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Ken Russell was a well-known English film director who rose to notoriety as a result of his controversial films. Russell boldly depicted the less-articulated society reality on the big screen, primarily focusing around the topics of sexuality and religion. He’s also known for directing a number of biopics on notable artists, painters, composers, and other figures. These inventive adaptations were particularly unique at the time, as few directors dared to venture into this lesser-known filmmaking genre. Russell became interested in cinema while working as a photographer for a brief time. As a freelance documentary photographer, his amateur films landed him a job at the BBC, securing his future as a television and film director. He tried his hand at filmmaking after working on television documentaries and series. Despite his initial failure, he rose to stardom with his 1969 feature ‘Women in Love.’ Thus began a fruitful career that included films such as “The Devils,” “Tommy,” “Altered States,” and biopics of Elgar, Delius, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Liszt, among others. Russell later got in front of the camera for cameo roles later in his career. Later in his career, Russell wrote a number of books about filmmaking. Russell may be described as the ‘equally loved and loathed’ director of the English cinema business, adored for his courage to venture into uncharted territory and hated for blatantly exposing the dark side of it.

Childhood and Adolescence

Ken Russell was born in Southampton, England, on July 3, 1927, to Ethel and Henry Russell. He was the first of the couple’s two kids to be born. His father owned a shoe store. He had a strange upbringing. His father was unstable and volatile, while his mother suffered from mental illness. Russell spent a lot of his pleasant hours as a kid seeing movies in theaters. He received his education in Walthamstow’s private schools before going on to Pangbourne College. Walthamstow Technical College was where he studied photography.

Career of Ken Russell

Ken Russell wanted to be a ballet dancer as a child. However, as time went on, he decided to join the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Navy instead. Russell returned to his first love, ballet, after serving in the army. For a short time, he sought a career in ballet and photography. Until 1959, he continued to operate as a freelance photographer. In the meantime, he produced a number of amateur films and documentaries. These documentaries helped him land a job at the BBC.

He directed art documentaries and telefilms for Monitor and Omnibus from 1959 until 1970. His best work on television came in the 1960s, when his works were well-received. Some of his greatest directorial works are ‘Elgar,’ ‘The Debussy Film,’ ‘Isadora Duncan, The Biggest Dancer in the World,’ ‘Song of Summer,’ and ‘Dance of the Seven Veils.’

Russell dabbled in movies while working on television. In 1964, he made his cinematic debut in ‘French Dressing.’ It was a comedy based on Robert Vadim’s novel ‘And God Created Women.’ The picture received little attention and was a critical and commercial flop.

Russell did not lose heart after his debut failure and went on to make another film, ‘Always on Sunday.’ It was a biopic on the life of Henri Rousseau, a French painter. He then went on to read ‘Dante’s Inferno.’ Russell introduced commercial cinema in his 1967 film ‘Billion Dollar Brain.’

The year 1969 marked the beginning of Russell’s golden years. ‘Women in Love,’ his career’s greatest opus, was a commercial success. The film was based on the novel of the same name by DH Lawrence. It took an unconventional approach to filmmaking, challenging pre-established norms. The picture was well-liked, and it got several Academy Award nominations, including his lone Best Director nod.

Following the success of ‘Women in Love,’ Russell was on a roll. In his adult-themed films, he screamed out hit after hit, which were as controversial as they were successful. Tchaikovsky’s biographical, ‘The Music Lovers,’ was released in 1970, followed by ‘The Devils.’ Oliver Reed starred in this hugely divisive picture. Reed portrayed a priest who stood up to a corrupt church and government. The film became a tremendous smash as a result of the dramatic pre-release advertising.

Russell launched ‘Mahler’ in 1974, after a series of controversial and biographical films. The film, which was based on the life of composer Gustav Mahler, was universally considered as a stroke of brilliance. The next year, he adapted The Who’s rock opera ‘Tommy’ into a film. The movie featured a large ensemble cast. It was a major hit, spending a record fourteen weeks at the top of the charts and playing to sold-out crowds for nearly a year.

Another blockbuster musical, ‘Lisztomania,’ followed it. Russell ventured outside his comfort zone in 1980, writing the science fiction novel ‘Altered States.’ The film was critically lauded yet commercially unsuccessful, despite being based on Paddy Chayevsky’s screenplay.

Russell made his final American feature, ‘Crimes of Passion,’ in 1984 before moving to Europe permanently. The picture was only moderately successful at the box office, but it received positive reviews from critics. Russell made many films during the end of the 1980s, the most notable of which was ‘Salome’s Last Dance.’ It became a cult film, loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s controversial drama Salome, and defined Russell’s fondness for adult-themed romance. ‘The Rainbow,’ a prequel to ‘Women in Love,’ was released at the close of the decade.

Russell made his name behind the camera in the 1990s, but he also appeared in front of the camera in small but essential roles in his films. The first was for his role as Walter in the film “The Russia House,” in which he played a vaguely gay British intelligence operative who humiliated his more prudish and moralistic CIA superiors.

Russell released ‘Prisoner of Honor’ in 1991. By factually reenacting the Dreyfuss Affair in France, the film gives vent to his anti-Semitism. He finished the year with his final feature, ‘Whore,’ a highly divisive film that sparked a lot of controversy due to its sexual nature. Before its premiere, the picture was renamed ‘If You Can’t Say It, Just See It.’
Russell returned to television in 1991, when he worked on numerous documentaries and films. ‘Brothers of the Head’ and ‘Color Me Kubrick’ were among the films in which he made cameo appearances. He also appeared in an episode of the BBC’s ‘Waking the Dead’ teleseries.

Russell first made his mark on the stage in 2008, directing the Off-Broadway show ‘Mindgame’ at the SoHo Playhouse in New York. Russell was a visiting professor at the University of Wales’ Newport Film School and the University of Southampton in addition to his work as a filmmaker and actor. His responsibilities included advising students on how to make their graduate films.  Russell wrote a number of books about filmmaking throughout his lifetime. He wrote and published six novels during his lifetime. ‘Mike and Gaby’s Space Gospel’ and ‘Violation’ are two science fiction novels he wrote.

Major Projects of Ken Russell

Russell’s greatest bit in cinema came in 1969 with the release of his most popular film, ‘Women in Love.’ Russell was known for his highly contentious style and flamboyance. The picture received multiple Academy Award nominations and went on to become one of the era’s classics. It is still regarded as Russell’s defining film, focusing on the 1960s sexual revolution and bohemian politics. Following its success, he went on to make films like ‘The Devils,’ ‘Tommy,’ and ‘Altered States.’

Achievements & Awards

Despite the fact that Russell never won an Oscar, Golden Globe, or BAFTA, numerous of his films were nominated for the renowned cinema prizes. ‘Women in Love’ received four Academy Award nominations, winning one for Best Actress. Sound was nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Altered States.’ At the Fantasia Film Festival, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievements Award for his unorthodox approach to filmmaking. He was a member of the jury for the 25th Moscow International Film Festival in 2003.

Personal History and Legacy

Russell was married four times throughout his life. In 1958, the first trip was to Shirley Kingdom. The couple had five children, four sons and a daughter, over the course of their marriage, which lasted exactly two decades.  In 1984, he married Vivian Jolly. The couple divorced in 1991 after having a son and a daughter together. Russell married Hetty Baynes in 1992. A son was born to the couple. They split up in 1997. Russell finally married Elize Tribble in 2001. The couple married till he died in 2011. He passed away on November 27, 2011, at the age of 84, from natural causes.

Estimated Net Worth

Ken is one of the wealthiest directors and one of the most popular. Ken Russell’s net worth is estimated to be $1.5 million, according to Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider.