Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Matt Tyrnauer On Valentino: The Last Emperor, His Marvelous Debut Film
Expanded Edition of 3-25-09 Windy City Times Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Celebrity profiler turned filmmaker Tyrnauer, Valentino his subject with models in two of his fabulous creations, Giancarlo
Giammetti, Valentino and Tyrnauer at a premiere event for the film
As a Special Correspondent for Vanity Fair Matt Tyrnauer has profiled a lot of big names – Martha Stewart, Siegfried and Roy, and
Greg Kinnear among them. But he struck gold when he profiled the Italian fashion design legend Valentino. Not only did the elusive
designer open up his private life to Tyrnauer, after the article was published he took the unprecedented step of allowing Tyrnauer
and his cameras to follow him and his business and life partner, Giancarlo Giammetti around for nearly two years – the last two years
before his retirement. The resulting film from the openly gay Tyrnauer, Valentino: The Last Emperor is an enthralling glimpse
into a private world of sumptuous luxury, a behind the scenes look at couture fashion, and most endearingly, a warm portrait of the
decades-long relationship of Valentino and Giancarlo – a true gay power couple. As Windy City Times spoke with Tyrnauer he has
just returned to his home base in New York after taping an episode of Oprah Winfrey with the designer and his partner. Highlights:
WINDY CITY TIMES (WCT): You must be on cloud nine after the huge boost that Oprah gave to the movie – I mean she did three
detailed segments on it – wow.
MATT TYRNAUER (MT): I think we were all blown away – Valentino, Giancarlo and I were very surprised and we were honored to be
singled out for, as you said, three segments. It was almost an out of body experience (laughs). The power of Oprah – we were
flooded with so many emails the next day that our system did, of course, crash a few times (laughs). It’s up and running now but
there were literally thousands of emails from people reaching out to us.
WCT: Why did Valentino trust you and give you such intimate access? Did Giancarlo help pave the way? Did the magazine piece
just make it a natural segue into the movie?
MT: Sometime if you do a long form story on someone you get a divorce after because they don’t like the piece and I don’t mind
that. I think you’re doing your job if the person is upset sometimes because you shouldn’t write hagiography. In this case the
relationship survived although it was a very revealing piece because they had never talked about their relationship or their
homosexuality or really anything. I’m not sure why they opened up to me. I’m not a fashion writer and I think that had something
to do with it and that they didn’t feel that I knew everything about them and I didn’t really care about the fashion that much. I was
very interested in what he was doing but they don’t like to talk about fashion outside of work. I think they’re used to, in a
journalism context, people who know everything and I think they find that a little tiring. So I think that helped. I think having
someone who shared their sexuality and someone who was gay and an American was probably helpful. I think being Italian and
being of their generation they were not – you would say in modern parlance – “out” but at times they don’t even see it that way for
the most part. There’s virtually no “in” and “out” in Italy – it’s just a different continuum and a different set up.
WCT: So it really is “La Dolce Vita?”
MT: Less so now than it was. I don’t know, I think that they felt they could be open with me because I would identify with them on a
certain level and we went deeply personal very quickly. So they were telling me things they’d never told anyone else – how they met,
who their boyfriends were before and how long they were together, and what it was like to have trouble along the way in the
relationship. I mean that they were talking about the relationship at all was mind blowing. So anyway, I had this kind of bond with
them and I asked them if they would do the movie because I became very interested in the relationship. It’s a 50 year marriage
but it’s really more than a marriage. It’s as if two people became a part of a whole which I think is a really interesting thing.
Especially when you’re talking about gay relationships and longevity in gay relationships is frequently hard to come by and this one
was in world record territory for me. So I felt, “Well, this would be a great thing to get on film” and their dynamic together and the
dialogue between – especially in the movie when they forgot the camera was their which they did sometimes – seems almost
scripted they’re so over the top some of them. This is going to be, I thought, a good idea. So we got some seed money and we
began filming and we ended filming for two years.
