If Ken Russell must continue to make movies (I suppose it keeps him off the street). Rudolph Valentino seems a more harmless butt of his alternately fervered and facetious kitschiness than many subjects, including such earlier victims as Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Mahler. No one considers Valentino and important artist, after all, and both his screen personality and private life have been inspiring ridicule and nasty speculation since the heights of his fame.

Russell's "Valentino," now at area theaters, is more to be regretted for wasting Rudolf Nureyev in the title role than abusing the much-abused old ghost of Valentino himself. No doubt it appealed to Russell's necrophiliac sense of humor to introduce Nureyev as Valentino's corpse, lying in state while hordes of mourners threaten to storm the funeral parlor and commit heaven-only-knows-what outrages as a token of their affection. However, being introduced as a stiff is not the most auspicious starting point for a great dancer making his film dramatic debut.

The folly of it all is underlined in the first scene where. Nureyev is allowed to move. We discover him in a ballroom dancing the tango with a young man who could pass for his double in longshot. The dancing partner proves to be someone else - Anthony Dowell - case as Nijinsky, who follows up the tango with a few solo classical turns that have the obscure young Valentino gawking in admiration.

Evidently, Nureyev was a approached to do a guest appearance as Nijinsky and then agreed to take on the starring role when that brainstorm overcame Ken Russell. The movie is haunted by the question that logically arises from this introductory sequence. Wouldn't it make more sense to star Nureyev in a movie about Nijinsky, through not necessarily a Ken Russell movie about Nijinsky.

The answer, it appears, is that such a project would make so much sense that studios and producers would immediately reject it. Why star Nureyev in a role that would suit him vocally, ethnically, artistically, tempermentally and every other way when he can be persuaded to dim his luster impersonating a star of another kind and lesser magnitude whose salient features don't suit him at all?

Nureyev lends himself to Russell's charades with a sincerity and good nature that are attractive for their own sake, but the movie does nothing for him in return. Even Valentino got more opportunites to demonstrate his dancing prowess, which one scarcely equates with Nureyev's. Every so often Nureyev's extraordinary grace and suppleness will impose themselves, and a few seconds of happy, unexpected hoofing leave you eager for more, but the sustained and decisive physical opportunites never materialize.

Meanwhile, a tedious script brimming with prattling, slangy dialogue places an unfair burrien on Nureyev's accent, which is frequently impenetrable and sometimes irresistibly reminiscent of Bela Lugosi, especially on lines as overripe as "They buy my flattery and my time, but my love is not for sale." What appears to save Nureyev from eternal embarrassment is the fact that several members of the cast are more conspicuously inadequate or downright amalcurish.

Michelle Phillips' wooden presence and flat, untrained speaking voice spell sure disaster for the supposedly torrid love scenes between Valentino and Natacha Rambova, the pretentious, bohemian American heiress (her real name was Winfred Sahunessy) who became his secong wife. The opening weekend crowes must have been attracted by the ads that show a nude Nureyev and Phillips embracing.

The soft-core expectations aroused by this image are betrayed by the movie itself, in which the performer's are obliged to play hide-the-genitals with Russell's camera and their tryst terminates not in sex but in a pointless dispute about Valentino's first wife, a non-character in the film.

As Alla Nazimova, the silent screen vamp who was also Rambova's patroness, Leslie Caron affects a Russian accent that makes Nureyev's sound negligible. Her entire impersonation is so thick that it might have passed as a comic triumph in a movie that maintained a consistently humorous and affectionate long about "20s film-making, like "Singin' in the Rain." One of Russell's persistent faults is the inability to find an appropriate and agreeable tone for his fantasias. Hypocritically, he heaps ridicule on the characters one moment and sheds crocodile tears over them in the next.

Carol Kane, shortchanged earlier this year "Annie Hall," does even worse for herself in "Valentino," appearing as the frizzy-haired, empty-headed, nasal-voiced girl friend of an obnoxious star called "Fatty," presumably a gratuitous slur on Fatty Arbuckle and perhaps the ugliest single notion in the movie. William Hootkins, the actor cast as "Fatty," seems desperate to live up to his name; his performance is such a vicious hootkins that one never wants to lay eyes on him again.

Although Phillips is the most amateurish lead, amateur of amateur honors go to June Bolton, cast as a grief-stricken old flame who starts the flashbacks rolling on the day of Valentino's funeral. Not that Russell seems interested in anyone's level of performance. His own style has so little emotional integrily that a hopeless reading or gesture is likely to be as useful to him as capable ones, Felicity Kendall holds her own as June Mathis, the screenwriter who really launched Valentino's career, and Penny Milford is amusingly abandoned as an oversexed starlet, but the performances that aren't diminished by either directorial indifference or excess seem incidental, and perhaps accidental.

Russell is a bit slow to go overboard on this occassion, but he makes up for slack time when he hurls "Fatty" at the audience, imagines Valentino being abused during a night in a Mexican jail and closes with a spectacularly impossible boxing match between Valentino and a reporter who has insulted his honor.

It's possible that the fight should be read as Russell's fantasy of what he'd do to disparaging reviewers if dream's could come true. In fact, this seems themore amusing interpretation, justified or not. The big mystery is why Russell bothered to much around in the life and legend of Valentino if all he perceives in the character is the moral we're left contemplating at the fadeout: If only Valentino could have been an ordinary orange grower, how happy he would have been.

I don't think anyone has ever succeeded in dramatizing Valentino as a tragic figure. Perhaps the nature of his allure was too fleeting and fantastic to accommodate serious treatment as readily as it accommodates satire, Valentino was certainly a movie star but his career was short, soaring in 1921 with the success of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and "The Sheik" and ending suddenly in 1926 when he died of peritonitis after entering a New York hospital for treatment of a perforated ulcer.

Valentino's appeal seems to have been confined almost exclusively to female movie fans, but it hasn't endured. Indeed, it barely survived the '20s and silent pictures themselves.

As film historian David Shipman has written. "it is unlikely that he would have been a star at any other time - in the unlikely event of his happening at any other time; his life bore a pleasing resemblance to the films and novels of the day, rags-to-riches and fierce, unrequited passions."

A director who reproduced this context might begin to make sense of the Valentino craze. Ken Russell has simply found another temporary pretext for indulging his crazed vulgarity.