Ken Russell (1927 – 2011) A Retrospective

By Chris Lee,

The World of Movies was turned upside down and inside out at the end of the 1960s and well into the 1970s. Barriers that had been in place since the 1920s and 30s were broken down during this era. Nudity, profanity, violence, shattering social norms, challenging centuries of sanctioned prejudice and bigotry, all were suddenly allowed under a ratings system that was supposed to ‘protect the innocent’ from collateral damage. There were many film directors who seized the opportunity to explore the new freedom given to films but one director was well ahead of the pack, that man was Ken Russell. Ken Russell succumbed to a series of strokes at age 84 on November 27th 2011.

While violence and profanity have become increasingly commonplace in films, audiences in 2011 would be as shocked as audiences in1969 were when Ken Russell directed a version of DH Lawrence’s Women In Love which featured a naked male wrestling scene that brought crowds to see a highly literate film. The film was more than shock and awe; it was well made, earning critical praise, all sorts of awards and citations, while one of its stars, Glenda Jackson took home an Oscar.

Women in Love was the last Ken Russell film to earn (near) Universal praise, the rest of his career was a bumpy ride; Ken Russell became synomous for over-the-top outrageousness. Ken Russell made three films in 1970-71 and each one had something to offend someone.

The Music Lovers shocked viewers with the casting of television heartthrob Richard Chamberlain as composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky struggling with homosexuality and the nymphomania of the woman he married.

The Devils was even more shocking, here is a description courtesy of Yahoo Movies: "Based on the John Whiting play and Aldous Huxley novel The Devils of Loudon, he once again played fast and loose with history and fashioned a relentlessly grotesque melodrama of 17th Century demonic possession, ending in the burning at the stake of the Christ-like Father Grandier (Reed), a sexually liberated priest whose ethics had brought him into conflict with the political ambitions of Cardinal Richelieu and the Catholic Church. Decried by Catholic officials for its ‘perverted marriage of sex, violence and blasphemy,’ The Devils featured exceptional cinematography, period costuming and art direction (and a fiery finale not for the squeamish).”

The Boyfriend was a film that tried to capture the whimsy and fun of a 1930s musical comedy, it was a success in 1971, capitalizing on the novelty of casting star-model Twiggy and such unlikely co-stars as Christopher Gable and Tommy Tune but the film has not aged well.

Tommy released in 1975 retains stellar status as a unique musical, its dialogue a relentless barrage of songs and music. Tommy is a faithful adaptation of The Who’s ‘rock opera,’ featuring a kaleidoscope of performers. The Who’s charismatic singer Roger Daltry, singer/actress Ann Margaret and Oliver Reed who gave a performance that irked critics for no easy to define reason. Love it, hate it, Tommy is a fascinating film with appearances by rock royalty circa mid-1970s and iconic actors such as Jack Nicholson and Robert Powell.

In 1975 Ken Russell released Lisztomania a film that trashed all the rules for restraint and remains a fine definition of directorial excess. Ken Russell continued to cast his films with an increasingly bizarre barrier breaking bravado. In addition to the Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltry as composer Franz Liszt, Ken Russell cast Paul Nicholas as composer Richard Wagner. One not so small problem, audiences had just seen Paul Nicholas as creepy child molester Cousin Kevin in the movie Tommy and instead of praising either the actor for his range and talent or the director for his visionary brilliance, critics carped on the liberties that Russell took with historical accuracy. Iconic Beattle Drummer Ringo Star as ‘The Pope,’ raised a few eyebrows, but die-hard musical fans will forever love Ken Russell for casting Nell Campbell as Olga Janina.

One is encouraged to scope out The Los Angeles Times for a ‘Liszt’ of outrageous moments but the one that stands out in cinematic memory is a giant penis, quoting: “Watch Liszt ride a giant penis and porno maypole through a Busby Berkeley chorus line en route to a colossal castration.”

The excesses of Lisztomania might make other films seem tame but Ken Russell made several valiant attempts to top himself. Several films failed, commercial success seemed to fade under the critics hammer. There were critical raves for 1980’s Altered States , modest profits, however, Ken Russell remained a viable director through the rest of the 20th Century and well into 2006 though mostly with television movies and documentaries.

In spite of his excesses, Ken Russell earned the loyalty and love of friends and associates. Director Michael Winner’s recollections were collected by MSN Movies, "I've known Ken since 1968. He was the most innovative director. His television was in a field of its own, it was absolutely extraordinary. Then he graduated to movies. He was also a very nice person. He was very cheerful and very well-meaning. His contribution to TV and cinema in this country is absolutely unique. He took it into areas it hadn't been before. They were riveting movies and TV because this strange mind was at work."

In contrast to a career that was at times a hurricane, Ken Russell’s death was tranquil, his son Alex Verney-Elliott spoke, according to The Washington Post, “My father died peacefully, He had had a series of strokes. He died with a smile on his face.”



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