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Gothic DVD That fascinating moment in 1816 when young Mary Shelley was first inspired to... more info $14.98was $14.98 Buy Now

The Lair Of The White Worm... Based on Bram Stoker's final novel, this campy 1988 horror flick from... more info $14.98was $14.98 Buy Now

Lady Chatterley DVD Cult director Ken Russell adapts D.H. Lawrence's novel as a lush, four-part... more info $29.99was $29.99 Buy Now

Valentino DVD The world's most celebrated dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, portrays Rudolph Valentino,... more info $19.95was $19.95 Buy Now

Ken Russell At The BBC... The iconic award-winning English director, Ken Russell, is best known for his... more info $59.98was $59.98 Buy Now

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Also Known As: Alfred Russell, Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell Died: November 27, 2011
Born: July 3, 1927 Cause of Death: Stroke
Birth Place: Southampton, England, GB Profession: director, screenwriter, producer, actor, photographer, ballet dancer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Known for his obsessive explorations of sexuality, religion, music and history via a prism of stylized excess, filmmaker Ken Russell continually courted controversy, finding himself alternately accused of being a purveyor of filth by his detractors, and hailed as a visionary and the successor to Fellini by his supporters. After winning acclaim for early biographical dramas that included "Elgar" (1962) and "Song of Summer" (1968), Russell stunned theatergoers and critics alike with his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" (1969). From this point forward, the director seemed far less interested in being a critical darling than in becoming a cinematic agent provocateur of the highest order. Films like "The Devils" (1971), "Tommy" (1975), "Altered States" (1980), "Crimes of Passion" (1984) and "Whore" (1991) where just as likely to attract praise and box office success as they were condemnation, if not outright censorship. A period of unremarkable made-for-television projects in the mid-1990s preceded a series of self-produced video shorts, sporting titles like "The Fall of the House of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century" (2002) and "Revenge of the Elephant Man" (2004). Despite the...

Known for his obsessive explorations of sexuality, religion, music and history via a prism of stylized excess, filmmaker Ken Russell continually courted controversy, finding himself alternately accused of being a purveyor of filth by his detractors, and hailed as a visionary and the successor to Fellini by his supporters. After winning acclaim for early biographical dramas that included "Elgar" (1962) and "Song of Summer" (1968), Russell stunned theatergoers and critics alike with his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" (1969). From this point forward, the director seemed far less interested in being a critical darling than in becoming a cinematic agent provocateur of the highest order. Films like "The Devils" (1971), "Tommy" (1975), "Altered States" (1980), "Crimes of Passion" (1984) and "Whore" (1991) where just as likely to attract praise and box office success as they were condemnation, if not outright censorship. A period of unremarkable made-for-television projects in the mid-1990s preceded a series of self-produced video shorts, sporting titles like "The Fall of the House of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century" (2002) and "Revenge of the Elephant Man" (2004). Despite the paucity of budget and the limited distribution of these latter films, one thing was for certain - the mercurial filmmaker was still making precisely the movies he wanted to make, and love him or loathe him, there was no mistaking Ken Russell's work for that of anyone else.

Born Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell on July 3, 1927 in Southampton, Hampshire, U.K., he was the son of Ethel and Henry Russell. Russell's father, a shoe store owner, was reportedly an emotionally distant, angry and abusive man. As a result, the boy spent much of his early years ensconced in the safety of local movies houses with his mother, where works by directors such as Fritz Lang clearly influenced Russell's later cinematic inclinations. After receiving education in the nearby township of Walthamstow and at Pangbourne Nautical College, he briefly entered the Merchant Navy before being released due to a nervous breakdown. Following a period with the British Air Force, Russell began to pursue more artistic vocations and enrolled at the Walthamstow Art Academy. Shortly thereafter, he switched gears when he entered London's International Ballet School, where he studied for several years before ultimately abandoning his dancing ambitions. Creatively, Russell at last found his calling with well-received work as a freelance photographer, contributing to such publications as Picture Post and Illustrated in the mid-1950s. This eventually gave way to motion pictures and his first short film, "Peepshow" (1956), followed by "Lourdes" (1957) and "Amelia and the Angel" (1959). Having recently converted to Catholicism, the latter two religion-themed films were partially funded by the Catholic Film Institute.

