Before he sold his soul to Beelzebub by appearing in the UK's Celebrity Big Brother in the UK, noted director Ken Russell had made some of the most visually jarring yet controversial films of the 1970s. His death was announced Monday. He was 84.
Whether getting Oliver Reed and Alan Bates to wrestle naked in front of a fireplace (Women In Love, 1969), showing the rape of Christ (The Devils, 1971), or convincing a luminous and very game Ann-Margret to roll around with bubbles, baked beans and chocolate while straddling a phallic-shaped body pillow (Tommy, 1975), Russell wasn't afraid to leave audiences scratching their heads. For better or for worse.
Today's New York Times obit notes:
The flamboyance and intemperance of his movies were all the more notable coming at a time when British cinema and television were still largely known for the kitchen-sink style of social realism. In the 1970s, his most active decade as a feature film director, he made a series of biographical films about artists and rock operas, like his adaptation of the Who's Tommy, which were admired by some for their delirious excesses and dismissed by others as vulgar kitsch.
He also wasn't afraid to take on male-on-male homosexuality as evidenced in such films as The Music Lovers (1970), a biopic of Richard Chamberlain as a flamboyant Tchaikovsky, and the aforementioned Women In Love.
Sadly, he received little respect from audiences and critics alike. Critic Pauline Kael once said that Russell's movies "cheapen everything they touch." Which sure, could be the case in flicks like Salome's Last Dance or the truly rad Whore. Except for Altered States (a rare Hollywood effort featuring William Hurt as a scientist loaded on hallucinogens), his work after the groovy '70s was more or less considered a joke.
Actors, however, loved working with him. Two-time Academy Award-winner Glenda Jackson called Russell an "incredible visual genius," adding, "It's an absolute shame that the British film industry has ignored him ... He broke down barriers for so many people." (Speaking of Jackson, Russell's final TV interview was all about his "four-decade crush" on the noted actress turned British Labour Party MP. "[T]o my dying day I'll always have a crush on Glenda," Russell pined.)
Supermodel and Tyra Banks-survivor Twiggy, star of Russell's 1971 musical The Boy Friend, told AP that directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas "say that as a kid they would watch Ken Russell movies. I don't think he got the attention he deserved."
Russell is survived by his spouse Elize Tribble and his kids. Alex Verney-Elliott, the director's son, said Ken died in a hospital on Sunday "following a series of strokes."
Here are some choice Russell scenes you must watch immediately:
"Smash the Mirror" from Tommy, part 1:
"Smash the Mirror" from Tommy, part 2:
Women In Love NSFW wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates:
The Lair Of The White Worm featuring a vampiric Hugh Grant (trailer)
The Boyfriend with Twiggy: