July 3, 1927– Ken Russell:
“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.“
Henry Kenneth Arthur Russell was a fierce filmmaker with a most unusual sense of humor and a special talent to delight and provoke at the same time. His films had a mighty impact on me as a youth, with some of my first glimpses of male erotic encounters, along with his decidedly demented sensibility.
A pair of his films enthralled me as a teenager and they had repeated viewings, not easy, this was before streaming, this was even before DVRs. My first encounter with Russell was with his screen adaptation of D.H. Lawrence‘s Women In Love (1969). This was Russell’s first real commercial success, and it had a fireside nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates which jolted me right into being gay. This scene apparently made the actors feel anxious, to say nothing of the audiences and censors. With a provocative screenplay by the late, great gay hero Larry Kramer, Women In Love brought both Russell and Kramer Academy Award nominations and made Russell a director not to be ignored.
Reed, who famously wrestled naked with Bates in the film, said that Russell “started to go crazy” when he worked with him on the film.
Reed: “Before that he was a sane, likable TV director. Then he became an insane, likable film director.“
The second Russell film that had me all a dither was The Music Lovers (1970), a swinging account of the gay composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s marriage and final days, which starred gay actor Richard Chamberlain in the lead role and brought his co-star Glenda Jackson even more notice by film fans.
“Wake ’em up” was Russell’s motto, and it is certainly true that you would probably not nod-off while watching a Russell film. If you did, you would have nightmares. Sex was the source of most of the themes in his work which always seemed fun coming from what should have been a buttoned-up Brit. His films are certainly not an example of English good taste, usually exemplified in the British films of his era by perfectly suppressed emotion and proper clipped upper-class accents. Russell’s films are impolite and deliberately shocking.
Russell had a thing for making films about the lives of classical composers. He filmed bio-pics of artists including: Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Tchaikovsky, Gustav Mahler, and Franz Liszt. Song Of Summer (1968), about Delius, blind and syphilitic, attempting to complete his last works with the aid of his fellow composer Eric Fenby, is one of the very best films about being a creative artist that I have seen. Made for television, it is hard to find, but I caught it on the Sundance Channel last year and I marveled.
Russell studied photography at art school. His youth was rather wild and not particularly discreet. He did lots of drugs. He attempted a career as a ballet dancer and a photographer before getting a job at the BBC, where he made a series of educational musical specials about the lives of composers. The success of these short programs gave Russell the power to make feature films. Many of his films are criticized for playing fast with the facts, but they need to be taken as terrific and often terrifying psychological fantasies rather than straight-up film biographies.
Some of my favorite films are among his 60+ movies. I will never forget the audacious, disturbing The Devils (1971), which stars Vanessa Redgrave as a holy sister and features nuns masturbating to images of Christ on the cross. Unfortunately, I saw this one while tripping on LSD and never fully recovered.
I adore The Boy Friend (1971), a film Russell made to cleanse himself from The Devils. It is a zany musical based on gay songwriter Sandy Wilson‘s popular stage production, a spoof of 1920s stage musicals, twisted into a tribute to 1930s movie musicals and an homage to the great choreographer-director Busby Berkeley. This one is much debated by Musical Theatre purists, but I totally dig it.
I am a big fan of Savage Messiah (1972) about the tempestuous life of the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; and Mahler (1974), a highly fictionalized biopic starring Robert Powell as the very neurotic Teutonic composer.
I am also zany for Tommy (1975), Russell’s witty, engaging version of The Who‘s rock opera; Valentino (1977), starring Rudolf Nureyev as the famous gay silent screen star; and the psychedelic Altered States (1980), with a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky who wrote the source material novel but who disowned his participation.
Russell’s first Hollywood film; Crimes Of Passion (1984) is an extremely erotic dream film starring Kathleen Turner as a prostitute named China Blue.
I was engrossed by Gothic (1986) a nutty horror flick set in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, featuring the characters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley, about the eerie events which led to the writing of the novel Frankenstein (1818). And check out Russell’s insane B-movie horror film The Lair Of The White Worm (1988), it’s like being on drugs.
The Rainbow (1989) is another adaption of D. H. Lawrence novel, this one, The Rainbow (1915). It works as a companion to Women In Love. Jackson appears as the mother of the character she played in the earlier film.
Russell occasionally would work as an actor in film, including playing a gay British secret agent in The Russia House (1990), opposite Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Russell hated Hollywood. He found the business part of making films to be corrupt and compromising. Hollywood did not love him back. He remains controversial and sometimes reviled. He was an artistic anarchist with formidable, flamboyant technique. All of the Russell’s films that I have experienced contain moments of sheer daring brilliance. He might have done better with audiences and critics if he had made more traditional movies, but I am glad he didn’t.
All his works are controversial, but Whore (1991) was one of his controversial films. It was given an NC-17 rating for its sexual content. The MPAA and the theatre chains refused to release posters or advertise a film called Whore, so the film was re-titled If You Can’t Say It, Just See It. Russell protested that Pretty Woman (1990) got an R rating, stating that his film showed the real hardships of being a prostitute, and Garry Marshall‘s movie glorified it.
“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.”
Russell’s final credits rolled in 2011. He was 82 years old when he left this wicked world.
Glenda Jackson, who appeared in many of his films before going on to serve as a Member of Parliament for 23 years, stated:
“It’s an absolute shame that the British film industry has ignored him. It’s an absolute disgrace… he broke down barriers for so many people.“