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Ken Russell: Sex, Hallucinogenics, Visual Flair ALTERED STATES, CRIMES OF PASSION

Kathleen Turner, Anthony Perkins, Crimes of Passion
Kathleen Turner, Anthony Perkins, Crimes of Passion

Provocative, Controversial Director Ken Russell Dead at 84: WOMEN IN LOVE, TOMMY, THE DEVILS

Valentino (1977) was another much-talked about biopic. (Perhaps not too surprisingly, decades later Ken Russell would write a positive commentary on a horrendously sensationalistic Valentino biography.) Reviews for the film starring Rudolf Nureyev as silent film idol Rudolph Valentino were mostly negative. Audiences, for their part, opted instead for Stars Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Three years later, Russell went Hollywood with Altered States, a bizarre, philosophical, hallucinogenic sci-fier starring William Hurt as a scientist who undergoes genetic regression. Written by Oscar winner Paddy Chayefsky, with whom Russell clashed on the set, the costly Warner Bros. release was a major box office disappointment.

Another US-based effort, the Belle du Jour-like 1984 sex drama Crimes of Passion, earned Kathleen Turner a Best Actress Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (also for the adventure comedy Romancing the Stone). But despite – or rather, because of – the film's controversial look at the life of a Los Angeles sex worker-cum-professional female, it flopped. Feminists and the p.c. crowd were offended by the portrayal of Turner's China Blue/Joanna Crane, Christians were offended by Anthony Perkins' pathetic "soul-saving" reverend, while audiences opted instead for that year's other Kathleen Turner vehicle and for Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Russell continued pushing boundaries, but the attention his movies received became increasingly marginal. Gothic (1986), the curious and highly watchable Salome's Last Dance (1987), Lair of the White Worm (1988), and Whore (1991) all failed to create much of a stir. Even another D. H. Lawrence adaptation, The Rainbow (1989), was all but ignored, grossing a measly $444k in North America. In those days, critics and the Academy were handing out awards to Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, Barry Levinson's Rain Man, and Bruce Beresford's Driving Miss Daisy. Audiences were flocking to those and to Batman Returns and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Following Whore, Russell did mostly television work, including a 2007 stint as one of the participants in Celebrity Big Brother. His last directorial effort was the omnibus horror flick Trapped Ashes in 2006. Russell directed the segment "The Girl with the Golden Breasts," and also acted in the film as a character named Dr. Lucy.

Among those influenced, whether directly or indirectly, by Russell's movies – themselves clearly influenced by the works of Luis Buñuel – are David Lynch and David Cronenberg. And, it's been said, music video directors, too. If so, it's unfortunate that for the most part Russell's cinematic influence on mainstream cinema has been reduced to cheap, glitzy shots and rapid cuts utterly bereft of thematic value.

"It's an absolute shame that the British film industry has ignored him," Glenda Jackson remarked. "It's an absolute disgrace ... He broke down barriers for so many people." Jackson also called him an "incredible visual genius."

Note: According to the website Brutal As Hell, the widely discussed 2012 DVD release of Russell's The Devils is not the truly uncut version. Missing is the "Rape of Christ" sequence.

Crimes of Passion photo: New World Releasing

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