Henry Kenneth Alfred “Ken” Russell (born 3 July 1927) is an English film director. He is known for his pioneering work in television and film and for his controversial style. He has been criticized as being over-obsessed with sexuality and the church. Russell began directing for the BBC, where he did creative adaptations of composers’ lives which were unusual for the time. ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ sought to portray composer Richard Strauss as a Nazi: one scene in particular showed a Jew being tortured while a group of SS men look on in delight, to the tune of Strauss music. The Strauss family was so outraged they withdrew all music rights and imposed a worldwide ban on the film that continues to this day. This would not be the only time Russell courted controversy.
Russell’s first feature film was ‘French Dressing’ (1963), a comedy loosely based on ‘And God Created Woman'; its critical and commercial failure sent Russell back to the BBC. However, his second big-screen effort was part of author Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer spy cycle, ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ (1967), starring Michael Caine; it was a success.
In 1969, Russell directed what is considered his “signature film”, ‘Women In Love’, a rollicking adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel of the same name about two artist sisters living in post-Worrld War 1 Britain. The film starred Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. The film is notable for its nude wrestling scene, which broke the convention at the time that a mainstream movie could not show male genitalia. Women In Love was a ground-breaking, highly intellectual film that connected with the sexual revolution and bohemian politics of the late-60’s. It was nominated for several Academy Awards, and won one for Glenda Jackson for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Russell himself was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director (his only to this day) – as were his cinematographer and screenwriter.
He followed Women in Love with a string of innovative adult-themed films which were often as controversial as they were successful. ‘The Music Lovers’ (1970), a biopic of Tchaikovsky, starred Richard Chamberlain as a flamboyant Tchaikovsky and Glenda Jackson as his wife. The film was widely panned but it was successful at the box office.
The following year, Russell released his most imfamous film, ‘The Devils’, a film so controversial that its backers, the American company Warner Brothers, still refuse to release it uncut. It starred Oliver Reed as a noble (if somewhat oversexed) priest who stands in the way of a corrupt church and state. Helped by publicity over the more sensational scenes, featuring sexuality among nuns, the film topped British box office receipts for eight weeks. In America, the film, which had already been cut for distribution in Britain, was further edited. It has never played in anything like its original state in America.
Russell followed The Devils with a reworking of the period musical ‘The Boy Friend’, for which he cast the model Twiggy, who won two Golden Globe Awards for her performance: one for Best Actress in a musical comedy, and one for the best newcomer. It was not a big success. Russell than had a rare box-office hit with ‘Mahler’, a film which helped to make the name of the actor Robert Powell.
In 1975, Russell’s star-studded film version of The Who’s rock opera ‘Tommy’, starring Roger Daltrey, Oliver Reed, Elton John, Tina Turner and Jack Nicholson, spent a record fourteen weeks at the No.1 spot and played to full houses for over a year. Two months before Tommy was released (in March 1975), Russell started work on ‘Lisztomania’ (1975), another vehicle for Roger Daltrey. One of Russell’s aims with this wild comic strip of a film was to explore the power of music for good (inspirational) and evil. In the film, the good music of Franz Lszt is stolen by Richard Wagner. Tommy has become a bit of a cult favourite, while Lisztomania was and is considered too outlandish, even for some Russell fans. Still, Lisztomania, topped the British box-office for two weeks in November 1975, when Tommy was still in the list of the week’s top five box-office hits. Russell’s next film, the 1977 biopic ‘Valentino’, also topped the British box-office for two weeks, but was not a hit in America.
Russell’s 1980 effort ‘Altered States’ was a departure in both genre and tone, in that it is Russell’s only foray into science fiction. Working from Paddy Chaefsky’s screenplay (based upon his novel), Russell used his penchant for elaborate visual effects to translate Chayefsky’s hallucinatory story to the cinema, and took the opportunity to add his trademark religious and sexual imagery. The film enjoyed moderate financial success, and scored with critics who had otherwise dismissed Russell’s work.
Unfortunately, Russell’s behaviour on set, including a row with Chayefsky himself, caused Russell to become a virtual pariah in Hollywood. Beyond this, Russell’s last American film, ‘Crimes of Passion’ (1984), was seen as an all-round failure and Russell subsequently returned to Europe.
After taking a break from film to direct opera, Russell found financing with various independent companies. During this period he directed ‘Gothic’ (1986) with Gabriel Byrne, about the night Mary Shelley told the tale of Frankenstein, and ‘The Lair of the White Worm’ (1988) , based on a novella by Bram Stoker. Though dismissed at the time, both of these films are now considered cult classics of the horror genre.
1988 saw the release of ‘Salome’s Last Dance’, a loosely adapted esoteric tribute to Oscar Wilde’s controversial play Salome, which was banned on the 19th century London stage. The cult movie defines Russell’s adult themed romance with the Theater of The Poor.
Russell finished the 1980s with ‘The Rainbow’, another D. H. Lawrence adaptation, which also happens to be the prequel to Women In Love. Glenda Jackson played the mother of her character in the previous film. It was a more subdued film for Russell and impressed critics. It is widely regarded as his last “personal film”.
In 1991, Russell directed his final film of any note, ‘Whore’. It was highly controversial for its sexual content. The MPAA and the theatre chains also refused to release posters or advertise a film called “Whore”, so for this purpose the film was re-titled “If You Can’t Say It, Just See It”. Russell protested his film being given such a rating when Pretty Woman got an R, on the grounds that his film showed the real hardships of being a prostitute, and the other glorified it. Often considered one of his worst efforts, it also served as the final nail in his professional coffin.
One noted admirer, the British film critic Mark Kermode, attempting to sum up the director’s achievement, called Russell; “somebody who proved that British cinema didn’t have to be about kitchen-sink realism – it could be every bit as flamboyant as Fellini. He now makes very strange experimental films like Lion’s Mouth and Revenge of the Elephant Man, and they are as edgy and out there as the work he made in the 1970s”