Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Savage Messiah (1927-2011)

There are lots of movies where you do not even think about who actually made the movie. You might watch the whole film without knowing, or caring, who the director was. It just doesn’t matter. There are lots of directors out there making movies that are pretty much interchangeable. Ken Russell was not one of those directors.

Ken Russell was the kind of director who, well, when he died (on Sunday), his obituaries pretty much all have had the word “controversial” or “provocative” in the headline.

My first exposure to Ken Russell was in 1971, and it was the roughest of initiations. Some pals and I went to see a new movie at the legendary Magic Lantern theater in Isla Vista, the student ghetto nestled next to the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. I don’t know what we were expecting, but it definitely wasn’t what we wound up seeing. It was a movie called The Devils, adapted from a novel called The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley (whose other works included a book called Brave New World) and based on actual historical events in 17th century France. It starred Oliver Reed, virile and in his early 30s, as a charismatic priest, and the normally lovely Vanessa Redgrave, as a sexually repressed hunchback. Fitting in perfectly with the tenor of the times, the villains of the piece were church authorities who resent and fear Reed’s popularity and common sense and so conspire to blame him for the plague that is going on and to accuse him of sexual depravity because, well, because he is so hot. The accusations become self-fulfilling when religious hysteria takes over a convent. Things go from bad to worse as Reed is tortured and finally burned at the stake, in horrifyingly graphic detail. It was sort of like Braveheart except with orgies instead of battles.

Ken Russell, who had been working for years on documentaries and television in Britain, had already made a splash with a couple of other movies. His 1969 adaption of the D.H. Lawrence novel Women in Love won an Oscar for Glenda and became notorious and/or beloved for a particularly homoerotic wrestling match involving the aforementioned Mr. Reed and Alan Bates. Russell’s 1970 movie The Music Lovers was the first of several feature films he would make about famous composers. This one was about Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, played by Richard Chamberlain, who tries to cover his homosexuality by marrying. Unfortunately, he weds a nymphomaniac, played by the aforementioned Ms. Jackson. Before these movies, Russell had actually made a spy thriller, an adaptation of a Len Deighton novel called Billion Dollar Brain, starring Michael Caine and Karl Malden.

A flamboyant and colorful character, Russell was one of those artists who was nearly as entertaining—and provocative—as his films. Perhaps his public persona is summed up by an incident that has lived on in memory, if not on videotape, in which he got into a shouting match with the critic Alexander Walker over The Devils live on the BBC 2 television channel, ending with the director smacking Walker with a rolled-up copy of his review.

Russell’s other biopics included Savage Messiah, about the French sculptor Henri Gaudier, played by Scott Antony; Mahler, about the late-Romantic Austrian composer, played by Robert Powell; Lisztomania, in which The Who’s Roger Daltrey played composer/piano virtuoso Franz Liszt as a rock star (featuring Ringo Starr as The Pope); and Valentino, in which the 1920s movie idol was played by celebrated ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

Russell also directed the odd musical. The same year as The Devils, his movie The Boyfriend came out, starring the anemic-looking model Twiggy. Four years later came his motion picture of The Who’s rock opera/concept album Tommy. Among other things, it was a critique of consumerist culture, and the enduring image for me was of Ann-Margret swimming in a flood of baked beans coming out of her television. The cast was fairly all-star. Daltrey had the title role, and his fellow band members were on hand, including the not-long-for-this-world drummer Keith Moon as the pederast Uncle Ernie. Ann-Margret was Tommy’s mother and Russell regular Oliver Reed was the nefarious stepfather. Elton John sang “Pinball Wizard,” Eric Clapton was a preacher, Jack Nicholson was a doctor with an eye for the patient’s mother, and Tina Turner was the Acid Queen. This movie alone—let alone combined with his other films—made Ken Russell’s name nearly synonymous with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

Supposedly, Russell began work on adapting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, but he insisted on Liza Minnelli for the title role and the producers insisted on Elaine Paige. In the end, Alan Parker ended up directing the movie, and the role went to Madonna.

If Russell’s active participation in the culture of the 1960s and beyond was giving him a reputation for bending and blowing an audience’s mind, that idea became explicit with his 1980 movie Altered States. I saw that one at a premiere at Seattle’s Cinerama, and it was definitely a great way to see it. It starred William Hurt as a university scientist exploring the human mind through hallucinatory drugs and sensory deprivation. The visuals did everything to make the viewer feel he or she was on a drug trip as well. His next movie, Crimes of Passion, offered a modern take on the themes he explored in The Devils. Kathleen Turner played a woman living a double life as hooker named China Blue, who becomes involved with a married client (John Laughlin) who falls in love with her and a sexually repressed preacher (who else, Anthony Perkins) who wants to save her.

Clearly thinking that we may not have gotten enough sex and mind-bending, Russell followed up with Gothic, the filmmaker’s imagining of the night that the poets Byron and Shelley and Shelley’s wife got together to tell each other ghost stories. As literature students know, the result was the novel Frankenstein, written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who in the movie was played by the ravishing Natasha Richardson (daughter of that hunchbacked nun in The Devils). Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands were on hand as Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, respectively, along with Timothy Spall as Dr. Polidori.

Russell continued to do TV work and short films until just a few years ago. And he still made the occasional feature film. These included his adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play Salome’s Last Dance; a very entertaining horror movie taken from a Bram Stoker novel, The Lair of the White Worm, starring Amando Donohoe and Hugh Grant; a return to sexual hijinks and D.H. Lawrence in The Rainbow, which reunited the director with Donohoe and Glenda Jackson and also included Sammi Davis, David Hemmings and pre-Doctor Who Paul McGann; and Whore, in which Theresa Russell (no relation) played a, well, you figure it out.

Ken Russell’s last work was a segment called “The Girl with the Golden Breasts,” which was part of a 2006 horror anthology called Trapped Ashes. Other segments were directed by Joe Dante, Sean S. Cunningham, John Gaeta and Monte Hellman.

More than any other filmmaker, Ken Russell may define the era he lived through. You may or may not like his movies, but they were always memorable. What else can you say about a auteur who wound up on Celebrity Big Brother and had a biography written about him called Phallic Frenzy?

-S.L., 1 December 2011

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