Russell in 2008
|Born||Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell
)3 July 1927
Southampton, Hampshire, England
|Died||27 November 2011) (aged 84)
Henry Kenneth Alfred "Ken" Russell (3 July 1927 – 27 November 2011) was an English film director, known for his pioneering work in television and film and for his flamboyant and controversial style. He attracted criticism as being obsessed with sexuality and the church. His films often dealt with the lives of famous composers or were based on other works of art which he adapted loosely. Russell began directing for the BBC, where he made creative adaptations of composers' lives which were unusual for the time. He also directed many feature films independently and for studios.
He is best known for his Oscar-winning film Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), The Who's Tommy (1975), and the science fiction film Altered States (1980). Classical musicians and conductors held him in high regard for his story-driven biopics of various composers, most famously Elgar, Delius, Liszt, Mahler and Tchaikovsky.
British film critic Mark Kermode speaking in 2006, and 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. Later in his life he turned to making experimental films such as Lion's Mouth and Revenge of the Elephant Man, and they are as edgy and 'out there' as ever".
Ken Russell died on 27 November 2011, at the age of 84, of natural causes.
Russell was born in Southampton, England, on 3 July 1927, the elder of two sons of Ethel (née Smith) and Henry Russell, a shoeshop owner. His father was distant and took out his rage on his family, so Russell spent much of his time at the cinema with his mother, who was mentally ill. He cited Die Nibelungen and The Secret of the Loch as two early influences.
He was educated at private schools in Walthamstow and at Pangbourne College, and studied photography at Walthamstow Technical College (now part of the University of East London). He harboured a childhood ambition to be a ballet dancer but instead joined the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Navy as a teenager. On one occasion he was made to stand watch in the blazing sun for hours on end while crossing the Pacific. His lunatic captain feared an attack by Japanese midget submarines despite the war having ended. He moved into television work after short careers in dance and photography.
His series of documentary 'Teddy Girl' photographs were published in Picture Post magazine in 1955, and he continued to work as a freelance documentary photographer until 1959. After 1959, Russell's amateur films (his documentaries for the Free Cinema movement, and his 1958 short Amelia and the Angel) secured him a job at the BBC.
Between 1959 to 1970, Russell directed art documentaries for Monitor and Omnibus. His best known works during this period include: Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965), Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1967), Song of Summer (about Frederick Delius and Eric Fenby, 1968) and Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), a film about Richard Strauss. He once said that the best film he ever made was Song of Summer, and that he wouldn't edit a single shot. With Elgar it was the first time that an arts' programme (Monitor) had shown one long film about an artistic figure instead of short items, and also it was the first time that re-enactments were used. Russell fought with the BBC over using actors to portray different ages of the same character, instead of the traditional photograph stills and documentary footage.
His television films became increasingly flamboyant and outrageous. Dance of the Seven Veils sought to portray 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's music. The Strauss family was so outraged they withdrew all music rights so that the film is effectively banned from being screened until Strauss's copyright expires in 2019.
Russell's first feature film was French Dressing (1963), a comedy loosely based on Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman; its critical and commercial failure sent Russell back to the BBC. His second big-screen effort was part of author Len Deighton's Harry Palmer spy cycle, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), starring Michael Caine.
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-World War I Britain. The film starred Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Jennie Linden 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 connected with the sexual revolution and bohemian politics of the late 1960s. It was nominated for several Oscars and won one for Glenda Jackson for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Russell himself was nominated for an Oscar — that for Best Director (his only nomination)— as were his cinematographer and screenwriter.
The film was BAFTA-nominated for the costume designs of Russell's first wife, Shirley; they collaborated throughout the 1970s. The colour schemes of Luciana Arrighi's art direction (also BAFTA-nominated) and Billy William's cinematography, which Russell used for metaphorical effect, are also often referred to by film textbooks.
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 score was conducted by André Previn.
The following year, Russell released The Devils, a film so controversial that its backers, the American company Warner Bros., refused to release it uncut. Inspired by Aldous Huxley's book The Devils of Loudun and using material from John Whiting's play The Devils, it starred Oliver Reed as a 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 the United States, 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. British film critic Alexander Walker described the film as "monstrously indecent" in a television confrontation with Russell, leading the director to hit him with a rolled up copy of the Evening Standard, the newspaper for which Walker worked.
