Ken Russell (AP PHOTO)
LONDON (AP) — Ken Russell, an iconoclastic British director whose daring films blended music, sex and violence in a potent brew seemingly drawn straight from his subconscious, has died at age 84.
Russell died at his home in Southern England on Sunday following a series of strokes, his son Alex Verney-Elliott said Monday.
"My father died peacefully," Verney-Elliott said. "He died with a smile on his face."
Russell was a fiercely original director whose vision occasionally brought mainstream success, but often tested the patience of audiences and critics. He had one of his biggest hits in 1969 with "Women in Love," based on the book by D.H. Lawrence, which earned Academy Award nominations for the director and for writer Larry Kramer, and a "Best Actress" Oscar for the star, Glenda Jackson.
It included one of the decade's most famous scenes — a nude wrestling bout between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.
Reed said at the time that the director was "starting to go crazy."
"Before that he was a sane, likable TV director," Reed said. "Now he's an insane, likable film director."
Born in the English port of Southampton in 1927, Russell was attracted by the romance of the sea and attended Pangbourne Nautical College before joining the Merchant Navy at 17 as a junior crew member on a cargo ship bound for the Pacific. He became seasick, soon realized he hated naval life and was discharged after a nervous breakdown.
Desperate to avoid joining the family's shoe business, he studied ballet and tried his hand at acting before accepting he was not much good at either. He then studied photography, for which he did have a talent, and became a fashion photographer before being hired to work on BBC arts programs, including profiles of the poet John Betjeman, comedian Spike Milligan and playwright Shelagh Delaney.
"When there were no more live artists left, we turned to making somewhat longer films about dead artists such as Prokofiev," Russell once said.
These quickly evolved from conventional documentaries into something more interesting.
"At first we were only allowed to use still photographs and newsreel footage of these subjects, but eventually we sneaked in the odd hand playing the piano (in 'Prokofiev') and the odd back walking through a door," Russell said. "By the time a couple of years had gone by, those boring little factual accounts of the artists had evolved into evocative films of an hour or more which used real actors to impersonate the historical figures."
Music played a central role in many of Russell's films, including "The Music Lovers" in 1970 — about Tchaikovsky — and 1975's "Lisztomania," which starred Roger Daltrey of The Who as 19th-century heartthrob Franz Liszt.
"The Boy Friend," a 1971 homage to 1930s Hollywood musicals starring supermodel Twiggy, and Russell's 1975 adaptation of The Who's psychedelic rock opera "Tommy," were musicals of a different sort, both marked by the director's characteristic visual excess.
Russell's darker side was rarely far away. "Dante's Inferno," a 1967 movie about the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, played up the differences between Rossetti's idealized view of his wife and her reality as a drug addict.
Russell was even more provocative in his 1970 film "The Dance of the Seven Veils: A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes." It presented the composer Richard Strauss as a crypto-Nazi, and showed him conducting Rosenkavalier waltzes while SS men tortured a Jew.
"The Devils," a 1971 film starring Vanessa Redgrave as a 17th-century nun in the grip of demonic possession, was heavily cut for its U.S. release and is due to be released on DVD in Britain for the first time in 2012.
Russell told The Associated Press in 1987 that he found such censorship "so tedious and boring." He called the American print of "The Devils" ''just a butchered nonsense."
Critics were often unimpressed by Russell's work. Alexander Walker called him a master of "the porno-biography which is not quite pornography but is far from being biography." Pauline Kael said his films "cheapen everything they touch."
But admirers luxuriated in his Gothic sensibility — on display once again in "Gothic," a 1987 film about the genesis of Mary Shelley's horror tale "Frankenstein" replete with such hallucinatory visuals as breasts with eyes and mouths spewing cockroaches.
Russell said his depiction of a drug-addled Percy Bysshe Shelley was an accurate depiction of the time.
"Everyone in England in the 19th century was on a permanent trip. He must have been stoned out of his mind for years," Russell said. "I know I am."
Russell's fascination with changing mental states also surfaced in 1980 film "Altered States," a rare Hollywood foray for him, starring William Hurt as a scientist experimenting with hallucinogens. It was poorly received.
Later films included the comic horror thriller "The Lair of the White Worm" in 1989, which gave an atypical early role to Hugh Grant as a vampire worm-battling lord of the manor.
Russell also directed operas and made the video for Elton John's "Nikita."
Married four times, Russell is survived by his wife Elise Tribble and his children.
Funeral details were not immediately announced.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press