"Amelia and the Angel" so impressed Huw Wheldon, mastermind behind the lauded BBC-TV arts program "Monitor," that he brought Russell on board the production, where the burgeoning director joined the ranks of John Schlesinger to helm a series of documentary shorts. Pieces such as "Scottish Painters" (BBC, 1959) eventually gave way to a revolutionary take on biographical documentaries, and a reinvigoration of what had become a staid genre. 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, enlisting professional actors to impersonate historical figures. He made substantial strides with "Prokofiev" (BBC, 1961), prior to achieving a major breakthrough with the visually gorgeous "Elgar" (BBC, 1962), an extraordinarily successful meditation of British composer Edward Elgar. The project made Russell an overnight sensation and directly led to his first opportunity to direct a feature. That first film, "French Dressing" (1964), however, was an undeniable critical and financial failure, necessitating his return to the BBC where he continued to push visual and narrative boundaries with more biopics of artists like Bartok, Debussy and Isadora Duncan.

Working for another U.K. documentary program, "Omnibus," Russell filmed "Dante's Inferno" (BBC, 1967), a 90-minute study of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Oliver Reed) which made more use of fantasy sequences than its predecessors, prior to helming his second feature, "Billion Dollar Brain" (1967), a spy thriller starring Michael Caine, that once again failed to find an audience. Continuing on with "Omnibus," his next project was "Song of Summer: Frederick Delius" (BBC, 1968), an account of the final years of the brilliant but tyrannical British composer, considered by many to be the finest of Russell's made-for-TV films. The director's feature career finally gained credibility with the commercial and critical success of his next picture, an exceptional 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, and established her as a major star of the '70s. Russell's last film for "Omnibus" was the controversial "The Dance of the Seven Veils: A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes" (BBC, 1970), a docudrama that presented Richard Strauss as an egomaniac and a crypto-Nazi, going so far as to depict a group of SS men torturing a Jewish prisoner to the strains of the composer's "Der Rosenkavalier" waltz. The film drew howls of protest, most notably from the Strauss estate, who demanded it be banned from future airings. After an initially supportive BBC began to distance itself from both the director and the film, Russell permanently parted ways with the network.

It would not be the first time Russell courted controversy - his later work would at times be assigned such derogatory labels as "cultural pornography" and "visual madness." And while he would spend most of the remainder of his career in feature film, the passion for music, art and biography that he detailed so brilliantly as a TV documentarian, would continue to be a signature element of his future output. Despite the recent criticism and professional turbulence, the director responded with a volley of diverse projects in the following year. "The Music Lovers" (1971), a self-indulgent and factually dubious account of Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) that focused primarily on the composer's deeply closeted homosexuality, struck many viewers as inappropriate. With "The Devils" (1971), based on the Aldous Huxley novel The Devils of Loudon and a play by John Whiting, he once again riled audiences and reviewers with a highly sexualized, at times shocking historical drama depicting the destruction of a sexually liberated 17th Century priest (Reed) accused of witchcraft, and the repressed nun (Vanessa Redgrave) who is pathologically obsessed with him. Scenes that included explicit sex among the nuns and the extremely graphic burning at the stake of Reed's character, sent shockwaves through the critical establishment, resulting in a heavily edited version released in the U.S.; not surprisingly, big box-office numbers were driven by the salacious publicity. Russell's third film for the year, "The Boy Friend" (1971), was a stylish period musical starring Twiggy and produced on a relatively small budget. The film was well-received by English audiences and became widely regarded as one of the eclectic director's most accessible.