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. The film was heavily cut, shorn of two musical numbers for its American release, where it was not a big success. Russell himself provided most of the financing for Savage Messiah, a biopic of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. He worked with David Puttnam on Mahler.
In 1975, Russell's star-studded film version of The Who's rock opera Tommy starring Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton 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, and for the film scoring of progressive rocker Rick Wakeman.
In the film, the good music of Franz Liszt is stolen by Richard Wagner who, in his operas, puts forward the theme of the Superman.Tommy and Lisztomania were important in the rise of improved motion picture sound in the 1970s, as they were among the first films to be released with Dolby-encoded soundtracks. Lisztomania, tagged as "the film that out-Tommys 'Tommy'", 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 Chayefsky'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 had an innovative Oscar-nominated score by John Corigliano. The film enjoyed moderate financial success, and scored with critics who had otherwise dismissed Russell's work. Roger Ebert, who had given The Devils "zero stars", and had panned Russell's composer portraits, gave it his highest rating for Russell's work (three-and-a-half stars), praising it as "one hell of a movie!"
Russell's behaviour on set, including a row with Chayefsky himself, caused him to become a virtual pariah in Hollywood. Beyond this, Russell's last American film, Crimes of Passion (1984), with Anthony Perkins and Kathleen Turner, had moderate critical success but did not perform at the box office 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) with Amanda Donohoe and Hugh Grant, based on a novella by Bram Stoker. 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 and was also notable for the screen presence of Imogen Millais-Scott as Salome.
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.
In the 1990 film The Russia House, starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, Russell made one of his first significant acting appearances, portraying Walter, an ambiguously gay British intelligence officer who discomfits his more strait-laced CIA counterparts. Russell henceforth occasionally acted.
The 1991 film Prisoner of Honor allowed Russell a further opportunity to explore his abiding interest in anti-Semitism through a factually-based account of the Dreyfus Affair in France. The movie featured Richard Dreyfuss in the central role of Colonel Georges Picquart, the French army investigator who exposed the army establishment's framing of the Jewish officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
In 1991, Russell directed his final film of any note, Whore. It was highly controversial and branded with an NC-17 rating 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.
Return to television
By the early 1990s, Russell had become a celebrity: his notoriety and persona had attracted more attention than any of his recent work. He became largely reliant on his own finances to continue making films. Much of his work since 1990 has been commissioned for television (e.g. his 1993 TV film The Mystery of Dr. Martinu), and he contributed regularly to The South Bank Show including documentaries such as 'Classic Widows' about the widows of four leading British composers with dance sections choreographed by Amir Hosseinpour. Prisoner of Honor (1991) was Russell's final work with Oliver Reed; his final film with Glenda Jackson before she gave up acting for politics while The Secret Life of Arnold Bax (1992) was his last composer biopic.
In May 1995, he was honoured with a retrospective of his work presented in Hollywood by the American Cinematheque. Titled Shock Value, it included some of Russell's most successful and controversial films and also several of his early BBC productions. Russell attended the festival and engaged in lengthy post-screening discussions of each film with audiences and moderator Martin Lewis, who had instigated and curated the retrospective.
Russell had a cameo in the 2006 film adaptation of Brian Aldiss's novel Brothers of the Head by the directors of Lost in La Mancha. He also had a cameo in the 2006 Colour Me Kubrick. He directed a segment for the horror anthology Trapped Ashes (2007) which also includes segments directed by Sean S. Cunningham, Monte Hellman, and Joe Dante. Prior to his death in 2011 he was reputed to be in pre-production for two films: The Pearl of the Orient and Kings X.
Efforts such as The Lion's Mouth (2000) and The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002) have suffered from low production values (for example, being shot in video on Russell's estate often featuring Russell himself) and limited distribution.
From 2004, Russell was visiting professor at the University of Wales, Newport Film School. One of his many tasks was to advise students on the making of their graduate films. He also presented the Finest Film Awards (for graduate filmmakers of Newport) in June 2005.
Russell was appointed visiting fellow at the University of Southampton in April 2007, where he acted in a similar capacity to his role at the Newport Film School, until March 2008. His arrival was celebrated with a screening of the rare director's cut of The Devils hosted by Mark Kermode.
