Known for his obsessive explorations of sexuality, religion, music and history via a prism of stylized excess, filmmaker Ken Russell continually courted controversy, finding himself alternately accused of being a purveyor of filth by his detractors, and hailed as a visionary and the successor to Fellini by his supporters. After winning acclaim for early biographical dramas that included "Elgar" (1962) and "Song of Summer" (1968), Russell stunned theatergoers and critics alike with his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" (1969). From this point forward, the director seemed far less interested in being a critical darling than in becoming a cinematic agent provocateur of the highest order. Films like "The Devils" (1971), "Tommy" (1975), "Altered States" (1980), "Crimes of Passion" (1984) and "Whore" (1991) where just as likely to attract praise and box office success as they were condemnation, if not outright censorship. A period of unremarkable made-for-television projects in the mid-1990s preceded a series of self-produced video shorts, sporting titles like "The Fall of the House of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century" (2002) and "Revenge of the Elephant Man" (2004). Despite the paucity of budget and the limited distribution of these latter films, one thing was for certain - the mercurial filmmaker was still making precisely the movies he wanted to make, and love him or loathe him, there was no mistaking Ken Russell's work for that of anyone else.
Born Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell on July 3, 1927 in Southampton, Hampshire, U.K., he was the son of Ethel and Henry Russell. Russell's father, a shoe store owner, was reportedly an emotionally distant, angry and abusive man. As a result, the boy spent much of his early years ensconced in the safety of local movies houses with his mother, where works by directors such as Fritz Lang clearly influenced Russell's later cinematic inclinations. After receiving education in the nearby township of Walthamstow and at Pangbourne Nautical College, he briefly entered the Merchant Navy before being released due to a nervous breakdown. Following a period with the British Air Force, Russell began to pursue more artistic vocations and enrolled at the Walthamstow Art Academy. Shortly thereafter, he switched gears when he entered London's International Ballet School, where he studied for several years before ultimately abandoning his dancing ambitions. Creatively, Russell at last found his calling with well-received work as a freelance photographer, contributing to such publications as Picture Post and Illustrated in the mid-1950s. This eventually gave way to motion pictures and his first short film, "Peepshow" (1956), followed by "Lourdes" (1957) and "Amelia and the Angel" (1959). Having recently converted to Catholicism, the latter two religion-themed films were partially funded by the Catholic Film Institute.
"Amelia and the Angel" so impressed Huw Wheldon, mastermind behind the lauded BBC-TV arts program "Monitor," that he brought Russell on board the production, where the burgeoning director joined the ranks of John Schlesinger to helm a series of documentary shorts. Pieces such as "Scottish Painters" (BBC, 1959) eventually gave way to a revolutionary take on biographical documentaries, and a reinvigoration of what had become a staid genre. Russell was ingenious in subverting BBC restrictions, gradually transforming the boring little factual accounts that relied solely on photographs and old newsreels to evocative longer films, enlisting professional actors to impersonate historical figures. He made substantial strides with "Prokofiev" (BBC, 1961), prior to achieving a major breakthrough with the visually gorgeous "Elgar" (BBC, 1962), an extraordinarily successful meditation of British composer Edward Elgar. The project made Russell an overnight sensation and directly led to his first opportunity to direct a feature. That first film, "French Dressing" (1964), however, was an undeniable critical and financial failure, necessitating his return to the BBC where he continued to push visual and narrative boundaries with more biopics of artists like Bartok, Debussy and Isadora Duncan.
