Ken Russell, the often controversial British director known for his flamboyant visual style in films such as “The Devils,” “Altered States” and the Who’s rock opera “Tommy,” has died. He was 84.
Russell, who lived in Lymington in southern England, died Sunday in a hospital after a series of strokes, his son, Alex Verney-Elliott, told the Associated Press in London.
A onetime television documentary filmmaker known for his irreverent BBC biographies of prominent figures in the arts, Russell hit the major leagues as a feature film director with “Women in Love,” his 1969 movie based on the D.H. Lawrence novel.
The film, which famously included a nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, earned Russell his only Oscar nomination for best director.
Glenda Jackson, who won an Academy Award for best actress for “Women in Love,” called Russell an “incredible visual genius.”
“It’s an absolute shame that the British film industry has ignored him,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s an absolute disgrace.... He broke down barriers for so many people.”
The so-called enfant terrible of British cinema went on to direct films such as “The Devils,” the X-rated 1971 film about a priest and sexually repressed nuns in 17th century France starring Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed; “The Boy Friend,” a 1971 musical starring the supermodel Twiggy; the star-studded “Tommy” in 1975; and the 1980 science fiction film “Altered States,” starring William Hurt.
Russell also was known for his extravagant biographies of composers in the 1970s such as Tchaikovsky (“The Music Lovers”), Gustav Mahler (“Mahler”) and Franz Liszt (“Lisztomania”).
“What distinguished him from the general run of British directors, including some famous ones like Carol Reed and David Lean, was that he had a tremendous flair for flamboyance and fantasy, rich in self-indulgence and a lot of overheated imagery,” said Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor.
Rainer said Russell’s “fantasies were often luridly sexual, his religious attitudes were transgressive, as in ‘The Devils,’ and he used the lives of famous artists such as Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Mahler as springboards for his own lurid, psychosexual fantasias.”
Film critic and former Times staff writer Kevin Thomas said Russell was “a major risk taker” as a director.
“He evokes a feeling in you that he’s gone right up to the edge, and then it can be great like ‘The Music Lovers,’ which I thought was wonderful,” Thomas said. “On other pictures, he would go way over the top, and he’d lose you.”
Indeed, critics loved and hated Russell.
British film critic Mark Kermode described him as “somebody who proved that British cinema didn’t have to be about kitchen-sink realism” and New Yorker critic Pauline Kael once called Russell “the chief defiler of celebrities of the past and present.”
During Russell’s heyday in the late 1960s through the early ‘80s, Rainer said, “his type of extravagance struck a chord with counterculture audiences and audiences looking for cutting-edge experiences in the movies, both visually and sexually.”
And conversely, he said, “when that era passed, his star fell.”
“I think people felt, rightly or wrongly, that Russell had sort of played out his shtick; his shtick was sort of old news and movies moved into a different, tamer era,” Rainer said.
The son of a shoe store owner, he was born Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell on July 3, 1927, in Southampton, England, where he developed an early love of the movies.
In London after serving in the Merchant Navy and the Royal Air Force, Russell studied ballet and did some acting before becoming a freelance photographer and filmmaker.
Joining the BBC in 1959, he turned out numerous arts documentaries, including ones on composer Claude Debussy, painter Henri Rousseau and dancer Isadora Duncan.
He launched his feature film career with the 1964 comedy “French Dressing” and directed Michael Caine in the 1967 spy thriller “Billion Dollar Brain.”
The iconoclastic director early on developed a feud with London Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker.
During an appearance on the BBC with Walker in the 1970s, Walker derided Russell’s “The Devils” for “monstrous indecency, simplemindedness and harping on the physical.”
Russell responded by calling Walker “old-womanly, carping, hysterical.” Then he rolled up his copy of the Standard containing Walker’s review and swatted him on the head.
Russell was married four times.
His survivors include his wife, Elise Tribble, and his children.