes.
In an opening scene of Ken Russell's Valentino (X certificate) Nureyev, as Valentino in his New York dime-a-dance days, does a tango with Nijinsky played by Anthony Dowell. They dance beautifully, in long gliding swoops on a deserted floor, holding each other with perfect male formality and dignity yet with enormous sensual enjoyment of the gramophone music and their own effortless movements. It is breathtakingly simple and impressive.
You'd be well advised to walk out at this point, because it's the only nice thing about Russell's nasty, laboured fantasy. Was Valentino a poof or not? Russell keeps asking with all the malicious sadism of a hanging judge who has already answered to his own prurient satisfaction.
In a better picture the link between Valentino's private vices and the myth of his godlike sexuality might have proved a legitimate area to explore. I'm not that squeamish. Inured by countless 'bio-pics' which have wildly distorted their subjects' actual histories — e.g. the recent film about Woody Guthrie, Bound For Glory, or for that matter Ken Russell's own assaults on Tchaikovsky and Mahler — I'm relatively complacent about the callow liberties Russell takes with real people like Jessy Lasky, Nazimova and Fatty Arbuckle. And given Valentino's undeniable androgyne, even effeminate aspects, an honest film would have had to deal with his bior homosexuality and how this related to his own view of himself as a man. (He was, after all, a southern Italian.) 'Well, did I behave like a pink powderpuff?' were supposedly the actor's first words on coming round from anaesthetic after his peritonitis operation. Obviously, there are interesting possibilities in the life of a midnight cowboy from Castellaneto who, pulled in often conflicting directions by two dominating women — June Mathis, a shrewd spinster Metro executive who saw his box-office allure as a he-man rapist, and Rambova, his probably lesbian wife, who drew out his latent homosexuality in films she wrote for him like Monsieur Beaucaire — became the first real movie superstar.
Nureyev touches upon those possibilities. His proud Slavic face and extraordinarily supple body do actually suggest the complicated sexual nature of Valentino. Nureyev's acting is more than satisfactory; he works against a cynical, trashy script to create a Valentino who, though often ridiculous, never quite loses a sense of sober self-respect and stubborn professionalism. And occasionally it's nice just to sit back and watch him cross a floor. He moves with perfection.
To be fair to Ken Russell, the Roaring Twenties sets, the colour and camerawork are excellent. All that, however, is a mere proscenium for a parade of the director's notorious hangups. As usual he wants to implicate us in the pleasure he takes in humiliating and degrading people. All the campy skill and precise costuming of Valentino are used to pull the dead star through the mangle of the director's neurotic need — to be blunt — to piss on him.
Implicitly, George Roy Hill's racy, visually effective ice hockey story, Slap Shot (X certificate), also asks questions about manhood. And, as in Valentino, there is one scene only — this time at the end — which suggests a potential that is never mined.
A rather gentle ex-Ivy-League college skater, egged on by his ageing playermanager Paul Newman to commit mayhem on the ice, leaps from the bench seemingly intent on following orders. But what he does is an extremely funny strip-tease to illustrate for his win-at-any-price team, the Chiefs, and the crowd chanting for blood what a freak circus the game has become. That's fine. But then the director has the crowd applaud the non-violent player as lustily as they had just clapped for Newman's murderous goons a moment before. The Chiefs win the championship by default and it all dissolves into the same bittersweet ambiguity that made Butch Cassidy and The Sting (also made by Hill) such hits.
Slap-Shot — the title refers to a foul on an opposing player — is a soft film about a hard sport. The script, by a woman named Nancy Dowd, is perhaps the most 'masculine', foulest-mouthed I've encountered in a long time. Its semi-moronic hockey players spout sewer language that I suppose is meant to illustrate the dirtiness of a once graceful sport now degenerated in the States to a gladiatorial contest to see which team can spill the most of the other's blood. (I've seen hockey players, after beating up each other, leap into the seats at the customers.) Curiously, the effect is not to dramatise but to glamourise the violence.
Super-macho Ms Dowd — much like Russell in Valentino —goes miles out of her way to insinuate and nudge. Newman is given the raunchiest lines to underline, aggressively the film's preoccupation with various forms of homosexuality. He 'psyches out' an opposing goalie by taunting him with the lesbianism of the player's wife (with whom Newman, ever-normal of course, has just slept). And when the Chiefs' owner, a rich widow, decides to fold the club as a tax loss, Newman angrily charges her, irrelevantly, with turning her son into a homosexual. Few opportunities are lost to remind us that the American male culture is riddled with closet effeminacy, that the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name haunts every locker room.
There must be a moral in there somewhere — perhaps about undue violence or over-commercialisation in sports — but it's wiped out by the ninety-nine per cent of the film hogged by the players kicking, gouging and kneeing one another which we are encouraged to enjoy.
There are good things in Slap Shot. Plenty of exciting action shot by a camera which seems to sweep along the ice at 100 m.p.h. A good setting of a dying Pennsylvania mill town which nurses a losing third-rate hockey team. And a careful, downbeat performance by Newman as the Jock with a stick in his hands who will never grow up. But — aside from the suggestive (in all senses) strip-tease — • it comes to little. 'There's nothing there,' Newman's ex-wife tells him about himself when he asks her to come back to him. The same is true of Slap Shot.