WCT: Ironically, with all this Prop 8 stuff, their relationship almost seems an argument against gay marriage. Like who needs it
when you can build something like what they have? Did they ever discuss the topic with you?
MT: It’s coming up in all the press we’re doing and I’m glad it is and I’m glad that you just asked that question because I agree
with you. Let me first say that Proposition 8 is toxic and it must be repealed. People should be able to do whatever they want and
everyone should be protected equally under the law. However, this movie does show – because it examines what could be called a
proto gay marriage that two people – in this case, two men – can really go – especially in the city of the Vatican (laughs) in a country
that is 99% Catholic – for 50+ years without being married. I didn’t ask them about marriage when I was interviewing them and it
didn’t come up when we were shooting the film because it wasn’t really in the news and certainly not in Italy and now it is and they
have been asked about it. As I suspected they are not really interested in the concept of gay marriage. It’s not that they reject it;
it's just that it’s not in their worldview. I mean, look at the generation – they came of age in the 50s, their Italian, Giancarlo and
Valentino lived with their mothers until the mothers died.
WCT: Oh good heavens…
MT: …they never told the mothers about their relationship even though the mothers were living in the house (laughs). So this is
very Italian where the forbidden is permitted in plain sight.
WCT: Talk about the down low.
MT: Exactly. That’s a great point and this gives new meaning to the “down low” – we’ve got to figure out the Italian for “down low.”
I think I heard Valentino say last week that he has no interest in the idea of gay marriage but this is not to be looked at negatively.
I think this is actually affirmational because this movie is out there talking about their relationship. It’s a love story. Charlie Rose
asked them, “Was it Capri in 1960 where they fell in love?” and they were forced to answer that question which I assure you no one
has ever asked them publicly or privately before and there out there with this story. One of the reasons I wanted to make the movie
was to put that relationship out there so people can learn from its example. Just one more thing on gay marriage – as I said, if two
men, two women want to get married, they should be able to get married. The law should sanction it, of course. Every state should
sanction legal standing for partners but I think there are some legitimate questions to be raised about the politicized cry for gay
marriage because what people are asking for is the right to conform. I think it’s a legitimate discussion as to whether members of
the homosexual or for lack of a better term, gay people, should be so quick to want to conform.
WCT: You mean to emulate straight culture.
MT: Yeah – the heterosexual model that has dominated the culture and in a lot of ways has created a lot unnecessary misery for
people over the ages.
WCT: Well you just wrote about something in the last Vanity Fair – the four gay male architects who lived together as a family – talk
MT: It’s sort of a parallel narrative to Valentino and Giancarlo. It was a story about an architect named John Woolf who was a
master architect in L.A. who invented the kind of Hollywood style of architecture called Hollywood Regency. He built houses for every
celebrity of significance in Hollywood from Gary Cooper to Clark Gable to Loretta Young to Paul Lynde.
WCT: It was a fascinating story and would make a great movie.
MT: It is though it needs some plot inflections – it needs a murder or something (laughs).
WCT: Now you shot over 270 hours of footage. What are we going to see on the eventual DVD?
MT: When we assembled our rough cut we had an over seven hour movie. There are many entire movies in this one movie. There
was a kind of Gosford Park storyline that was much more embellished because I was determined to make a 90 minute movie – I
think every movie should be 90 minutes. We had an upstairs/downstairs thing going because Valentino has 60 fulltime staff if you
count gardeners. It was a really rich topic and the majordomo who is a character in the film now, Michael Kelly, had 20 minutes of
screen time at a certain point but we couldn’t justify it. He’s a great character, this man and his relationship with the lord of the
manner, Valentino, was absolutely fascinating to watch. There’s a great sequence that isn’t in the film where they’re having a huge
summer party at his chateau – more lavish than you can imagine – and it starts to torrentially pour for hours and Valentino issued
an edict that the Aubusson rug must be removed from the drawing room because the ladies high heels “will be dirty and they will go
into the rug.” So this was a major operation that had to take place – moving Louis Quartz antiques and things like that in ten
minutes to replace this rug. It was just fascinating to watch; it was like a ballet – ballet of the servants.