It was at this peak of his career that Russell decided to mount "Savage Messiah" (1972), an often overlooked adaptation of the H. S. Ede biography of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (Scott Antony), which the filmmaker largely funded himself. He followed with "Mahler" (1973), an energetic and gorgeously shot biopic of the tormented life of the turn-of-the-century composer (Robert Powell). As intriguing and moderately successful as it was, the film did not receive nearly the feverish response of Russell's seminal rock opera "Tommy" (1975), a virtually guaranteed hit due to The Who's immense popularity and its all-star cast that included Ann-Margret, Reed, Elton John, Jack Nicholson and Tina Turner. Even before the release of "Tommy," Russell began shooting "Lisztomania" (1975), one of the most outlandish musical extravaganzas in the director's oeuvre. A pseudo-biographical, psychedelic romp about the world's first pop star, composer Franz Liszt (Roger Daltry), it garnered early attention from Russell devotees and was considered by many too bizarre for all but the most ardent Russell aficionados. His next project, another heavily stylized biography, "Valentino" (1977), which featured an ill-suited Rudolph Nureyev in the title role as the silent-era sex symbol, was blasted by critics for its historical inaccuracies and largely ignored by audiences.

Following a pair of literary biopics for British television, Russell returned to feature work with a marked departure in subject and tone for "Altered States" (1980). A science-fiction tale written by Paddy Chayefsky and based on his novel of the same name, it starred William Hurt in his film debut as a professor whose experiments with sensory deprivation and psychotropic drugs lead to his own mental and physical de-evolution. Reportedly, Russell's working relationship with the writer was not a pleasant one, and while some critics were divided about the merits of the mind-bending thriller, it did reasonably well at theaters and launched Hurt to stardom. However, whatever good will he earned from critics and audiences with "Altered States" soon evaporated after the release of his next project, "Crimes of Passion" (1984). An erotic psychodrama about a prostitute (Kathleen Turner) who becomes the obsession of a deranged, drug and sex addicted street preacher (Anthony Hopkins), it was universally deemed an unmitigated disaster and became the director's last American-produced film. Clearly interested in exploring the monster within us all - "Altered States" drew comparisons to both "The Wolfman" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" - he explicitly mined the roots of the modern horror genre in "Gothic" (1986), an atmospheric tale depicting the stormy night that inspired Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) to write her classic novella Frankenstein while visiting Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) with her husband, Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), at a villa in Lake Geneva.

Russell continued in a similar vein with "The Lair of the White Worm" (1988), based on a novel by Dracula author Bram Stoker and featuring Hugh Grant as an English nobleman whose ancestral home harbors a gigantic snake-like creature worshipped by an insane priestess (Amanda Donohoe). While both this film and "Gothic" were largely dismissed at the time, each gained a modicum of cult-classic notoriety in the years that followed. That same year saw the release of the little-seen "Salome's Last Dance" (1988), in which legendary British wit Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) enjoys a production of his play "Solome" that is performed by prostitutes at a high-end brothel. Russell revisited D. H. Lawrence with his adaptation of "The Rainbow" (1989), a prequel to "Women in Love," with Glenda Jackson appearing as the mother of the character she played in the earlier film. Considered inconsistent and uneven, albeit beautifully filmed, at the time of its release, "The Rainbow" enjoyed neither the same reverence nor longevity of its predecessor. After a rare acting appearance in the Sean Connery-Michelle Pfeiffer Cold War romantic thriller "The Russia House" (1990) and more television work, Russell helmed "Whore" (1991). One of his last efforts to see a wide release, the film's provocative title caused it to be renamed "If You Can't Say It, See It" for distribution purposes and was branded with the dreaded NC-17 rating by the NPAA. Filmed in a low-budget, documentarian style, the film told the story of 24 hours in the life of a streetwalker (Theresa Russell) and was the director's harsh answer to the "hooker with a heart of gold" fairy tale seen the year prior in "Pretty Woman" (1990).

