Date published: February 1, 2012
TO JUDGE FROM HIS IMDb PAGE, KEN Russell's preferred genres were the classical music biopic and the D. H. Lawrence adaptation, which makes him sound horribly respectable. But Russell - who passed away on November 27 - was not one to be respectable.
His literary adaptations were never tidy, settext footnotes to hallowed original works, but scruffy, emotional, cut-to-the-core-of-the-book howls of anguish. His Women In Love jettisons Lawrence's supposed commitment to realism (a mode Russell despised) to get into primal, earthy, brutal matters. Later, he moved to the outré end of the book shelf, tapping into a rich British Gothic tradition with a savage glee Hammer Films would never countenance. It's seldom remembered that The Devils has a serious literary source in an Aldous Huxley book, and no wonder... it's also, like most Russell films, as farcical as it is confrontational.
In his musical biopics, the dominant thesis is that the truly creative are also the truly mad. This would say as much about the director as his subjects if Russell weren't three steps ahead of the critics and as self-aware about his own antics as Hamlet. Russell's composers are divine monsters, superstars, sexual freaks - Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey) is depicted as a rock star with a penis the size of a gun of Navarone - and yet redeemed by the work. If MTV had a classical music sister station, they'd have to programme round-the-clock Russell. He remains unchallenged for the emotional, witty, subversive, overpoweringly strange montages to accompany the canonical works of the orchestral tradition. No wonder The Who tapped him to make Tommy.
With Altered States and Crimes Of Passion, he proved he could make Hollywood films which were still personal works, but he did not prosper. He made a lot of enemies and was proverbially one of the great talents shunted out of the business by the suits. In later years, he took odd gigs - a biopic of Uri Geller, Celebrity Big Brother - but still had Champagne for breakfast and shot DV charades in his own garden.
KEN RUSSELL'S 5 GREATEST MOMENTS...
WOMEN IN LOVE 7369
Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, about as masculine as It's possible to be when playing characters called Rupert and Gerald, wrestle naked in front of the fire, signifying the homoeroticvibe between the rivals. Both actors allegedly fluffed themselves to 'half-hard' on set
THE MUSIC LOVERS 1970
Nina (Glenda Jackson), "a nymphomaniac married to a homosexual" (according to the poster), scratches the carpet in sexual frustration while ranting at her husband, signalling dissatisfaction in the bedroom and suffering the onset of madness.
THE DEVILS 1971
Hunchbacked Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) and all the nuns in her order tear off their habits and writhe, either possessed by demons or suffering from near-terminal cases of the sexual frustration which was a bother to poor Mrs. Tchaikovsky.
Nora (Ann-Margret), Tommy's mother, is overwhelmed by her own addiction to advertised-onTV products as a tsunami of baked beans and liquid chocolate pours out of her telly and washes her away. Many mistook chocolate for human excrement -which we're sure Russell intended.
THELAIROF THEWHITE WORM 1988
Lady Sylvia (Amanda Donohoe), a vampire snake-woman, entices a Boy Scout into her lair, then paralyses him with her venom by biting his penis before draining him completely. Yes, there is a joke about 'bob-a-jobweek' in there.