Ken Russell: Filmmaker

I’ve heard director Ken Russell described as the British Federico Fellini. And when you look at their films, you see some truth in that.

Excessive? Blurring the line between fantasy and reality? A bit perverse? Controlling? Controversial? Yes, both filmmakers.

Russell tells a funny story of meeting Fellini once, in Rome scouting locations. According to Russell’s story, it was pouring down rain, Fellini got out of a car with several people holding umbrellas for him. Fellini walks directly over the Russell and says, “Ken, I’m known in Italy as the Italian Ken Russell!”  Who knows whether the story is actually, true, but Russell seemed to have a good time telling it.

Coincidentally, it was during a film class about Fellini that I heard Russell’s name mentioned. That’s all the push I need to start writing.

Russell and Fellini also mixed religion into their films and appreciated the imagery that music brought to film as an artistic form.  Both tended to make bold statements in their films.  Fellini drew from his own past, whereas Russell was more historical and took much of his material from books and research.

Russell is probably best remembered for the film version of Tommy, the controversial The Devils, and the sci-fi Altered States.

Russell’s career arc started in television documentaries and films that weren’t commercial successes. Eventually he broke into mainstream feature films and then slowly reversed course moving back into television and independent films. He essentially went full circle. The man did what he wanted without regard to his career. He continued to work in whatever medium that would employ him and give him the freedom to create.

In the 1950s and most of the 1960s, Russell built a respected career in documentaries. His film subjects were primarily artists, writers and musicians. His films gained wide notoriety for bringing the lives of composers like Mahler, Bartok and Elgar to the masses. During the mid 1960s, he began making feature films and was a frequent collaborator with actor Oliver Reed.

His first big break was directing the third Harry Palmer film starring Michael Caine,  Billion Dollar Brain. Unfortunately it was not successful and it was back to television for a film about Dante’s Inferno, starring Reed.


Having adapted several literary works into films, Russell was offered the film project of Women in Love, based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence. This may have been where Russell developed his Fellini reputation for excess, nudity and bending morality. Starring Reed, Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates, the film was both revered and reviled. Quite an accomplishment.  Women in Love was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director, winning Best Actress for Jackson.

In 1971, Russell directed three films: The Music Lovers about Tchaikovsky; The Devils, starring Reed and Vanessa Redgrave in a film panned for its debauchery; and The Boy Friend, a film starring Twiggy.


Of the three, The Boy Friend was the most successful, but Russell was developing a reputation for very perverse interpretations of literary works and pushing the limits of censorship.

He made some smaller films before taking on the adaptation of The Who’s Tommy, starring most of the world’s rock stars and even having Reed and Jack Nicholson sing in the film. The film made a tremendous amount of money and received decent reviews.  Personally, I think the film is a mess.  It is grand with lots of singing, dancing and weird sequences that match Pete Townshend’s lyrics, but it is hard for me to watch.

Immediately, Russell directed Roger Daltrey in Lisztomania, a bio flick about Franz Liszt, which was not a success. This was really more of a sexual fantasy film mixing classic music and Ringo Starr as the Pope, with Daltrey riding a giant imitation penis.

Roger Daltrey in Lisztomania with the giant penis. The prop has been a fixture on Daltrey’s estate ever since.

Russell retreated to a safer subject, Valentino, starring Rudolph Nureyev. Russell’s film focused on Valentino’s romantic relationships with both men and woman, and failed to generate any audience interest.

This essentially ended his mainstream film career, so we went back to television. However, in 1980 he directed Altered States, from a script by Paddy Chayefsky. This may be Russell’s best film. It contains long sequences of special effects photography as the main character is experiencing drug-aided trips back in time to the human origins. It’s a visual film that explores some very weight philosophical ideas. This is Russell’s one film where he gets it right. He balances his fantasy with mainstream film structure.

William Hurt caught between a primordial state and his being.

Chayefsky reportedly hated Russell’s work on his script, and Russell’s casting of William Hurt didn’t help. Hurt is a fine actor but too emotionally inert to bring any believably to the character.

The film has a great premise of being able to psychologically regress to human’s most basic evolutionary life form, through a sensory deprivation tank and aided by psychedelic drugs.  The camera and special effects are quite interesting and disturbing at the same time.  The William Hurt character is a man who is welded to his research, deserting his wife and family in favor or his work.  He is unable to find a connection to having a relationship with them, but in the end, it is her love and connection to him, that saves him from disappearing into an earlier life form.  It’s a very interesting story, and Russell mostly colors between the lines.  Unfortunately, Hurt is not the actor to pull it off.  The supporting characters, along with co-star Blair Brown are quite good.

Altered States made money but didn’t help Russell get work. So, back to television and documentaries until he landed Crimes of Passion (1984) starring Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins. For the rest of the decade, he alternated between television and lower profile films, although Whore, created the most excitement.

For the next 20 years he would work steadily in television and film, but no longer working large scale feature films.

Similarly to Fellini, whose output declined in his later years, he spent his last years making smaller films and even directing commercials. Russell even did some acting, directed opera and served as a professor at two universities.

Russell cashed in on his celebrity natures, writing and using his reputation to lecture and judge films.  He was as busy in his last years as ever, even appearing on an episode of Celebrity Big Brother. Even though producers had declined using his film talents, Russell’s career still had currency.

Russell didn’t always hit the bullseye, but he shot at some fascinating targets. He was perhaps the most daring mainstream filmmaker starting with Women in Love through Altered States. I don’t think Hollywood ever figured out how to deal with him. When he overshot the target, television was always there as his creative outlet.

Martin Scoresse and Ben Kingley on Ken Russell.


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