On cable TV a greatly restrained Russell directed "Prisoner of Honor" (HBO, 1991), a historical drama that examined Jewish persecution through the narrative lens of the French military Dreyfus Affair from the late 19th Century. He returned to Lawrence for a third time with "Lady Chatterley" (BBC, 1993), a four-part miniseries based on the author's Lady Chatterley's Lover, starring Joely Richardson in the title role and co-starring Sean Bean. Other works included the Uri Geller biopic "Mindbender" (1996) - criticized by many as little more that a bit of propaganda for the self-proclaimed psychic - as well as the made-for-cable "Dogboys" (Showtime, 1998), a bland thriller barely recognizable as a Russell-directed film. Later efforts amounted to mostly small, self-produced oddities shot on video, often using Russell's own home as a location; among them, "Lion's Mouth" (2000), "The Fall of the House of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century" (2002) and "Revenge of the Elephant Man" (2004). The 80-year-old filmmaker still had a few tricks up his sleeve when he surprised viewers by participating in British television's "Celebrity Big Brother" (Channel 4, 2001- ) for the 2007 season. Russell departed five episodes into the show, however, after a heated disagreement with another of the celebrity houseguests. Although he continued to appear infrequently over the following years with cameos in such low-budget fare as "Mr. Nice" (2010) or the occasional talk show, a series of strokes had greatly reduced the once prolific filmmaker's output by 2011. Still contributing a regular film column to London's The Times and reportedly in the process of mounting a stage musical based on Alice in Wonderland, Ken Russell died in his sleep on November 27 at the age of 84.

By Bryce Coleman

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  Kings X (2007)
2.
3.
  Lady Chatterley (2003) Director
4.
5.
  Prisoner of Honor (1991) Director
6.
  Whore (1991) Director
7.
  Women & Men: Stories of Seduction (1990) Director ("Dusk Before Fireworks")
8.
  Rainbow, The (1989) Director
9.
  Salome's Last Dance (1988) Director
10.

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Color Me Kubrick (2006)
2.
3.
 Lady Chatterley (2003) Sir Michael Reid
4.
 The Russia House (1990) Walter
5.
 Salome's Last Dance (1988) Cappadodem
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1945:
Entered Merchant Navy; released due to nervous breakdown
1946:
Served with Royal Air Force
:
Worked with British Dance Theatre, London Theatre Ballet, NY Norsk Ballet, and in provincial repertory theater
:
Worked as freelance still photographer
1956:
Made first amateur short film, "Peepshow"
1959:
Began working as director for the BBC arts series "Monitor"
1962:
Secured permission to use actors in "Elgar" on condition that they appeared only in long shot and spoke no dialogue
1964:
First feature film as director, "French Dressing"
1965:
Worked with actor Oliver Reed in "The Debussy Film"; went around BBC restrictions on using actors to represent historical figures by building the picture around a group of actors making a film about Debussy
1967:
Cast Reed as Dante Gabriel Rosetti in "Dante's Inferno"
1970:
Gained international attention with film "Women in Love"; Reed portrayed rich young mine owner Gerald Crich; first of five features with actress Glenda Jackson, who won an Oscar for her performance; film garnered controversy over its nude male wrestling scene
1971:
First feature as producer, "The Music Lovers"; also directed; second film with Jackson
1971:
First screenplay credit, "The Devils", adapted from the John Whiting play based on Aldous Huxley's "The Devils of Loudon"; also directed and produced; Reed starred as Father Urbain Grandier
1972:
Filmed "Savage Messiah", adapted from the H. S. Ede biography of the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska from which he had drawn great strength at a low point in his life
1975:
Commercial hit as the writer and director of The Who's "Tommy"; last feature with Reed
1980:
Returned to the winner's column with "Altered States" although screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky disowned the final film, which was based on a Chayefsky novel
:
Began to direct stage operas in 1980s; directed in England, Australia, Italy and Greece
1986:
Directed highbrow horror film "Gothic," filled with trademark hallucinatory visuals
1988:
Made feature acting debut in "Salome's Last Dance"; also directed
1989:
Second Lawrence adaptation, "The Rainbow"; fifth and last (to date) feature with Jackson
1990:
Directed first U.S. TV production, "Dusk Before Fireworks" segment of "Women and Men: Stories of Seduction" (HBO)
1991:
Directed the pseudo-documentary "Whore"; also wrote screenplay
1991:
Second assignment for HBO, directing "Prisoner of Honor," a movie about a turn of the century anti-Semitic French army officer who challenged the massive government cover up in the imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus
1993:
Returned to the work of Lawrence, directing four-part miniseries "Lady Chatterly" (BBC), adapted from "Lady Chatterly's Lover"
1994:
Contributed 27-minute "The Insatiable Mrs Kirsch" to executive producer Regina Ziegler's six-part "Erotic Tales"
1998:
Directed The Movie Channel's "Dogboys"
2000:
Wrote and directed short film "Lion's Mouth"; screened on the Internet
2002:
Wrote, directed, and appeared in "The Fall of the Louse of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century"
2006:
Final directorial project, the segment titled "The Girl With Golden Breasts" in the horror anthology "Trapped Ashes"
2007:
Joined the cast of the U.K. reality series "Celebrity Big Brother" (Channel 4)
2010:
Acted alongside Rhys Ifans, Chloƫ Sevigny and David Thewlis in "Mr. Nice"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Pangbourne Nautical College: - 1941 - 1944
Walthamstow Art School: - 1949
International Ballet School: - 1950

