Ken Russell life and biography

Ken Russell picture, image, poster

Ken Russell biography

Date of birth : 1927-07-03
Date of death : 2011-11-27
Birthplace : Southampton, England
Nationality : English
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2011-11-28
Credited as : film director, Peepshow, Lady Chatterley

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Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell was an English well known film director. He was known for his pioneering work in television and film and for his controversial style.

Known primarily for his exploration of sexual themes and his stylistic excesses, controversial British director Ken Russell first found himself artistically as a still photographer, contributing to such publications as PICTURE POST and ILLUSTRATED, after ineffectual forays into the ballet and theatrical worlds. He converted to Catholicism while shooting his first film, "Peepshow" (1956), then made "Amelia and the Angel" (1957) with the aid of the Catholic Film Institute, followed by "Lourdes" (1958), a conventional documentary about the legendary shrine. The latter two projects earned him a job replacing John Schlesinger as director of the BBC-TV arts program "Monitor", and he began by making a series of 15-minute shorts on subjects like pop art and folk dancing before immersing himself in the biographical documentary and revolutionizing the genre. Early works introducing living artists--the poet John Betjeman, the humorist Spike Milligan, the choreographer John Cranko, and others--finally gave way to exposes of dead artists.

Russell was ingenious in subverting BBC restrictions, gradually transforming the boring little factual accounts that relied solely on photographs and old newsreels to evocative longer films using real actors to impersonate historical figures. He made giant strides with "Prokofiev" (1961) and really broke through with the visually gorgeous "Elgar" (1962), an extraordinarily successful film on British composer Edward Elgar which made him famous overnight and led to his first opportunity to direct a feature. When "French Dressing" (1964) flopped, Russell continued opening up his BBC biopics, showing how artists like Bartok, Debussy and Isadora Duncan "transcended real problems and weaknesses in creating great art." He sandwiched "Dante's Inferno" (1967), a 90-minute study of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Oliver Reed) which made more use of fantasy than its predecessors, and "Song of Summer" (1968), an account of the last years of British composer Frederick Delius (considered by many the finest of his TV films), around his second feature, "Billion Dollar Brain" (also 1967), a critically-acclaimed box office failure.

Russell's career took off again with the commercial and critical success of his next picture, a fine period evocation of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" (1969). Noted for its bold erotic sensibility, particularly in the famous nude wrestling scene between Reed and Alan Bates, the film garnered an Oscar for actress Glenda Jackson, establishing her as a major star of the 70s. His last film for the BBC, "The Dance of the Seven Veils: A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes" (1970), which presented Richard Strauss as an egomaniac and a crypto-Nazi, conducting "Der Rosenkavalier" waltzes while SS men torture a Jew, drew howls of protest condemning his tasteless brutality. Although he would work the rest of his career almost entirely in the cinema, Russell's passion for music, art and biography pursued so relentlessly as a documentarian have remained at the forefront of his feature filmmaking. He has continually courted controversy as a purveyor of what his detractors have called "cultural pornography" and "visual madness," while his admirers have praised his visual flair, reveled in his excesses and compared him with Fellini.

Russell demonstrated considerable range with the three films he directed in 1971. "The Music Lovers", a self-indulgent and factually dubious account of Tchaikovsky focusing on the composer's homosexuality, struck many viewers as inappropriate. With "The Devils", based on the John Whiting play and Aldous Huxley novel "The Devils of Loudon", he once again played fast and loose with history and fashioned a relentlessly grotesque melodrama of 17th Century demonic possession, ending in the burning at the stake of the Christ-like Father Grandier (Reed), a sexually liberated priest whose ethics had brought him into conflict with the political ambitions of Cardinal Richelieu and the Catholic Church. Decried by Catholic officials for its "perverted marriage of sex, violence and blasphemy," "The Devils" featured exceptional cinematography, period costuming and art direction (and a fiery finale not for the squeamish). Russell's finale that year, "The Boy Friend", was an extreme change of pace, allowing the director to successfully rise to the challenge of making a musical on a budget of less than $2 million that looked as if it had cost ten times that amount. For many not enamored of his stylistic excess, it remains the best-liked of his films.

It was at this peak of his career that Russell decided to film "Savage Messiah" (1972), an adaptation of the H S Ede biography of sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska which had inspired him at an extremely low point during his early career as a failed dancer and actor. Investing his own money, he shot a restrained, convincing, impressive "portrait of an artist as a young man" that is often ignored amid the more flamboyant representatives of his oeuvre. Russell followed with "Mahler" (1973), an energetic and gorgeous biopic of the tormented life of the turn-of-the-century composer which (though one of his best films) did not receive nearly the warm reception of "Tommy" (1975), a virtually guaranteed success because of The Who's popularity and its all-star cast (including Ann-Margret, Reed, Elton John and Tina Turner). With "Lisztomania" (also 1975), the director embarked on one of his most outlandish extravaganzas, a so-called biography of Franz Liszt whose wrapper should bear the warning: "For Russell devotees only! All others BEWARE!" His career reached a low with the commercial failure of "Valentino" (1977), a typically excessive, visually flamboyant Ken Russell "biography", offering little insight into the silent film star and an awkward performance by ballet star Rudolph Nureyev in the title role.

The box-office success of Russell's "Altered States" (1980) once again made him bankable, and though most critics savaged his follow-up, "Crimes of Passion" (1984), as "sleazy tripe" or "lewd for the sake of being lewd", it was a watchable mess featuring fine performances by Kathleen Turner as a fashion designer-hooker and Anthony Perkins, the mad, street-corner preacher bent on saving her. The two films served as prototypes for later Russell films. "Altered States" drew comparisons to "The Wolfman" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and paved the way for the director to mine the "horror" vein in "Gothic" (1986), a tale depicting a night in 1816 that inspired Mary Shelley ("Frankenstein") and Dr. Polidori ("The Vampyre") to write their classics, and "Lair of the White Worm" (1988), adapted from a Bram Stoker ("Dracula") novel. He revisited D H Lawrence with his adaptation of "The Rainbow" (1989), a prequel to "Women in Love" with Jackson appearing as the mother of her character from the first film, delivering a restrained feature filled with many beautiful and striking moments. "Whore/If You Can't Say It, Just See It" (1991), returned to the "Crimes of Passion" territory of sordid sex and prostitutes, with a very broad, even funny portrayal by Theresa Russell (no relation to the director) in the lead.

Russell returned to Lawrence a third time for "Lady Chatterley" (1993), a BBC miniseries based on the author's "Lady Chatterley's Lover". Most recently, he directed The Movie Channel's "Dogboys" (1998) and completed "Mindbender" (lensed c. 1996), an as yet unreleased biopic about the psychic Uri Geller.

Besides books on film-making and the British film industry, Russell wrote A British Picture: An Autobiography (1989; published in the US as Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell, 1991). He also published six novels, including four on the sex lives of composers – Beethoven Confidential, Brahms Gets Laid, Elgar: The Erotic Variations, and Delius: A Moment with Venus. Mike and Gaby's Space Gospel is a science-fiction rewriting of Genesis. His last novel, also science-fiction and published in 2006, is called Violation. It is a very violent future-shock tale of an England where football has become the national religion. At the time of his death, he had a column for The Times in the Film section of times 2.

Russell died in a hospital on Sunday, November 27th 2011 following a series of strokes. He was 84.

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