Maverick British filmmaker Ken Russell has died, according to the BBC and Deadline Hollywood and other sources. He was 84. He reportedly passed away in his sleep.
Russell was born on July 3, 1927, in Southampton. Despite an early ambition to be a ballet dancer, Russell became a merchant seaman while still a teenager, perhaps as an escape from his father, who was given to violent rages. As a child, Russell and his mother often sought refuge from these episodes at the movies.
The critics were not often but always divided on Russell’s work, which was at the least visually opulent, if not completely over-the-top, and his frequently controversial choices in subject matter and treatment. It’s probably safe to say he bored no one.
He was introduced to classical music, which would be a recurrent motif in his later film work, following a nervous breakdown. He became a photographer after a stint in the RAF. He also began making amateur films, which eventually led to a job in the BBC Arts Department. He was supposed to be making straight documentaries about artists, using only still photographs or newsreel footage. Russell began sneaking the odd shot of hands playing the piano, or someone glimpsed from behind walking through a door. This evolved into using actors to play the subject of the documentary, wildly controversial at the time, although where would the History Channel be without the technique?
Russell’s first feature film was “Women in Love” in 1969, based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence, and starring Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson. Russell showed what was to be a characteristic lack of shyness where nudity was concerned. The film won him his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Director.
His next film, 1970’s “The Music Lovers,” portrayed classical composer Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) as a homosexual married to a nymphomaniac (Glenda Jackson) he cannot satisfy. The subject matter, as well as the graphic nudity, inspired critical outrage. Russell was unrepentent.
They hadn’t seen anything yet. In 1971 Russell directed “The Devils,” which permanently cemented his reputation as a love-him-or-hate-him director. Based on the play by John Whiting and Aldous Huxley’s novel “The Devils of Loudon,” the movie was about demonic possession, an outspoken priest (Oliver Reed again) and a group of sexually repressed nuns, including a very young Vanessa Redgrave. The graphic sexuality, combined with shocking religious iconography, absolutely guaranteed international controversy. Even critics who liked the movie thought the grotesque visuals overpowered the story.
His next movie was based on the stage musical, “The Boy Friend,” and starred model-turned-actress Twiggy. He then turned to the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska for his next film, “Savage Messiah.” His love of classical music was evident in “Mahler” (1974) which starred Robert Powell.
Then came “Tommy,” the movie which really brought him to the attention of a large-scale American movie audience. Based on the rock opera by The Who, “Tommy” starred Who front man Roger Daltrey in the title role, and featured supporting performances by Oliver Reed, Ann-Margaret, Jack Nicholson and Robert Powell, with cameos by Eric Clapton, Elton John and Tina Turner. The other members of The Who appeared onscreen as well. Russell took full advantage of the opportunities the material provided him to be not only visually flamboyant but utterly surreal.
Daltrey again starred for Russell in “Lisztomania,” sort of a biopic of composer Franz Liszt with particular attention paid to phallic imagery. Ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev starred as silent screen idol Rudolf Valentino in “Valentino,” and surprisingly few critics noted the unliklihood of finding a star named Rudolf to play a main character named Rudolf.
The fascinating science fiction movie “Altered States” followed in 1980. This project pitted the notoriously iconoclastic and individualistic Russell against brilliant and other-than-humble writer Paddy Chayefsky. The clash between the two tempermental creative giants hung like a cloud over the movie. “Altered States” follows the experiments of a vaguely unhinged scientist (William Hurt) studying altered states of consciousness (which he believes are as real as the waking state), using sensory deprivation, hallucinatory drugs and Native American religious ceremonies to tap into a collective unconscious, devolving himself into a neanderthal in the process.
Russell had fallen out of favor with the mainstream moviemaking establishment by the mid-eighties, increasingly working for British TV. He made a couple of features, “Gothic,” about the legendary weekend in which Mary Shelley was inspired to write “Frankenstein,” and “The Lair of the White Worm,” based on a lesser-known novel by “Dracula” author Bram Stoker, which were largely dismissed at the time but have since become cult favorites.
Russell was married and divorced three times before marrying Lisi Tribble, whom he reportedly met online, in 2001. He is survived by eight children.