Working for another U.K. documentary program, "Omnibus," Russell filmed "Dante's Inferno" (BBC, 1967), a 90-minute study of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Oliver Reed) which made more use of fantasy sequences than its predecessors, prior to helming his second feature, "Billion Dollar Brain" (1967), a spy thriller starring Michael Caine, that once again failed to find an audience. Continuing on with "Omnibus," his next project was "Song of Summer: Frederick Delius" (BBC, 1968), an account of the final years of the brilliant but tyrannical British composer, considered by many to be the finest of Russell's made-for-TV films. The director's feature career finally gained credibility with the commercial and critical success of his next picture, an exceptional period evocation of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" (1969). Noted for its bold erotic sensibility, particularly in the famous nude wrestling scene between Reed and Alan Bates, the film garnered an Oscar for actress Glenda Jackson, and established her as a major star of the '70s. Russell's last film for "Omnibus" was the controversial "The Dance of the Seven Veils: A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes" (BBC, 1970), a docudrama that presented Richard Strauss as an egomaniac and a crypto-Nazi, going so far as to depict a group of SS men torturing a Jewish prisoner to the strains of the composer's "Der Rosenkavalier" waltz. The film drew howls of protest, most notably from the Strauss estate, who demanded it be banned from future airings. After an initially supportive BBC began to distance itself from both the director and the film, Russell permanently parted ways with the network.
It would not be the first time Russell courted controversy - his later work would at times be assigned such derogatory labels as "cultural pornography" and "visual madness." And while he would spend most of the remainder of his career in feature film, the passion for music, art and biography that he detailed so brilliantly as a TV documentarian, would continue to be a signature element of his future output. Despite the recent criticism and professional turbulence, the director responded with a volley of diverse projects in the following year. "The Music Lovers" (1971), a self-indulgent and factually dubious account of Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) that focused primarily on the composer's deeply closeted homosexuality, struck many viewers as inappropriate. With "The Devils" (1971), based on the Aldous Huxley novel The Devils of Loudon and a play by John Whiting, he once again riled audiences and reviewers with a highly sexualized, at times shocking historical drama depicting the destruction of a sexually liberated 17th Century priest (Reed) accused of witchcraft, and the repressed nun (Vanessa Redgrave) who is pathologically obsessed with him. Scenes that included explicit sex among the nuns and the extremely graphic burning at the stake of Reed's character, sent shockwaves through the critical establishment, resulting in a heavily edited version released in the U.S.; not surprisingly, big box-office numbers were driven by the salacious publicity. Russell's third film for the year, "The Boy Friend" (1971), was a stylish period musical starring Twiggy and produced on a relatively small budget. The film was well-received by English audiences and became widely regarded as one of the eclectic director's most accessible.
It was at this peak of his career that Russell decided to mount "Savage Messiah" (1972), an often overlooked adaptation of the H. S. Ede biography of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (Scott Antony), which the filmmaker largely funded himself. He followed with "Mahler" (1973), an energetic and gorgeously shot biopic of the tormented life of the turn-of-the-century composer (Robert Powell). As intriguing and moderately successful as it was, the film did not receive nearly the feverish response of Russell's seminal rock opera "Tommy" (1975), a virtually guaranteed hit due to The Who's immense popularity and its all-star cast that included Ann-Margret, Reed, Elton John, Jack Nicholson and Tina Turner. Even before the release of "Tommy," Russell began shooting "Lisztomania" (1975), one of the most outlandish musical extravaganzas in the director's oeuvre. A pseudo-biographical, psychedelic romp about the world's first pop star, composer Franz Liszt (Roger Daltry), it garnered early attention from Russell devotees and was considered by many too bizarre for all but the most ardent Russell aficionados. His next project, another heavily stylized biography, "Valentino" (1977), which featured an ill-suited Rudolph Nureyev in the title role as the silent-era sex symbol, was blasted by critics for its historical inaccuracies and largely ignored by audiences.