WCT: Being surrounded by all that luxury and with such intimate access, how did you manage to keep your perspective?
MT: For Vanity Fair I’ve long been in the position of the interloper where you are accepted into these worlds that are not your own.
The wealth is sometimes extreme; the lifestyles are extreme. Sometimes they’re out of the past – their people that are living in
bubbles. I call them bubble people and Valentino is a prime suspect. They’re worlds are hermetically sealed; they’re hothouse
flowers and they’re protected. In this case, Giammetti protects Valentino – they’re protected from reality and it’s lovely. It’s called
perfect living (laughs) and it is very hard to live perfectly. It just doesn’t happen to you. You know, after World War II, you don’t
have 60 servants. No one does, really. The Queen of England, heads of state maybe but very few people do this. At one point
Valentino said to me regarding the servants, “Don’t do this” as if I could ever dream of it but “Don’t do this” because you become a
prisoner. He is a prisoner of this world, actually. He’s kind of a beautiful prisoner.
WCT: Hmm. That’s sad.
MT: Well he’s not an unhappy prisoner, though.
WCT: But is he unhappy now? After giving up the career? It seems like both their lives were so wrapped up in work. What did they
have outside of work?
WCT: Okay, right but what do they do?
MT: Travel? This is a very good question because they worked all the time. Let’s go to Freud, “Love and Work” (laughs). They
had both in good measure so I think they are happy people by the Freudian standards certainly and they appear to be happy. Work
had to stop and they’re still healthy and capable of doing the work. I think it was a very hard decision. Imagine doing four
collections a year for 50 years – really more than that – drawing every day and not having that anymore. I think it’s a very difficult
step. It’s hard to cry for people with a chateau and a yacht and that lifestyle but I think the reason people are connecting with the
movie is that it’s a universal story. A few people read it as an ode to excess and opulence and I don’t see it as that at all. I cast a
rather cold eye on it and the audience can decide for themselves if this is a legitimate way to do things. It’s much more interesting
to not indict it and just to show it because it’s rather remarkable. It wouldn’t matter if they were two farmers in Sicily instead of two
of the richest men in Rome. The core would be the same.
WCT: But it’s kinda nice to go on the yacht, to visit the chateau, to see the servants scurrying about (laughs). The movie certainly
has the old fashioned element of living vicariously in this deluxe lifestyle. Now for me, the emotional peak of the movie for me
comes when Valentino accepts the Legion of Honor and publicly thanks Giancarlo. It made me wonder, is there a Giancarlo working
in tandem with you?
MT: If only, if only, if only (laughs).
WCT: Is that part of the lure of a story like this for you?
MT: I think it’s very interesting; a great question for anybody to ask. How do you set up your life? Your household? Your family?
Which is what they did – they made family of friends, really and lovers and ex-lovers and this is sort of a core to an entourage that
they do on a very grand level. I think there are a lot of gay people do make families out of friends and that’s a very wonderful thing
and very legitimate. It never would have never been seen if they hadn’t let me in and they were very brave to do so, by the way. I
had final cut of the film – not that they didn’t try to persuade me to remove things. I think that this story was a story that wouldn’t
have been told if not for this lucky chance meeting with them. It’s really nice to put this example forward for people to look at and
either accept or reject or be indifferent to. They’re admitting it’s a love story and this is a new thing for them.
WCT: Now you’re working next on a film about Gore Vidal?
MT: I am.
WCT: How is that coming along?
MT: Well, we’re so busy releasing this right now…we’ve filmed quite a bit with Gore and I’ve known Gore for years. I’m his editor at
Vanity Fair and I’m his literary executor and I’ve spent a lot of time with him. I think he’s the greatest man of letters and talk about
brave, “The City and the Pillar” I believe in English literature to openly discuss homosexuality – that was in 1948 when he was I
believe 23 – so there’s a gold medal for bravery right there. Anyway, it’s in progress.
WCT: Well you’re off to a great start with the Valentino film. Congratulations.
MT: Thank you.