How can you have a movie that has lines like "Cut the hearts and flowers - he's my bread and butter"? And "All you have to do to succeed in Hollywood is look sincere, and let me tell you, brother, looking sincere in this town is a lot of work."

Yet "Valentino," which contains these words and visual gems to match, has been called everything in the critical vocabulary except "hilarious." Which is what it is. And not in the sense of being so bad that it's laughable, either.

The emotional extravagance and sock-'em-in-the-eye symbolism that has characterized Ken Russell's film biographies of compsosers who deserved better is perfect in the story of the simple, silent actor with the burn-a-hole-in-your-rug eyes. When a movie director, on location in the desert, screams at Valentino that he's dead in Hollywood, and you see a tiny funeral procession of actors in the background and a vulture in the foreground, is "overdone" really the word?

It is being siad that the dramatic talents of Rudolp Nureyev are wasted, even humiliated. He is unquestionably a great dancer, but have you seen the acting that goes into, say, the role of Prince Florimund in "Sleeping Beauty"? The corny pantomime in ballet classics is much closer to silent movies than either the modern stage or screen is.

It seems odd that people are taking seriously, and offense at, the attempt to give Valentino a maudin side to his simple nature. He's represented as hankering for fruit farming, which is almost as good as the sentimentality he is shown having for his mother.When he's poor, he keeps saying he'll save up and bring her to America: years later, you see him as a saddened star, holding the letter announcing her death. Oops - he forgot to send her the ticket.

They say that "Valentino" is vulgar, particularly in the way it treats the hysteria after his death. Yes - and the Elvis Presley funeral festival wasn't?

Valentino's appeal is neatly explained as the conventional sex fantasy - the rape scene that can't be real and doesn't hurt - of an otherwise sophisticated woman script writer. But the idea of there being a national standard of sexiness, and the havoc it creates in ordinary people can't achieve the silly dream, is still very much with us. The be-yourself business is enormous in a society where people are preoccupied with fantasy ideals. The celebrity-publicity machine, the what-is-he-really-like industry has, if anything, grown since Valentino's time. And so the savagery with which people attack this actor for being a sex symbol, and then attack him again for being privately and gently asexual, is frightening and important.