(1927 - present)
Three Key Films: Women in Love (1970), The Boy Friend (1971), Altered States (1980)
Underrated: The Devils, released in 1971, never reached classic status due to being stifled by censors. Playing fast and loose with the real story of 17th century priest Urbain Grandier and the accusations of witchcraft that he faced, Russell’s film drew outrage from the Catholic Church and various ratings boards. Although Russell made minor cuts to ensure The Devils‘s release, Warner Bros.—that studio that distributed the film—and the MPAA took greater liberties, removing whole scenes. In recent years much of this material—a now infamous scene nick-named “The Rape of Christ” included—has been exhumed and reintegrated into the film. Although still a hard find, select festival screenings have allowed viewers to appreciate this critical look at the Catholic Church and Vanessa Redgrave’s standout performance as the Grandier-obsessed Sister Jeanne.
Unforgettable: The nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed’s characters in 1969’s Women in Love is a well-shot and the moment in the film where the latent homoeroticism between the two comes to the forefront. The scene’s inclusion marks Women in Love as one of the first theatrical films to feature full frontal male nudity. Despite the two brutish actors stripping and sparring in front of a scorching fireplace, the scene unfolds in a no-frills manner and serves as an effective departure from Russell’s signature campiness.
The Legend: When ranking descriptive words for Ken Russell’s work, “orgasmic” would land somewhere firmly in the top three; “subdued”, if it registered at all, would make a solid bottom showing. Rounding out the top five would be adjectives such as “garish,” “gaudy,” and “outlandish,” and while “orgasmic” is a bit opaque, these other words are not usually seen as qualities of a serious director. Yet Russell, who has raised questions about religion and plied actresses with substantial roles in many of his films, can rarely resist a bit of visual relish, and his films are all the more memorable for it.
No one else could take a fairly straightforward biopic such as Mahler, which Russell made in 1974, and embed a fantastical sequence involving a Nazi mistress to illustrate the composer Gustav Mahler’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Rather than being disruptive of the story or completely incongruous, one can’t imagine the scene working any other way. Even when his flamboyance runs a little too rampant (such as in 1975’s Lisztomania, which very phallically reimagines classical composer Franz Liszt as the first pop star), Russell has enough credentials to defend his talent. Born in Southampton, England and exposed to silent Fritz Lang fantasies as a child, Russell’s first foray into artistry was through photography, working as a freelance documentary photographer until 1959. A few documentary films garnered the attention of the BBC, which hired Russell to produce various art documentaries ranging in subject from Isadora Duncan to Richard Strauss. The settings of such films were said to be an influence on Stanley Kubrick, among others, and eventually led to Russell becoming a film director in his own right, beginning as a false start in 1963 with the comedy French Dressing and with the more successful Michael Caine vehicle Billion-Dollar Brain in 1967.
The DH Lawrence adaptation Women in Love followed and proved to be the director’s breakthrough, bestowing him an Academy Award nomination for best director and seeing Glenda Jackson walk away with Best Actress for her performance in the film. What followed was fervid controversy (The Devils), dalliances with The Who (the juggernaut musical Tommy), and forays into science fiction and horror (William Hurt’s film debut Altered States, Gothic). The racy thriller Cimes of Passion (1984) featured a bravura by Kathleen Turner, but was consdiered a flop despite the actresses’ strong characterization Russell’s boldly colorful direction of a hooker’s world. He returned to this theme with Whore (1990), starring Theresa Russell in the title role, but the film’s realistic approach to a working girl’s life was roundly dismissed and branded with an incendiary NC-17 in the same year Julia Roberts played a hooker with a heart of gold in Pretty Woman, a film that Russell contended was much more dangerous. While Russell’s name may largely be synonymous with sex, the visuals, ideas, and performances across his filmography are more than enough to secure Russell a spot on our list. Maria Schurr