Younger film-goers might not immediately recognize Russell’s name, but during the 1970s he was one of the leaders of the British film revolution.
His terrific early films—an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969) starring Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson, and the historical religious drama The Devils (1971) with Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed—were sometimes over-the-top wild (and controversial for their raw explorations of sexuality and criticisms of the church), but were also driven by pure artistic daring and cinematic experimentation.
Women earned Russell a Best Director Oscar nomination and a Best Actress win for Jackson, but both films put him on the front line of censorship battles with the British Board of Film Classification.
The perfect mix of British artistic eccentricity and ’70s sex-and-drugs madness, Russell also pushed the boundaries of musical biography, turning biopics of classical composers Franz Liszt and Gustav Mahler into the audaciously flamboyant Mahler (1974) and Listomania (1975), starring Roger Daltrey as Liszt and Ringo Starr as the Pope. Russell was also picked by The Who to helm the wonderfully nutso screen adaptation of Tommy in 1975, with Daltrey, Ann-Margret, and Reed.
As a child of the ’80s, I first noticed Russell’s work when he directed Paddy Chayefsky’s Altered States in 1980 (starring young William Hurt), and later in the 1984 cable staple Crimes of Passion, a sexy crime thriller starring Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins that, in may ways, paved the way for the whole ’90s late-night Skinemax trend.
At the time I also dug 1986′s Gothic, Russell’s twist on the literary “birth” of Frankenstein, that starred Gabriel Byrne as Byron, Julian Sands as Shelley, and Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley.
In the late ’80s Russell directed two films that pretty much mapped out the dichotomy between his bat-snot crazy pulp tendencies and his literary leanings. First there was 1988′s The Lair of the White Worm‘s full-on, bull-goose looniness: a B-movie-fun horror tale (based on a Bram Stoker novel) of a deadly English snake cult, featuring Hugh Grant in one of his early film roles.
But a year later Russell returned to “respectability”and D.H. Lawrence with a well-received adaptation of Lawrence’s Women prequel The Rainbow.
Two years later Russell made his last major film, Whore starring Theresa Russell (no relation). As you might gather from the title, the story of a high-class prostitute also put Ken Russell back into the middle of a film-rating battle. (It ended up with the relatively new NC-17 rating in the U.S.)
Russell once said, “I know my films upset people. I want to upset people… This is not the age of manners. This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness. I don’t believe there is any virtue in understatement.”