He began production of his first full length film in almost 5 years, Moll Flanders, an adaptation of Daniel Defoe's novel, starring Lucinda Rhodes-Flaherty and Barry Humphries, but a finished film failed to materialise. Also in 2007 Russell produced A Kitten for Hitler, a short film hosted by the Comedybox.tv website. Russell commented that "Ten years ago, while working on The South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg and I had a heated discussion on the pros and cons of film censorship. Broadly speaking, Melvyn was against it, while I, much to his surprise, was absolutely for it. He then dared me to write a script that I thought should be banned. I accepted the challenge and a month or so later sent him a short subject entitled A Kitten for Hitler. "Ken," he said, "if ever you make this film and it is shown, you will be lynched." Russell joined Celebrity Big Brother in January 2007, at the start of the series, but left voluntarily within a week after an altercation with Jade Goody.
Ken Russell and his wife Lisi Tribble were invited by New York film writer Shade Rupe on a six-week journey across North America, beginning with a Lifetime Achievement Award given by Mitch Davis at the Fantasia film festival on 20 July 2010, followed by a screening of Russell's most notorious film, The Devils. The next day, a near complete 35mm print retrospective of Russell's work at the Cinémathèque Québécoise including Billion Dollar Brain, Women in Love, The Music Lovers, Crimes of Passion, The Rainbow, Whore, and many more found projection along with an exhibition of several of Russell's photographs from the 1950s. The next stop was Russellmania! at Lincoln Center, a nine-film overview of Russell's work from Women in Love through Valentino, with Russell present at each evening screening for a nearly sold-out weeklong festival. 30 July 2010, opening night, Russell was joined by Vanessa Redgrave for a 40th anniversary screening of The Devils and the next evening saw The Music Lovers and Women in Love projected with Ken in attendance. Tommy Tune joined Russell the next evening for The Boy Friend and followed the screening with a live stage dance number from the film. The American Cinematheque in Los Angeles next hosted Mr. Russell at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica with screenings of The Devils and Altered States with Charles Haid and Stuart Baird in attendance, and Tommy and Lisztomania at the Egyptian the following evening. Director Mick Garris extended an invitation and Russell, Tribble, and Rupe joined the Masters of Horror for one of their rarified dinners. The tour wrapped up in Toronto at the Rue Morgue Festival of Fear and a packed screening of The Devils at the Bloor Cinema hosted by Richard Crouse.
In 2008, he made his New York directorial debut with the Off-Broadway production of Mindgame at the SoHo Playhouse produced by Darren Lee Cole, a thriller by Anthony Horowitz and starring Keith Carradine, Lee Godart and Kathleen McNenny. "After reading Mindgame, I was convinced that I had to direct this play in New York ... Anthony Horowitz has written a fascinating thriller with a new surprise every five minutes", said Russell.
Besides books on film-making and the British film industry, Russell also wrote A British Picture: An Autobiography (1989; published in the US as Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell, 1991). He also published six novels, including four on the sex lives of composers – Beethoven Confidential, Brahms Gets Laid, Elgar: The Erotic Variations, and Delius: A Moment with Venus. Mike and Gaby's Space Gospel is a science-fiction rewriting of Genesis. His last novel, also science-fiction and published in 2006, is called Violation. It is a very violent future-shock tale of an England where football has become the national religion. At the time of his death, he had a column for The Times in the Film section of times 2.
At several stages of his career Ken Russell struggled to break into the film industry. Before 'making it', Russell enjoyed a brief fling with photography. An exhibition displaying some of Russell's work was on display during the summer of 2007 in central London's Proud Galleries in The Strand, London. The exhibition, entitled Ken Russell's Lost London Rediscovered: 1951–1957, included photos taken in and around London, with many of the pictures being taken in the Portobello Road area of London. An exhibition Ken Russell: Filmmaker, Photographer ran at several galleries in 2010.
In the late-1980s, Russell directed the music video for "It's All Coming Back to Me Now", a song written and produced by Jim Steinman for his Pandora's Box project. The production featured a range of erotic imagery, including studded bras and spiked codpieces.
