Controversial film director Ken Russell passed away suddenly this week at the age of 84. Russell has long been considered the bad boy of British cinema or the original ‘enfant terrible’ of the empire, but for almost as long as I can remember he’s been one of my favorite filmmakers.
I was introduced to his work as a young pre-teen in the late 1970s after stumbling across TOMMY (1971) playing on television one balmy afternoon. His visionary rock opera based on the music of The Who rocked my world and I was immediately drawn to his work, which I found imaginative, thoughtful, incredibly creative and just damn fun to watch. Russell was unconventional, indebted to romanticism and a true British visionary in every sense of the word. During his long career behind the camera, he was also a punching bag for film critics. The critical establishment didn’t appreciate the subversive nature of his work and often regarded his films as confusing uncouth spectacles that were unworthy of recognition and financial support. But you might not know that if you’ve stumbled across all the critical praise Russell’s received since his death.
Film critics, much like art critics, often ignore their greatest talents until they leave this world so we’re left embracing ghosts. And the shimmering spectre of Ken Russell will be haunting us for a very long time. He was an incomparable presence and his death has left a gaping hole in the cinematic landscape that can’t be filled. Instead of writing one more obituary detailing the man’s fascinating life and making note of his extraordinary body of work, I thought I’d let Russell speak for himself. The following are some of the director’s best quotes borrowed from Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell, which was published in 1989.
Ken Russell on THE DEBUSSY FILM (1965): “Oliver was good as Debussy, capturing the brooding sensuality and threatening calm that is so characteristic of the man and his music. For all his macho image, Oliver is a sensitive artist who approaches his craft intuitively, somewhat in the manner of Glenda Jackson. And if Oliver hasn’t quite Glenda’s range, he is fully aware of it. From the moment in my next biopic when Oliver, playing the Victorian poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (to whom he also bears an extraordinary resemblance), bounced into the room looking like Debussy in a top hat, I was aware of it too. We quickly evolved a shorthand for our working relationship. ‘Moody One, Moody Two or Moody Three?’ he would ask before we shot each scene and, depending on the intensity of the smoldering meanness required, I would call the appropriate number and Oliver and the camera, which loves him dearly, would do the rest. And to hell with motivation.”
Ken Russell on WOMEN IN LOVE (1969): “U.A. (United Artists), when they heard the news, were aghast, but I was determined to have Glenda at any cost and set about convincing them that her condition (pregnancy) would not be a problem. Eventually, they decided to take a gamble and we started on schedule as planned. And as everyone knows, who saw the movie, we got away with it. Only once was our secret revealed, and that was during the last week of shooting in Zermatt, when Glenda rolled off a sled and her voluminous cape parted to expose an enormous bulge underneath a tight red sweater. But it was only on the screen for a second, and as there was a lot of activity by the rest of the group in the picture, no one took it in. Yes, the loose-fitting clothes of the period helped us a lot, as did the fact that Glenda played an artist and carried a large portfolio of drawings around in front of her. It was a demanding role, both mentally and physically, and she certainly earned an Oscar for Best Actress of 1970. I may have been nominated myself for Best Director—I don’t remember. In my opinion, Oliver Reed should have received an Oscar-for daring to act opposite Glenda, who has eaten lesser men alive.”
Ken Russell on THE MUSIC LOVERS (1970): “They were both fantasists, Tchaikovsky and Nina Milyukova, whose dreams of a happy marriage turned into a nightmare culminating in the composer’s virtual suicide and Nina’s death in a lunatic asylum. It was customary in such institutions for the inmates to have their heads shaved, so as time approached to shoot the sequence, I talked the situation over with Glenda, who had a lovely head of hair at the time and was all geared up to start working on John Schlesinger’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday directly after we finished. Apparently, she had the starring role—that of a glamorous woman torn between two men. Hoping against hope, I asked Glenda if the character was bald. She shook her head, her ringlets dancing attractively around her shoulders. For a moment I wondered if Schlesinger would consider playing the character as a baldy but thought it best not to ask him. Glenda suggested a bald cap. Doubting that it would work, I nevertheless agreed to give it a try. As I suspected, the result was grotesque, for no matter how hard we pulled the cap down, she looked hydrocephalic. We both looked at Glenda’s reflection in the mirror and laughed. So off it came, both the bald cap and the hair beneath. And how poor Schlesinger hit the roof when, surprise, surprise, Glenda turned up for her first day’s rehearsal looking like a shorn lamb. But his loss was our gain, for Glenda gave a perfectly heartrending performance as the pathetic creature who surely contributed to the title of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony—the Pathetique. It just couldn’t have been the same in a bald cap—sorry John; the wig you made her wear wasn’t really that bad-honest (Won’t you ever forgive me?).”