Notes

Asked about the weirdest place he had ever vomited: "A coal bucket in Upper Norwood . . . I'd just been to a press showing of my first feature film, "French Dressing", and I didn't know that it wasn't good form to go. I was asked not to as it was a press showing but after the film I just talked to the only person who would talk to me, the film critic of THE BOMBAY TIMES, who loved it. All the rest universally condemned it. I was so upset. It was a sherry party so I got drunk on sherry. I remember tottering along Regent Street and collapsing in a doorway of what used to be a bank. I was moved on by a policeman so I stumbled down to Green Park and slept until it was dark. Then I got a 74 bus home to Upper Norwood and collapsed on the bed where I said to my wife at the time, 'I think I'm going to throw up!' and she convenietly brought a coal bucket over and I did. So that's the end of that. I never listened to the critics again.'--Ken Russell in EMPIRE, November 1997

"I've never had final cut on any of my films. Kubrick does on his films, but I can't think of anybody else. You get three cuts and three previews, and then they take over and chop it up. I'm told that the version of "The Devils" now out on video is the longest version. I haven't looked at it yet, but it's certainly longer than the version Warner Bros. had out before. When the film first came out, it did pretty well in Britain, ran for years in Italy, but was pretty well cut to shreds in America. (They cut out every scene that had pubic hair in it and it ended up about 15 minutes shorter)." --Russell to SIGHT AND SOUND, October 1997

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Shirley Russell. Costume designer. Married on February 3, 1957; divorced in 1979; mother of five of Russell's children; designed costumes for seven of Russell's films including "Women in Love" (1970), "Savage Messiah" (1972) and "Tommy" (1975); received Oscar nominations for "Agatha" (1979) and "Reds" (1981); died on March 4, 2002 at age 66.
wife:
Vivian Jolly. Screenwriter, photographer. Married on June 10, 1984; wrote script for "The Rainbow" (1989); divorced in 1991.
wife:
Hetty Baynes. Actor. Born in 1957; married in 1992; separated in 1996; divorced in 1999.

Family close complete family listing

father:
Henry Russell. Shoe store owner.
mother:
Ethel Russell.
brother:
Raymond Russell. Younger, born c. 1932.
son:
Alex Russell. Carpenter, set designer. Mother, Shirley Russell.
son:
James Russell. Mother, Shirley Russell.
daughter:
Victoria Russell. Actor, costume designer. Has appeared in two of her father's films and worked on costumes for two others; mother, Shirley Russell.
son:
Xavier Russell. Editor. Has worked on several of his father's films; mother, Shirley Russell.
son:
Toby Russell. Mother, Shirley Russell.
daughter:
Molly Russell. Mother, Vivian Jolly Russell.
son:
Rupert Russell. Mother, Vivian Jolly Russell.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"Ken Russell" Twayne
"Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell" Bantam Books
"The Lion Roars: Ken Russell on Film" Faber and Faber
"Mike and Gaby's Space Gospel" Little, Brown
"Directing Film: From Pitch to Premiere"
VIEW COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHY

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