It was completely unexpected. He had recently agreed to direct the feature film Alice In Wonderland The Musical and he was working on the script and casting of that.”
Russell began his directing career with the BBC and went on to make some of the most controversial and violent films of the 1960s and 70s.
Russell caused a stir with many of his movies. In his 1969 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's “Women in Love,” he included a nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates that shocked viewers.
I know my films upset people. I want to upset people,” he once said.
The film, though, earned Russell an Oscar nomination for best director, and Glenda Jackson won a statuette for best actress.
Jackson criticized the British film industry for turning its back on the maverick talent.
It was almost as if he never existed. I find it utterly scandalous for someone who was so innovative and a film director of international stature.”
She said that it was a “privilege” to know him and remarked on his “incredible visual genius.”
Guitarist of The Who, Pete Townshend, also paid homage to the late director – the pair had worked together on the London rock group's 1975 musical ‘Tommy' – by saying,
Ken was a joy. I adored and respected Ken because he believed all artistic work could be made to come alive over and over again.”
Lord Melvyn Bragg said,
He was a glorious director at his best, his best films will be remembered. He was a tremendous ornament to the rather supine British film industry and he was the glory of the television arts industry.”
Russell was a former still photographer who moved into directing short films and documentaries in the late '50s. He came to prominence with his second film, the 1967 spy thriller “Billion Dollar Brain,” with Michael Caine. Two years later came “Women in Love”.
Russell's sexually-charged themes continued in 1971's “The Devils,” as well as in two out-there biopics — “Mahler” and “Lisztomania” — that bookended the movie of The Who's rock opera “Tommy” (1975). In it, Roger Daltry played a deaf, dumb and blind messiah figure with a pinball prowess that leads to religious-cult fanaticism. The film nabbed Ann-Margret a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Tommy's mother, infamously writhing around in bubbles, beans and chocolate, and featured Elton John.
The 1980 thriller “Altered States,” from a pseudonymous script by Paddy Chafesky, was Russell's most mainstream film. William Hurt, in his feature début, played a scientist using drugs and sensory deprivation to revert back to a primitive human. Arriving just before other transformation-based horror films like “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London,” “States” has gained a rep as one of the era's trippiest sci-fi flicks.
In 1984, Russell directed Kathleen Turner as a fashion designer/hooker. The film's sleazy-neon feel doomed it with critics and audiences alike. “Gothic” (1986) and “Lair of the White Worm” (1988) mixed Russell's love of horror and high-mindedness. 1988 also brought “Salome's Last Dance” which reunited him with Glenda Jackson, and featured Nickolas Grace as Oscar Wilde. He ended the decade with the D.H. Lawrence drama “The Rainbow.”
The critically slammed 1991 “Whore,” starring Teresa Russell, was the director's last major film.
Over the next two decades, he returned to TV and documentaries, though the influence of those early, edgy dramas can still indirectly be felt in films like Tim Burton's “Sweeney Todd,” Lars von Trier's “Antichrist” and Darren Aronofsky's “Black Swan”, noted the New York Daily News.
Photo: from top, Glenda Jackson with her Oscar, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Women in Love, William Hurt in Altered States, Elton John in Tommy.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.