British director Ken Russell, the visually baroque and often deliberately excessive and opulent helmer of such films as “Women in Love,” “The Devils,” “Tommy” and “Altered States,” died in a hospital on Sunday following a series of strokes, his son Alex Verney-Elliott said Monday.
“My father died peacefully,” Verney-Elliott said. “He died with a smile on his face.”
In a career of films sometimes designed simply to shock, Russell often devoted himself to examining the lives and works of noted artists of the 19th and 20th century including D.H. Lawrence, Isadora Duncan, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss. He first came to prominence as the director of a series of unconventional BBC biographies, several of them highly praised, which mixed fact and fantasy in order to explore the lives of such notable artists as Edward Elgar, Prokofiev, Debussy, Bartok, Frederick Delius, Strauss and Duncan.
His film career kicked into gear with an Oscar-nominated rendition of Lawrence’s “Women in Love,” which dealt frankly with the author’s erotic themes. It proved to be one of his tamer works, as subsequent films such as “The Music Lovers,” “The Devils” and “Lisztomania” courted censorship and critical mystification. In later years he concentrated his energies mostly on stage operas, to which his gift for excess seemed more suited.
Visually, however, his films were rarely dull and, despite the often unintentional laughter they provoked, they also contained moments of cinematic exuberance rarely matched in the usually tedious presentation of film biography. He also did more than justice to the 1975 version of the Who’s rock opera “Tommy,” tongue firmly planted in cheek. It proved to be one of his few box office successes; another was 1980’s “Altered States,” a mind-bending joy ride through one man’s altered state of consciousness. Russell took chances with his stories, never afraid to push the cinematic envelope, even if he often went over the edge.
Born Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell in Southampton, England, he was already directing shows while attending the Nautical College in Pangbourne, where he would dress up the cadets in drag to liven up the proceedings. After serving in the Merchant Navy and the Royal Air Force, he was discharged in 1949 and studied briefly at the Walthamstow Art School, then moved on to the School of International Ballet in London on scholarship. In 1950 he traveled with Norwegian company the Ny Norsk Ballet, then with a touring company of “Annie Get Your Gun.” In 1951 he joined the Garrick Players, trying his hand at acting, then photography and then amateur filmmaking (such shorts as “Amelia and the Angel,” “Peep Show” and “Lourdes”), which brought him to the attention of the BBC. He was hired to replace director John Schlesinger as director of documentary films for the channel’s Monitor program, staying on for 10 years, during which he also directed commercials.
Starting in the mid-’60s, Russell created a highly praised series of more than 30 unconventional biographies for the BBC that took poetic license with the lives of its subjects. Time critic Richard Schickel labeled Russell’s “Song of Summer” (his biography of Delius) “the best dramatic program” and “best biographical film” he’d ever seen. The Elgar biography was one of England’s top-rated shows ever, and the New York Times claimed his Duncan biography was far superior to the feature film version by Karel Reisz. But the biographies of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and, particularly, Strauss were criticized for being in poor taste. The latter suggested Strauss was a Nazi precursor, which brought down the wrath of Britain’s House of Commons. Russell countered in a Newsweek interview that the sturm und drang was created by the British Parliament “to vindicate themselves, whitewash Strauss and tarbrush me, which they did very successfully.”
At the same time that he was working on his BBC biographies, Russell began his feature film career with two rather dubious efforts, the comedy “French Dressing” in 1963 and the spy thriller “Billion Dollar Brain” in 1967. It was his third film, 1970’s “Women in Love,” which officially launched him as a bigscreen talent, earning him an Oscar nomination as best director and an actress Oscar for Glenda Jackson. It would be the last of his films to be generously received by critics.
His next film, “The Music Lovers,” a Grand Guignol-style biography of Tchaikovsky was attacked for its excesses on every front; it was dubbed “a Russian horror soap opera” by one critic. With “The Devils,” an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudon,” Russell went even further in portraying sexual hysteria, rape and cruelty. British critic David Thomson described the two films as “works of self-induced mania, where visual grotesqueness has swamped intellect or feeling.”
Then came an abrupt change of pace, a film version of musical pastiche “The Boyfriend,” which had its fans, but his next film, another biography (of painter Henri Gaudier-Brzeska) called “Savage Messiah,” drew mixed notices; some critics lauded it for capturing the concept of artistic passion. His 1974 biography of Mahler was criticized for bordering on camp, but the following year saw his film version of the Who’s rock opera “Tommy,” which proved to be a financial and a bit of a critical success as well. Yet his follow-up biography “Lisztomania” was panned as relentlessly self-indulgent, and Russell’s film career didn’t recover for several years until he was brought in, after several directors rejected it, on Paddy Chayefsky’s “Altered States” in 1980.
In his 1991 autobiography “Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell,” he detailed his tortured relationship with the demanding Chayefsky, who finally had his name removed from the film, substituting his real name, Sidney Aarons. The author died soon after the film was released. Because of its hallucinogenic thriller elements, the film was a surprise hit and prolonged Russell’s career. But except for the interesting 1984 experiment “Crimes of Passion,” which has its cult fans, his subsequent films proved that controversy doesn’t always sell. These included a 1977 biographical treatment of the short life of Rudolph Valentino; Lord Byron bio “Gothic”; an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”; “The Lair of the White Worm”; another D.H. Lawrence adaptation, “The Rainbow”; and the NC-17 rated “Whore” in 1991.
He continued to work, mostly in television, throughout the 1990s with such efforts as “Women and Men: Stories of Seduction,” an adaptation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Classic Widows,” “Tales of Erotica,” “Prisoner of Honor” and “Dogboys” (1998).
In 2002 he revisited Elgar for another TV documentary “Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle.” The same year he directed a digital video take on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the Louse of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century,” which did not get a theatrical release in the U.S. In 2006 he contributed to the horror anthology “Trapped Ashes.”
Along with Faye Dunaway and Larry Gross, Russell was credited on the adapted screenplay for 2011’s “Master Class,” in which Dunaway plays Maria Callas.
Throughout his career he also staged numerous operas, and he contributed a segment to the film “Aria” around Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.”
His contributions to the operatic stage included “The Rake’s Progress” in Florence (1982); Zimmermann’s “Die Soldaten” in Lyons and “Madama Butterfly” in Spoleto (both 1983); “La Boheme” in Macerata and “Faust” and L’Italiana in Algeri” in Geneva (all 1984); and Boito’s “Mefistofele” in Genoa (1987).
In 2008, Russell made his New York directorial debut with the Off Broadway production of Anthony Horowitz thriller “Mindgame,” starring Keith Carradine.
During the mid-2000s, Russell was visiting professor of the U. of Wales, Newport Film School, and then visiting fellow at the U. of Southampton.
On a somewhat less-academic note, Russell participated in the fifth edition of “Celebrity Big Brother” in 2007, leaving after a week in the wake of an altercation with fellow contestant Jade Goody.
Russell’s memoirs, “A British Picture: An Autobiography,” were published in the U.K. in 1989 and in the U.S. in 1991 as “Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell.” He also published six novels, including four on the sex lives of composers. His 2006 science fiction novel “Violation” was a violent dystopian story of a future England.
Russell was married to Shirley Russell, the costume designer on many of his early films, from 1956-78. He subsequently married Vivian Jolly, actress Hetty Baynes and Lisi Tribble, who worked with Russell on some of his final creative efforts.
He is survived by Tribble and five children.