Ken Russell on THE DEVILS (1971): “Was it worth it? To me, yes. THE DEVILS was a political statement worth making. Although the events took place over 400 years ago, corruption and mass brainwashing by the church and state and commerce are still with us, as is the insatiable craving for sex and violence by the general public. The film itself was universally condemned as sacrilegious by the irreligious, was a disaster in America where Warners got out the scissors and circumcised twelve minutes off it, and an all-time hit in Italy where the Doge of Venice was burnt in effigy when he tried to ban it. Ironically, one of the greatest champions of THE DEVILS was Reverend Gene D. Phillips of the Society of Jesus. He teaches film at Loyola University and was so impressed that he immediately included it in the curriculum.”
Ken Russell on SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972): “Because SAVAGE MESSIAH was about an artist (Gaudier-Brzeska ) it was considered an ‘Art Film’ and considered to be a commercial risk. Consequently, it was difficult to finance. I ended up double-mortgaging my house and finding most of the money myself. There was a chance I’d end up on the street but I felt I owed Gaudier something. It would have been so easy to have gone into my father’s business and opted for the easy life, but Gaudier taught me that there was a life outside of commerce and that it was worth fighting for. Long live Gaudier!”
Ken Russell on VALENTINO (1977): “After kicking around the Equity problem over the antipasto, the conversation turned to meatier stuff with the arrival of the pollo sorpresa—Rudolph Nureyev, in fact. Casting Rudy as Valentino had been Shirley’s idea and there was good reasoning behind it. Apart from first names, both men had a lot in common: they sprang from humble origins, emigrated and became universal megastars without the need of having to master their adopted language. But who knows what would have happened if Valentino had survived till the talkies? Maybe his premature death was a blessing in disguise, for on the evidence of an old gramophone record he certainly had a very pronounced accent. So did Nureyev, and there was the problem: our émigré was supposed to come from Italy, not Russia. They sounded as unlike as a mandolin and a balalaika.”
Ken Russell on ALTERED STATES (1980): “Paddy didn’t know a matte shot from a doormat. But he did unwittingly give me an ally in the person of a British production designer, Richard McDonald, who was hired simply because he promised to utilize the sets that had already been built by the previous designer (who had resigned, I heard tell, when Paddy walked into the set with a chainsaw and hacked off the bits he didn’t approve of). Paddy was an autocrat, feared and revered in Hollywood. He could write words, win Oscars. His films made money, he was a commercial intellectual, he was a revolutionary, he attacked institutions: Network, The Hospital. He glorified the common man: Marty. He was outspoken. He made speeches attacking Vanessa Redgrave’s anti-Zionism. He was a simple man who loved simple things: a turkey sandwich and a cup of Sanka was all he asked of a meal (or ever gave). He resembled an overweight Trotsky, dressed as Chairman Mao, talked of democracy and practiced fascism. He also had two false names, Paddy and Chayefsky, and didn’t trust me out of his sight. And if at last, he was beginning to accept my input on the hallucinations, it was only because he was bereft of any visions of his own.”
And finally, I’ll let Russell sing his way out by praising his favorite filmmakers and having the final word on today’s cinematic landscape that has largely been shaped by the conservative-minded critics who continue to devalue groundbreaking filmmakers like Russell while heaping praise on the most mundane and unimaginative crap imaginable.
Ken Russell on his favorite directors: “Talking of directors I’m often asked to list my personal favorites. So in no particular order, here’s my top twenty: Robert Weine (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles), Murnau (Sunrise), William Cameron Menzies (Things to Come), Powell/Pressberger (The Red Shoes), Truffaut (Jules et Jim), Frank Tuttle (Roman Sandles), Laurence Olivier (Henry V), Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast), Eisenstein (Alexander Nevsky), Jean Vigo (L’Atalante), Fritz Lang (Metropolis), Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), Leni Riefenstahl (Olympia), Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday), Bondarchuk (War and Peace), Fellini (I Vitelloni), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), Billy Wilder (One, Two, Three), Walt Disney (Fantasia). Most of ‘em dead and buried—so what about the new boys? Sad to say, the list is depressingly small because for me most of the contemporary directors who win prizes, receive knighthoods, and are praised to the skies, are singularly untalented—though they are, if nothing else, undeniably fashionable.”
by Kimberly Lindbergs
This was originally written for Turner Classic Movies/Movie Morlocks
– Ken Russell Obituary
– Ken Russell: A True British original
– Ken Russell: A Life in Photographs
– Ken Russell: His Film Career
– The Musical Legacy of Ken Russell
– Ken Russell: Sex, nuns and rock’n’roll
– “Pity we aren’t madder”: Ken Russell links in his magnificent memory