Maverick British director Ken Russell died in his sleep Sunday at age 84. Russell’s controversial films included the Oliver Reed-Vanessa Redgrave starrer The Devils; Women In Love; and Tommy, the screen version of The Who’s rock opera. In the U.S., he directed the psychedelic Altered States, but his collaboration with equally strong-willed screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky haunted that film, and the failure of his next film, Crimes Of Passion, sent him back to the UK. There, he continued making films, the last of which was The Fall Of The Louse Of Usher.
Russell was a polarizing filmmaker, with critics often split on his films. His movies rarely achieved commercial success thanks to his unique takes on provocative themes that often included sex, drugs and violence. His 1971 film Women In Love, an adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel, was his only work to receive Academy Award consideration: it was nominated for four Oscars in 1971, including for best director, and won Best Actress for Glenda Jackson.
Russell was born in Southampton, England in 1927 and tried the Merchant Navy, ballet and acting before eventually becoming a fashion photographer. He was hired to work on artist profiles for the BBC, and conventional documentaries began turning into something else. “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, according to the Associated Press. “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.” His films often focused on artists: His 1967 movie Dante’s Inferno was about poet Dante Rossetti; the 1970 film The Music Lovers centered on Tchaikovsky; 1975’s Lisztomania, about Franz Liszt, starred The Who’s Roger Daltrey as Liszt and Ringo Starr as the pope; and 1971’s The Boy Friend was a homage to 1930s Hollywood musicals.
Russell, married four times, is survived by his wife Elize Tribble and his children. His widow said Russell was working on a musical feature film of Alice in Wonderland when he died.