A Tribute to Ken Russell (July 3, 1927 - Nov. 27, 2011)

Whenever I hear the name Ken Russell, I think “weird.”

Not bad-weird. Good-weird.

As in uninhibited, lurid, bouncing-off-the-walls impishness.

Russell, who died Nov. 27 at age 84, was the sort of filmmaker who amused audiences and abused audiences in equal measure.

He was not a gentlemanly director of the David Lean/Michael Powell variety. No, he was more like an anarchistic madman. But a weirdly affable one.

This British director’s resume has musicals (Tommy, with Twiggy and Tommy Tune), lots of films about classical musicians and composers (The Music Lovers, Mahler, Lisztomania), a big dose of horror and even an adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence classic.

But no matter what the genre, you could count on Russell to push the envelope of taste and propriety.

Among the Kansas City Public Library’s catalogue of DVDs are the following Russell-directed efforts:

Women in Love (1969): In ‘20s Britain two best friends (Alan Bates, Oliver Reed) fall for sisters (Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden) in this adaptation of the novel by D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley's Lover). One relationship grows, the other hits the skids. It’s noteworthy for its frank approach to sex and for an outrageous firelit nude wrestling match between Bates and Reed.

Tommy (1975): Russell adapted Pete Townshend’s famous rock opera about a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” in post-war England. The Who vocalist Roger Daltrey takes the title role. The supporting cast is filled with familiar faces: Elton John, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner and especially Ann-Margret (who in an unforgettable moment cavorts in a vat of baked beans).

Altered States (1980): Harvard scientist William Hurt experiments with dangerous drugs and a sensory deprivation tank. Result: He undergoes de-evolution and emerges as a hairy hominid out of our Pleistocene past. The film is crammed with hallucinatory images. With Blair Brown; adapted by Paddy Chayefsky from his novel.

Lair of the White Worm (1988): The discovery of a large serpent’s skull in the ruins of a convent unleash a new evil on the world. Amanda Donohoe (she later became a regular on TV’s L.A. Law) is a predatory noblewoman with a very dark side. With Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi. This deliciously nasty effort was based on a novel by Bram Stoker (Dracula).

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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