Maverick British filmmaker Ken Russell died at the age of 84, of natural causes, on Sunday November 27, 2011.
According to The Daily Mail, his widow Elize Tribble said “It is with great sadness that I can confirm that Ken Russell passed away peacefully in his sleep on Sunday afternoon. It was completely unexpected, as he was doing what he loved. He had recently agreed to direct the feature film Alice In Wonderland:The Musical and he was working on the script and casting of that. He also had just completed an article for The Times on a review of the re-release of his film The Devils, so he was keeping himself very busy.”
As a cinematic artist, Russell was audacious, outrageous, and known for pushing the boundaries of the form. He made some great films, some bad films, but never a dull film. Here now, in alphabetical order, are Ken Russell’s Greatest Hits:
Altered States (1980): Russell freely adapted Paddy Chayefsky’s novel about a psych professor (William Hurt) who has transformative visions in a sensory deprivation tank. The director clashed with the author throughout the making of the film, and Chayefsky ultimately had his name removed from the credits. With Blair Brown.
Billion Dollar Brain (1967): Russell made the transition from television director to feature films with this adaptation of the Len Deighton spy novel, which was Michael Caine’s third time around as reluctant spy Harry Palmer. The movie hints at Russell’s later visual flair, with some eye-popping scenes and bizarre camera angles. With Karl Malden and Ed Begley.
The Boy Friend (1970): Russell’s homage to the movie musical used a play-within-a-play structure to adapt Sandy Wilson’s 1957 stage hit with wit, affection, and no shortage of camp. With Twiggy, Tommy Tune, and frequent Russell collaborator Glenda Jackson.
Dante’s Inferno (1967): Made for British Television, this Russell film biography of pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Gabriel Dante Rossetti features Oliver Reed in one of his finest performances. Collected on DVD in the box set Ken Russell at the BBC.
The Debussy Film (1965): In the first of Russell’s eight collaborations with Oliver Reed, the notorious British actor shines in a dual role as the composer Claude Debussy and the actor playing him in the film-within-a-film. Russell and Reed developed a shorthand for Ollie’s acting range: “Moody One,” Moody Two,” and “Moody Three,” ranging from quiet menace to bellowing rage.
The Devils (1971): Perhaps Russell’s greatest cinematic achievement stars Reed as Father Urbain Grandier, a lusty priest who tries to protect his city from an unholy union of church and state fomented by the evil and creepy Cardinal Richelieu. Naked nuns, bearing false witness, lead to Ollie being burned at the stake. The film was unjustly hacked up by the censors, but was re-released in Russell’s original director’s cut in 2011. With Vanessa Redgrave as the hunchbacked Mother Superior.
Gothic (1986) and The Lair of the White Worm (1988): After a frustrating period in Hollywood, Russell returned to the UK and his provocative ways with these stylized horror films. Gothic concerns the speculative events which led to Mary Shelley’s writing Frankenstein, while his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm, featuring Amanda Donohue and a young Hugh Grant, harkens back to the Hammer films of the late ’50s and early ’60s, except with more nudity and a giant worm.
The Music Lovers (1971): In his biographies of great composers for the BBC, Russell often pushed the envelope, culminating in 1970’s The Dance of the Seven Veils, which portrayed Richard Strauss as a Nazi, and was banned after legal action by the Strauss estate. Given a much larger budget, Ken pulled out all the stops in this big-screen biopic of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, which contrasts the composer’s tortured personal life as a closeted homosexual married to a nymphomaniac with an epic classical score. With Richard Chamberlain (himself closeted at the time) and Glenda Jackson.
Prisoner of Honor (1991): This made-for-cable drama stars Richard Dreyfuss in a film about the scandalous Dreyfus affair, when an innocent French Jew was sent to Devil’s Island for a crime he did not commit. The film marked Russell’s last collaboration with Oliver Reed.
Song of Summer (1968): The best of Russell’s work for BBC’s “Omnibus” program, the film tells the story of the last five years of composer Frederick Delius’s life as seen through the eyes of a young acolyte, Eric Fenby. The younger man, played by frequent Russell collaborator Christopher Gable, helps the blind and paralyzed Delius to finish his final symphonies by transcribing the sounds in the composer’s head.
Tommy (1975): Pete Townshend’s 1969 rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball prodigy turned new age messiah may have not made much sense as a narrative, but provided a framework for Russell’s mad visuals and wild set pieces, such as the one in which Ann-Margret is covered in baked beans and chocolate sauce while rolling around on the floor with a giant phallus. The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey plays the title role, and would go on to play Franz Liszt in Russell’s over-the-top biopic Lisztomania the same year, Oliver Reed is by turns funny and frightening as Tommy’s sleazy stepdad, and Jack Nicholson, Elton John, Tina Turner, and Eric Clapton turn in memorable cameo roles.
Whore (1991): Conceived by Russell as a more honest interpretation of the Julia Roberts hit Pretty Woman, the fim got an NC-17 rating and earned far less at the box office. With Theresa Russell.
Women in Love (1969): Russell’s reputation as cinema’s enfant terrible was cemented with this Oscar-nominated adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel. Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden play sisters who become involved with two very different men: Oliver Reed’s tormented industrialist and Alan Bates’s bisexual artist. Reed and Bates have a nude wrestling match in front of a roaring fire, a scene taken directly from the book, but considered most shocking upon the film’s release. In 1989, Russell directed a prequel, The Rainbow, with Sammi Davis in the Jackson role. With Elenor Bron.