Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
He was born in Southampton, and served in both the RAF and the Merchant Navy before finding cinema after a brief affair with dancing and photography. In the late 1950s, his amateur films secured him a job at the BBC, where he worked regularly from 1959–1970 making arts documentaries for Monitor and Omnibus. Amongst his best known works from this period were Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965), Isadora Duncan - The Biggest Dancer In The World (1967) and Song of Summer (1968). His television films became increasingly flamboyant and outrageous — The Debussy Film opens with a scene in which a woman is shot full of arrows (a reference to Debussy's The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian ), while Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), a self-styled "comic strip in seven parts on the life of Richard Strauss", caused such outrage that questions were asked in the British Parliament and the Strauss family withdrew all music rights, effectively banning it from legal circulation. Although the majority of his BBC films were about musical subjects, he also tackled visual art, in the seminal film on British Pop Art, Pop Goes the Easel (1963) and a biopic of French painter Henri Rousseau, Always on Sunday (1965).
Russell's first feature film was a comedy, French Dressing , made in 1963, but its critical and commercial failure sent him back to the BBC. His second big-screen effort was part of the Harry Palmer spy cycle, Billion Dollar Brain (1967). His first truly personal feature film was 1969's Women in Love, based on the novel by D. H. Lawrence. The film made a star of Glenda Jackson and broke the cinema taboo of full frontal male nudity. More work in a similar vein followed, including The Music Lovers (1970), a biopic of Tchaikovsky which drew attention to his homosexuality, and The Devils, based on Aldous Huxley's book The Devils of Loudun , starring Vanessa Redgrave in a highly controversial role as a nun.
Russell's first attempt to break into America with the period musical/Twiggy vehicle The Boyfriend was a flop. Russell turned to European financing for Savage Messiah a biopic of artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Mahler resulting in two of his better films. In 1975 Russell was gifted a hit with the star studded film version of The Who's Tommy that also allowed him to indulge his visual flair but his follow up Lizstomania designed as a vehicle for Roger Daltrey was a dud. The success of Tommy gave Russell another shot at Hollywood but the biopic Valentino saw Russell in Director for Hire mode. 1980's Altered States also saw Russell working from someone else's script but gave him some opportunity to engage with by now trademark religious and sexual imagery. Russell's last American film Crimes of Passion (1984) was probably his best work since The Devils contrasting the prostitute with the 'priest' and benefiting from two extraordinary performances from Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins.
Unable to comply with the conservatism of Hollywood Russell returned to Europe and mostly financed his remaining cinema projects himself. Gothic (1986) was a suitably hysterical treatment of Lord Byron. In 1988 he released two films: the dire Hammer spoof The Lair of the White Worm and the better Salome's Last Dance that reunited him with his Women in Love star Glenda Jackson. Russell returned to Lawrence for what so far has been his last personal project for the cinema, an adaptation of The Rainbow.
By the 1990s, Russell's work had attracted so much media attention that he was widely regarded as unemployable in cinema, and he is now largely reliant on his own finances to continue making films. Much of his work since 1990 has been commissioned for television and he has continued to work regularly with films for the South Bank Show but Russell's later work has suffered from a random use of nudity and casting himself in his films. Russell's best work results when he has a strong actors to push against (Women in Love, The Devils, Crimes of Passion).
He and his late ex-wife, Shirley, converted to Roman Catholicism together.
- Savage Messiah - a Ken Russell site by Iain Fisher
- Ken Russell's film on Delius - Song of Summer
- Ken Russell on Television - a comprehensive study of Russell's small-screen work, from the British Film Institute's Screenonline site
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