Ken Russell Movies: Sex and Other Controversial Topics

Ken RussellDirector Ken Russell, best known for his movies featuring sex-starved nuns, nude male wrestling, “offensive” religious symbolism, and kaleidoscopic musical numbers, died Sunday, Nov. 27, in the United Kingdom. Russell had suffered a series of strokes. He was 84.

Now hardly as remembered or admired as, say, '70s Hollywood icons Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, or Martin Scorsese, Russell not only was – more than – their equal in terms of vision and talent, but he was also infinitely more daring both thematically and esthetically. In fact, Russell was so innovatively controversial that he was referred to as the enfant terrible of British cinema while already in his 40s and 50s.

But if middle age brings out complacency and apathy in most people, its effect on Russell (born July 3, 1927, in Southampton) seems to have been the opposite. Following years of work on British television, Russell's 1969 film adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1969) – from a screenplay by future AIDS activist Larry Kramer – turned out to be both a critical and a box office hit. All that despite the presence of both male and female nudity, a “moody” camera, a raw approach to sex and social conventions, and the aforementioned in-the-buff male wrestling featuring Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.

Those were the days when movie critics and moviegoers – and even the Academy of Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences – sometimes found themselves open to cinematic experimentation. (And by that I don't mean the use of 3D.) In all likelihood, Women in Love would have become a commercial flop today – and quite possibly a critical one as well. Back then, it earned Glenda Jackson a Best Actress Oscar and Russell his sole Academy Award nomination.

Now, that's not to say that Russell was always successful with either critics or audiences. Or that Russell himself was always artistically successful. In fact, more often than not, he wasn't on all three counts.

His 1970 Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers, with Richard Chamberlain in the title role, Glenda Jackson as his wife, and Christopher Gable as his lover, was a critical and artistic disaster. London Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker called the film “monstrously indecent” in a TV encounter with Russell; following that remark, the director hit Walker with a rolled-up copy of the newspaper. “I wish it had been an iron bar,” Russell told The Guardian earlier this year. Though a box office hit in Britain, The Music Lovers failed to find much of an audience elsewhere.

Unconcerned with being politically correct (or self-controlled, for that matter), in 1971 Russell directed Vanessa Redgrave (replacing Glenda Jackson) as a sexually obsessed 17th-century French nun in The Devils. The film, usually in heavily censored form, was lambasted just about everywhere. (Russell referred to the American version of The Devils as “just a butchered nonsense.”)

The Boy Friend (1970), Russell's twisted homage to the Warner Bros. musicals of the 1930s, had both admirers and detractors. Personally, I find The Boy Friend not only great-looking, but also a better musical than the vast majority of the Busby Berkeley efforts it both spoofs and emulates. The film starred top model Twiggy, Christopher Gable, and a scene-stealing Glenda Jackson in a role akin to the one played by Bebe Daniels in 42nd Street.

“He cast me in it when all the studios were saying 'You can't cast her, she's a model,'” Twiggy told the BBC. “And God bless his cotton socks, he fought for me.”

Russell's provocative stamina – and off-beat casting – continued unabated throughout the '70s and '80s. His Tchaikovsky critical misfire notwithstanding, he tackled sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (played by Scott Anthony) in Savage Messiah (1972), and composer Gustav Mahler in Mahler (1974), with Robert Powell in the title role and The Boy Friend's Georgina Hale as his wife. Next, The Who's Roger Daltrey played Franz Litz in Lisztomania (1975). Daltrey, alongside Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed, also starred in the rock opera Tommy (1975), Russell's biggest box office hit in North America ($34.25 million, or about $133 million today). The film earned Ann-Margret a Best Actress Oscar nomination and Pete Townshend a nomination in the Best Original Song Score and/or Adaptation category.

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

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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