British bad boy of cinema, Ken Russell died Sunday after a series of strokes. Where to begin remembering him? After getting his start on the BBC, Russell made his first real international splash in 1969 with his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, the film for which Glenda Jackson won an Oscar and earned Russell his one and only directorial nomination. The film raised eyebrows with its nude wrestling between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed and announced Russell as a more flamboyant director than British contemporaries like Ken Loach with their “kitchen sink realism.”

Russell followed up Women in Love with The Devils starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. With its violence and nun orgies, this tale of possession and witchcraft in 17th century France has never been released in the US in an uncut form and has not been widely available on DVD, though a new release for 2012 was recently announced by the British Film Institute.

My first dim memories of Ken Russell came first as a young fan of The Who. Russell mounted a version of Pete Townshend’s rock opera Tommy with Who lead singer Roger Daltrey in the title role and featuring an eclectic cast including Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Ann-Margaret, Oliver Reed, Elton John, Jack Nicholson and more.

My strongest connection with the director came in the 1980s when I was a budding film fan. Altered States, Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Aria, The Lair of the White Worm and his Women in Love prequel The Rainbow all invigorated a decade of cinema that increasingly bowed down to the power of the blockbuster and movies aimed at teenagers. After that, Russell largely dropped off my radar though he continued to be productive.

11 Responses to “Controversial British director Ken Russell dead at 84”

  1. His masterpiece is THE DEVILS, a film that has still to receive proper DVD treatment. But WOMEN IN LOVE, MAHLER, THE MUSIC LOVERS and SAVAGE MESSIAH are fine, as is his BBC series on classical composers and THE DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS.

    I attended last year’s Russellmania Festival at Lincoln center, and saw THE DEVILS, SAVAGE MESSIAH and WOMEN IN LOVE and was hoping to take in the promised appearance of the aging director. In the end, his failing health prevented him from showing up.

    A huge loss for cinema.

  2. Was the version of The Devils you saw the unedited one do you know?

    I don’t think I ever saw Savage Messiah. I tried Mahler when I was very young enamored of Gothic and Altered States but I have to admit I don’t remember it well.

    Anyway, it was shitty news to be greeted with when I woke up this morning.

  3. It was not sadly the unedited one, as it did not contain the infamous “Rape of Christ” sequence.

    But the print was still pictorially stunning, gorgeous in every way.

    Yes, horrible news for sure.

  4. supposedly BFI is putting out the unedited version on DVD next year, but not on Blu-ray. I suspect it will be most people’s first chance to see it as originally intended.

  5. Me and my friends were really into Altered States at one point. We watched it over and over again.

  6. Yes, I have been awares of that BFI for a few weeks now. I am thinking it will still be worth getting even without the Rape of Christ sequence, at least until the full version is offered, if ever.

  7. “Altered States” is an odd-duck favorite of mine. I’m not crazy about the other Russels I’ve seen– “Tommy” is one everyone’s seen, and it’s fun, but the camp gets stuck in my throat; “Mahler” is better, but it’s been ages since I saw it. “The Devils” I haven’t seen yet, still waiting for the full, unedited version.

  8. @ Alison re Altered States. The same was the case of me and a bunch of friends. I haven’t seen it for years and not sure it would hold up. For pure fun I remember getting a kick out of The Lair of the White Worm.

    I valued Russell as a ballsy provocateur and innovative filmmaker. Sadly, I haven’t seen some of his most lauded work.

    I recall seeing his excellent autobiographical film – Portrait of an Enfant Terrible – on the South Bank Show in the late ’80s. It’s available on YouTube:

  9. I think I may have watched Gothic at Craig’s house. On laser disc.

  10. For me, Ken Russell’s films from the 80s were what was on the TV repeatedly throughout high school and college, whenever we were looking for something weird yet respectable and intelligent. Ken Russell’s films would play silently in the background on countless TVs and film screens in countless bars and nightclubs during those years for the same reason. I’m not intimately familiar with his early work and I’m not a huge fan of his films, but I appreciated his singular style and vision.

  11. Amusingly enough Chris, that was as close to being on the technological curve as I ever got, and even then LD was already just waiting for DVD to come along!

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