Obituary: Saluting Ken Russell, 1927-2011

Ken Russell sceneKen Russell, the British filmmaker who over the course of a 50-year career cranked out dozens of provocative films, TV movies, documentaries, shorts and anthology segments, died in his sleep on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011, at the age of 84.

Russell began his career helming documentaries for the BBC in the mid-1950s before moving on to feature films, where he became the poster boy for the notion of the filmmaker as a “provocateur.” It’s a reputation that began with Women in Love, his 1969 adaption of D. H. Lawrence’s novel. The movie was infamous for its nude wrestling scene between stars Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.

Russell’s highly stylized visual and thematic sensibilities continued in such controversial, violent, sexual and, yes, campy films as The Devils (1971), Valentino (1977) and The Lair of the White Worm (1988).

Oh, there was an occasional low-key drama thrown in there as well (like 1988’s The Rainbow), but, by and large, Russell really liked to let it loose in the majority of his theatrical endeavors. By the early 1990s, he returned primarily to making documentaries and movies for the TV market.

Women in Love movie scene

Women in Love (1969)

Here’s a list of a half-dozen of my favorite Ken Russell trips:

Women in Love (1969)
Russell’s stunning adaptation of  D.H. Lawrence’s scandalous novel about love and lust in 1920s working class England stars the very sex (and intimate) trio of Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed.
Available on DVD from MGM/Fox

The Music Lovers (1970) Glenda Jackson returned in Russell’s next film, an over-the-top bioigraphy movie on the bizarre life and career of composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky (portrayed by Richard Chamberlain), a repressed gay male. In Russell’s own words, “It’s the story of the marriage between a homosexual and a nymphomaniac.”
Available on DVD from MGM/Fox

Tommy (1975)

Tommy (1975)
A cast of all-star rock ‘n’ rollers including Roger Daltrey, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Tina Turner — not too mention such heavy-duty thesps as Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret — star in this lively, stylized film adaptation of The Who’s rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball.
Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Altered States (1980)
“The final truth of all things is that there is no final Truth,” resolves William Hurt in his big- screen debut as a Harvard scientist tampering with things that shouldn’t be tampered with in Russell’s hallucinatory flm based on Paddy Chayefsky’s acclaimed novel. Chayefsky took his name off the finished film, which I still think is a pretentiously trippy delight.
Available on DVD from Warner Home Video

Altered States movie scene

Altered States (1980)

Crimes of Passion (1984)
A very-game Kathleen Turner is a sportswear designer who leads a double life as a hooker named China Blue and Anthony Perkins is a murderously deranged and horny street preacher in this neon-soaked campfest about the duality of man (and woman) and the unbridled power of sexuality (of all kinds!).
Available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment

Trapped Ashes (2006)
Russell’s final film a was a contribution to this anthology of horror shorts. His piece, “The Girl With the Golden Breasts,” concerns a Hollywood starlet (Rachel Veltri) who gets a boob job only to discover that her new chest possesses a mind of its own (along with a set of gnashing teeth). It’s a silly quickie, but still embodies that camp, color and sheer nuttiness with which he was most strongly identified. Best line: “I want the old me back, not these blood sucking tits you gave me!!”
Available on DVD from Lionsgate

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.