As a child, Ken Russell intended to become a ballet dancer. As time passed, he however, chose to join the Royal Air Force and Merchant Navy instead. After having served in the army, Russell switched back to his first love - ballet. He pursued a career in ballet and photography for a short duration.
He continued to work as a freelance photographer until 1959. Meanwhile, he also made several amateur films and documentaries. It was these documentaries that secured him a job in the BBC.
From 1959 to 1970, he directed art documentaries and tele-films for Monitor and Omnibus. In the 1960s came his best bit for television with his works gaining prominent success. ‘Elgar’, ‘The Debussy Film’, ‘Isadora Duncan, The Biggest Dancer in the World’, ‘Song of Summer’ and ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ were some of his best directed works.
While working for television, Russell made his tryst in films. He made his film debut in 1964 with ‘French Dressing’. It was a comedy that was loosely based on Robert Vadim’s ‘And God Created Women’. The film was barely noted and became a critical and commercial failure.
Following his debut debacle, Russell did not lose his spirit and made another film, ‘Always on Sunday’. A biopic, it centred on the life of Henri Rousseau, a French native painter. He followed it with ‘Dante’s Inferno’. In 1967, Russell came up with commercial cinema in ‘Billion Dollar Brain’.
Year 1969 marked the beginning of the golden years in Russell’s career. He tasted success with his magnum opus of his career ‘Women in Love’. The film was an adaptation from DH Lawrence’s novel of the same name. Unconventional in its approach, it challenged the pre-set norms of filmmaking. The film was very well received and bagged several Academy Award nominations including his only nomination for Best Director.
Russell was on a roll post the success of ‘Women in Love’. He belted out hits after hits in his adult-themed movies which were as controversial as they were successful. In 1970, came the biopic of Tchaikovsky - ‘The Music Lovers’, which was followed by ‘The Devils’. It was a highly contentious film starring Oliver Reed. Reed played a priest who came in way of corrupt church and state. Due to the sensational pre-release publicity, the movie became a big hit.
After a couple of controversial and biopic movies later, in 1974, Russell released ‘Mahler’. Based on the life of composer Gustav Mahler, the film was widely regarded as a stroke of genius. Following year, he released the film version of The Who’s rock opera ‘Tommy’. The film had an ensemble cast. It was a huge hit and spent a record fourteen weeks at the No.1 spot, playing to full houses for over a year. It was followed by another hit musical, ‘Lisztomania’.
In 1980, Russell stepped outside his comfort zone to come up with a science fiction ‘Altered States’. Based on Paddy Chayevsky’s screenplay, the film was critically acclaimed but gained little commercial success.
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In 1984, Russell came up with his last American film, ‘Crimes of Passion’ before returning to Europe for good. The film was moderately successful at the box office but gained critical acclamation.
Towards the end of 1980s, Russell came up with several films, but the most outstanding amongst them was ‘Salome’s Last Dance’. Loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s controversial play Salome, it became a cult movie, defining Russell’s love for adult-themed romance. He ended the decade with a prequel to ‘Women in Love’ titled, ‘The Rainbow’.
Having made his mark behind the camera, the 1990s decade saw Russell come in front of camera in his films in small yet significant roles. The first was for his film, ‘The Russia House’ in which he played the character of Walter, a vaguely gay British intelligence officer who embarrassed his more prudish and moralistic CIA counterparts.
In 1991, Russell released ‘Prisoner of Honor’. The film gave a vent to his feelings of anti-semitism by factually reinstating the Dreyfuss Affair in France. He ended the year with his final film, ‘Whore’, a highly contentious movie that stirred a lot of hullabaloo for its sexual content. The film was re-titled ‘If You Can’t Say It, Just See It’ before its release.
Russell returned to television in 1991, contributing extensively for television documentaries and films. He made cameo appearances in several films, including ‘Brothers of the Head’ and ‘Color Me Kubrick’. He also made an appearance in an episode for the BBC tele-series ‘Waking the Dead’
Russell made his presence felt in theatre in 2008 when he made his directorial debut in the Off-Broadway production ‘Mindgame’ at SoHo Playhouse, New York.
In addition to his career as a director and actor, Russell served as a visiting professor at the University of Wales’ Newport Film School and University of Southampton. His role included guiding students on the making of their graduate films.
Russell penned several books on film-making in his lifetime. Over the course of his life, he wrote and published six novels. He came up with two science fiction novels: ‘Mike and Gaby’s Space Gospel’ and ‘Violation’
Personal Life & Legacy
Russell married four times in his lifetime. The first was to Shirley Kingdom in 1958. The marriage lasted for exactly two decades and produced five children, four sons and a daughter.
He married Vivian Jolly in 1984. The two separated in 1991 and had a son and a daughter from the relationship.
In 1992, Russell married Hetty Baynes. The couple was blessed with a son. They parted ways in 1997.
In 2001, Russell finally married Elize Tribble. The marriage lasted until his death in 2011.
He breathed his last on November 27, 2011 due to natural causes, at the age of 84.