Russell converted to Roman Catholicism during the 1950s. He was married four times; the first three ended in divorce, the last in his death. He was married to Shirley Kingdon from 1958-1978; the couple had four sons and a daughter. He married Vivian Jolly in 1984; the couple had a son and daughter. He was married to Hetty Baynes from 1992-1997; the couple had a son. He married Elize Tribble in 2001.
Related books and articles
- Baxter, John (1973). An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell. Michael Joseph. ISBN 978-0-7181-1075-8 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Gomez, Joseph A. (1976). Ken Russell: The Adaptor as Creator. Muller. ISBN 0-584-10203-8 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Phillips, Gene D. (1979). Ken Russell. Twayne. ISBN 978-0-8057-9266-9 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Lanza, Joseph (2008). Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films. Aurum Press. ISBN 978-1-84513-373-3 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Flanagan, Kevin M., ed. (2009). Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-6954-3 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- The Sunday Times Magazine, The Sunday Times, 18 December 2011, page 64
- "Ken Russell, Women In Love director, dies at 84". BBC News. 28 November 2011. Retrieved 28 November 2011.
- Roberts, Chris (2006). "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme". Thorndike Press. ISBN 0-7862-8517-6 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Norman Lebrecht "Ken Russell and Mahler: fragments of conversation", artsjournal.com, 28 November 2011
- Mark Kermode, speaking to Lauren Laverne, on BBC2's The Culture Show, October 2006.
- Wardrop, Murray (28 November 2011). "Ken Russell dies aged 84". The Telegraph (London). Retrieved 28 November 2011.
- Obituary: Ken Russell, Daily Telegraph, 28 November 2011
- "Ken Russell Biography (1927-)", filmreference.com
- Lanza, Joseph. Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films. Chicago Review Press, 2007; ISBN 1-55652-669-5 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]
- "Ken Russell: A true British original", BBC News, 28 November 2011
- Michael Brooke "Amelia and the Angel (1958)" BFI screenonline
- Music web international
- John Walker. (1993) "Monitor BBC TV programme - 1958-1965". Arts TV / artdesigncafe. Retrieved 29 November 2011.
- Michael Brooke "Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)", BFI screenonline
- Obsessed With Film
- "Ken Russell: A true British original". BBC. 28 November 2011. Retrieved 28 November 2011.
- Stuart Jeffries "Ken Russell interview: The last fires of film's old devil", The Guardian, 28 April 2011
- Majendie, Paul (28 November 1995). "Ken Russell: Living proof that nothing succeeds like excess". Manila Standard.
- "What happened on 12 May 1995". Los Angeles Times.
- Kevin Thomas (12 May 1995). "'Shock Value': A Ken Russell Weekend at Directors Guild". Los Angeles Times.
- "25th Moscow International Film Festival (2003)". MIFF. Retrieved 2013-04-01.
- Russell, Ken (27 September 2007). "My Kitten for Hitler is all in the best bad taste". The Times (London).
- "The Jade Goody phenomenon". The Independent (London). 9 January 2007.
- Hotten, Jon (September, 2000). "Bat Out Of Hell - The Story Behind The Album" (Reprint on website). Classic Rock Magazine. Retrieved 3 September 2006.
- Lanza, Joseph (2007). Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 1-55652-669-5 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Lim, Dennis (28 November 2011). "Ken Russell, Provocative English Director, Dies at 84". The New York Times.
- Tom Vallance "Ken Russell: Film director whose style was unmistakable and whose love of controversy defined his career", The Independent, 29 November 2011
- Ken Russell at the Internet Movie Database
- Ken Russell at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
- Savage Messiah – a Ken Russell site by Iain Fisher
- Ken Russell's film on Delius, Song of Summer
- Ken Russell on Television – a comprehensive study of Russell's small-screen work, from the British Film Institute's Screenonline site. Video clips are restricted to UK schools and libraries for copyright reasons, but the text can be accessed by everyone.
- Celebrity Big Brother Updates: Ken Russell
- Ken Russell Discussion Group : The Lair of Ken Russell
- BBC Interview with Ken Russell and Tony Lane on Invasion of the Not Quite Dead (2008)
- Ken Russell interview on BBC Film Network Sept 2008
- BBC piece on places that have inspired Russell's film-making
- Long Q&A with Ken Russell on his early career in ballet and photography (19 June 2010)