Ken Russell, the British director of such iconically trippy ’60s and ’70s films as The Who’s rock opera ‘Tommy,’ ‘The Devils’ and ‘Women in Love,’ has died at age 84.
The director’s son, Alex Verney-Elliott, said Russell died in a hospital on Sunday following a series of strokes. “My father died peacefully,” Verney-Elliott said. “He died with a smile on his face.”
His widow, Elize Tribbble, told the AP that Russell was working on a musical feature film of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ when he died.
That would have been a subject matter ideally suited for Russell, whose films often featured baroque visuals and altered realities. His over-the-top aesthetic and choice of controversial subjects — drugs, sex, and religion — guaranteed him a devoted cult following but very little critical or commercial success.
He had his male leads (Oliver Reed and Alan Bates) wrestle nude in a famous scene from ‘Women in Love,’ and cast Vanessa Redgrave as a humpbacked nun who helps fuel a religious witch hunt in ‘The Devils.’ He supposedly pitched his 1970 film ‘The Music Lovers’ about Tchaikovsky to the studio with the line “it’s about a nymphomaniac who falls in love with a homosexual.”
His best regarded film is 1969’s ‘Women in Love,’ his relatively straightforward adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel, which netted him his only Best Director Oscar nomination and a Best Actress Academy Award for star Glenda Jackson.
Jackson called Russell “an incredible visual genius,” adding, “It’s an absolute shame that the British film industry has ignored him. It’s an absolute disgrace… He broke down barriers for so many people.”
Paul McGann, who starred in Russell’s 1989 film ‘The Rainbow,’ (another D.H. Lawrence tale) said the director “encouraged an irreverent joyousness on set and usually got it. I remember him sat on a camera crane in kaftan and sandals shouting to us through a megaphone: ‘Even greater heights of abandon!'” McGann said. “He’s how you imagined, and hoped, a movie director would be.”
Born in Southampton in 1927, Russell studied ballet, then acting before becoming a fashion photographer. He was hired to produce profiles of famous artists for a BBC arts programs and was soon dramatizing the biographies, setting the path for his enty into filmmaking. He’d go on to create unorthodox films about Franz Liszt (1975’s ‘Lisztomania starring The Who’s Roger Daltrey), ‘The Music Lovers’ about Tchaikovsky,’ ‘Mahler’ and ‘Gothic,’ about one wild, drug-induced night in the life of Romantic authors Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Mary Shelley.
In the ’80s, Russell delivered the hallucinogenic ‘Altered States,’ starring William Hunt as a scientist who devolves into a primitive version of man. Even more hallucinogenic was his 1989 horror comedy ‘The Lair of the White Worm,’ a campy cult film starring a young Hugh Grant battling an ancient vampire intent on human sacrifice.
No funeral plans have yet been announced.