Ken Russell Dead at 84

In the 1970s, the legendary director defined the motto that nothing succeeds like excess:

Very sad news today: polarizing British filmmaker Ken Russell has died, reportedly in his sleep. Russell was a powerful storyteller whose films frequently stirred up controversy, perhaps most notably in The Devils, which many consider to be his masterpiece. The film, which starred Oliver Reed as a sexually promiscuous but noble priest who becomes undone when a hunchbacked nun, played by Vanessa Redgrave, in a fit of jealousy, stirs up accusations of witchcraft. The sudden freedom to act possessed leads her convent to sacrilegious orgies while Reed becomes a martyr figure, whose perceived fall from grace is exploited by the French government for political gain. The film was heavily edited before release, removing much of its subversive sexual content, and has rarely been seen in its original form. The British Film Institute had finally scheduled a proper DVD release of the film two weeks ago.

Russell is also well-remembered for his films Tommy, a musical based upon The Who’s rock opera, and the sci-fi film Altered States, which starred William Hurt as a scientist whose sensory deprivation experiments lead to wild hallucinations and physical devolution. Critics were frequently divided over Russell’s wildest films, but one of his more muted works (for Russell, at least), a 1969 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, which earned the director his only Academy Award nomination and his lead lady, Glenda Jackson, to win for Best Actress.

For 1975’s Tommy, Russell asked a question that none had previously dared ponder: what would Jack Nicholson sound like as a singer? By the time the movie was over, moviegoers probably begged to be deaf, dumb and blind.