In this 1975 publicity photograph released to Reuters November 28, 2011, director Ken Russell poses with actress Ann-Margret during production of their film “Tommy”. Russell, the British director of “Women in Love” and “The Devils”, has died at the age of 84. His widow Elize said the famously provocative film maker passed away peacefully in his sleep on November 27. “It was completely unexpected,” she said in a statement issued by his agent. REUTERS/Courtesy �A.M.P.A.S./Handout
Director Ken Russell got Oliver Reed and Alan Bates to wrestle naked, turned Vanessa Redgrave into a demonic nun and cast Ringo Starr as the pope.
Critics and mainstream audiences often hated his films.
Actors and admirers loved him.
The iconoclastic British director, who died at age 84, made films that blended music, sex and violence in a potent brew.
Only a few of his movies were commercial successes. The best known: Women in Love and Tommy, which turned The Who’s rock opera into a psychedelic extravaganza complete with Elton John, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner.
Pete Townshend, who wrote Tommy, described Russell as a “grand dame” who brought to his films about music the “lavish affection and grandiosity musicians and composers can only dream of”.
Russell was fascinated with altered mental states and loved horror, religious turmoil and Gothic excess. Critics could be sniffy, but many in the film industry felt his influence was underrated.
Supermodel Twiggy, who starred in Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971), said directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas “say as kids they’d watch Ken Russell films. He did not get the attention he deserved”.
Glenda Jackson, who won a best actress Academy Award for Women in Love, said Russell was a “visual genius. It’s an absolute shame and disgrace that the British film industry ignored him”.
Women in Love (1969), was one of Russell’s biggest hits, earning an Academy Award nomination for writer Larry Kramer, and winning Jackson an Oscar. It included one of the decade’s most famous scenes – a nude wrestling bout between Reed and Bates. Reed said at the time the director was “starting to go crazy. Before that he was a sane, likeable TV director. Now he’s an insane, likeable film director”.
Paul McGann, who starred in Russell’s The Rainbow, said the director “encouraged an irreverent joyousness on set
. I remember him on a camera crane in kaftan and sandals shouting to us through a megaphone: ‘Even greater heights of abandon’!”
Born in Southampton in 1927, Russell fell in love with the movies as a child. He joined the Merchant Navy at 17 as a crew member. He became seasick, soon realised he hated naval life and was discharged after a nervous breakdown.
Desperate to avoid joining the family’s shoe business, he studied ballet and tried his hand at acting but was not much good at either.
He then studied photography and became a fashion photographer before being hired to work on BBC arts programmes.
These quickly evolved from conventional documentaries into something more interesting. “By the time a couple of years had gone by, those boring little factual accounts of the artists had evolved into evocative films with real actors impersonating the historical figures,” Russell said.
Music played a central role in many of Russell’s films, including The Music Lovers (1970), about the composer Tchaikovsky – Russell sold it to the studio with the pitch “it’s about a nymphomaniac who falls in love with a homosexual”.
The same unorthodox approach informed Lisztomania (1975), which starred Roger Daltrey of The Who as 19th-century heartthrob Franz Liszt, with Beatles drummer Starr playing the pope. The Boy Friend (1971) and Tommy (1975) were also musicals of a different sort, both marked by the director’s characteristic visual excess.
Russell’s fascination with changing mental states surfaced in Altered States (1980) a rare Hollywood foray for him, starring William Hurt as a scientist experimenting with hallucinogens.
Married four times, Russell leaves his wife Elize Tribble and his children
. Russell was working on a musical film of Alice in Wonderland when he died.