Following a pair of literary biopics for British television, Russell returned to feature work with a marked departure in subject and tone for "Altered States" (1980). A science-fiction tale written by Paddy Chayefsky and based on his novel of the same name, it starred William Hurt in his film debut as a professor whose experiments with sensory deprivation and psychotropic drugs lead to his own mental and physical de-evolution. Reportedly, Russell's working relationship with the writer was not a pleasant one, and while some critics were divided about the merits of the mind-bending thriller, it did reasonably well at theaters and launched Hurt to stardom. However, whatever good will he earned from critics and audiences with "Altered States" soon evaporated after the release of his next project, "Crimes of Passion" (1984). An erotic psychodrama about a prostitute (Kathleen Turner) who becomes the obsession of a deranged, drug and sex addicted street preacher (Anthony Hopkins), it was universally deemed an unmitigated disaster and became the director's last American-produced film. Clearly interested in exploring the monster within us all - "Altered States" drew comparisons to both "The Wolfman" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" - he explicitly mined the roots of the modern horror genre in "Gothic" (1986), an atmospheric tale depicting the stormy night that inspired Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) to write her classic novella Frankenstein while visiting Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) with her husband, Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), at a villa in Lake Geneva.
Russell continued in a similar vein with "The Lair of the White Worm" (1988), based on a novel by Dracula author Bram Stoker and featuring Hugh Grant as an English nobleman whose ancestral home harbors a gigantic snake-like creature worshipped by an insane priestess (Amanda Donohoe). While both this film and "Gothic" were largely dismissed at the time, each gained a modicum of cult-classic notoriety in the years that followed. That same year saw the release of the little-seen "Salome's Last Dance" (1988), in which legendary British wit Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) enjoys a production of his play "Solome" that is performed by prostitutes at a high-end brothel. Russell revisited D. H. Lawrence with his adaptation of "The Rainbow" (1989), a prequel to "Women in Love," with Glenda Jackson appearing as the mother of the character she played in the earlier film. Considered inconsistent and uneven, albeit beautifully filmed, at the time of its release, "The Rainbow" enjoyed neither the same reverence nor longevity of its predecessor. After a rare acting appearance in the Sean Connery-Michelle Pfeiffer Cold War romantic thriller "The Russia House" (1990) and more television work, Russell helmed "Whore" (1991). One of his last efforts to see a wide release, the film's provocative title caused it to be renamed "If You Can't Say It, See It" for distribution purposes and was branded with the dreaded NC-17 rating by the NPAA. Filmed in a low-budget, documentarian style, the film told the story of 24 hours in the life of a streetwalker (Theresa Russell) and was the director's harsh answer to the "hooker with a heart of gold" fairy tale seen the year prior in "Pretty Woman" (1990).
On cable TV a greatly restrained Russell directed "Prisoner of Honor" (HBO, 1991), a historical drama that examined Jewish persecution through the narrative lens of the French military Dreyfus Affair from the late 19th Century. He returned to Lawrence for a third time with "Lady Chatterley" (BBC, 1993), a four-part miniseries based on the author's Lady Chatterley's Lover, starring Joely Richardson in the title role and co-starring Sean Bean. Other works included the Uri Geller biopic "Mindbender" (1996) - criticized by many as little more that a bit of propaganda for the self-proclaimed psychic - as well as the made-for-cable "Dogboys" (Showtime, 1998), a bland thriller barely recognizable as a Russell-directed film. Later efforts amounted to mostly small, self-produced oddities shot on video, often using Russell's own home as a location; among them, "Lion's Mouth" (2000), "The Fall of the House of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century" (2002) and "Revenge of the Elephant Man" (2004). The 80-year-old filmmaker still had a few tricks up his sleeve when he surprised viewers by participating in British television's "Celebrity Big Brother" (Channel 4, 2001- ) for the 2007 season. Russell departed five episodes into the show, however, after a heated disagreement with another of the celebrity houseguests. Although he continued to appear infrequently over the following years with cameos in such low-budget fare as "Mr. Nice" (2010) or the occasional talk show, a series of strokes had greatly reduced the once prolific filmmaker's output by 2011. Still contributing a regular film column to London's The Times and reportedly in the process of mounting a stage musical based on Alice in Wonderland, Ken Russell died in his sleep on November 27 at the age of 84.
By Bryce Coleman