Maverick director of Women In Love, Tommy and The Devils has died in his sleep aged 84.
British film and TV director and actor Ken Russell has died aged 84. Russell’s oeuvre included Oscar-winning 1969 drama Women In Love, for which Russell also received a Best Director nomination, a number of successful music biopics and a string of controversial titles such as 1971 drama The Devils.
Across his diverse and innovative career, Russell worked with a number of leading lights in the film industry including Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Caine, Alan Bates, Gabriel Byrne, Anthony Perkins, William Hurt, producer David Puttnam, writer Peter Chayevsky, as well as composers Andre Previn and Pete Townshend.
He will be remembered for his innovative contribution to British TV and film and above all for his controversial, explicit and hallucinatory style and a larger-than-life personality.
Born in Southampton in 1927, Russell served in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy before moving into television work at the BBC, where he directed between 1959-1970.
During his stint at the BBC, Russell directed a number of art documentaries and biopics including Elgar, The Debussy Film and Dance of The Seven Veils, which portrayed Richard Strauss as a Nazi.
The director’s work became increasingly innovative and controversial, with The Strauss family so outraged by the unsympathetic portrayal of Richard Strauss in The Seven Veils that they withdrew all music rights and imposed a worldwide ban on the film.
However, Russell’s film career took off in 1969 when his adaptation of the DH Lawrence novel Women In Love garnered widespread acclaim and lead Glenda Jackson a Best Actress Oscar.
Highly controversial 1971 title The Devils, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed, received harsh reviews from many critics but did well at the UK box office. The film’s combination of sexualised religion and violence led to it being banned in a number of countries and distributor Warner Bros’ refused to release the film uncut. In one famous run-in UK critic Alexander Walker described the film as “monstrously indecent” during an interview with Russell, leading the director to hit him with a rolled up copy of the Evening Standard, the newspaper for which Walker worked.
The film won Russell the Best Director-Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival, despite it being banned in Italy. [It will be released on DVD next March by the BFI]
In 1975, Russell directed a star-studdded version of band The Who’s rock opera Tommy, featuring Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson. The film spent a number of weeks at number one at the UK box office and has a large cult following.
The director’s 1980 sci-fi Altered States, from Peter Chayevsky’s novel, was also backed by Warner Bros and led to an Oscar nomination for best score, and generally positive reviews, but next effort Crimes Of Passion, proved to be the director’s last US film.
Russell directed a number of smaller UK films in the 1980s and 1990s, including 1986 drama Gothic, The Rainbow and Whore.
In recent years Russell directed an Off Broadway play, exhibited photography and made a very brief appearance on a series of celebrity big brother. He was married four times.