Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell

Exactly why British film director Ken Russell chose Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell as the title of his autobiography is a bit of a puzzle. After all, to hear the self-described ”oldest enfant terrible in the film business” tell it, making the 1980 picture of the same name was an exercise in folly. Dismissed in Hollywood as ”unbankable” after the thunderous — and, it must be added, well-deserved — failures of Lisztomania and Valentino, Russell was hired to direct the Paddy Chayefsky script only after 26 other directors turned it down.

An updating of the Jekyll-Hyde story starring William Hurt as a scientist who transforms himself into a monster through the agencies of sensory deprivation and psychedelic drugs, Altered States would seem to have been right up Russell’s street. From The Devils (1971) onward, his films had often been concerned with bizarre aspects of human spirituality. Too much so, indeed, for critics who regard even his best work as madly self-indulgent.

Working with Chayefsky, however, proved less than a treat. ”He resembled an overweight Trotsky dressed as Chairman Mao, talked democracy and practised fascism,” Russell writes. ”He also had two false names, Paddy and Chayefsky…And if at last he was beginning to accept my input on the hallucinations, it was only because he was bereft of any visions of his own.”

Directing William Hurt resembled psychotherapy. ”The trouble with Bill,” Russell says, ”is he can’t stop talking. In the end his eternal nattering, usually about himself, became so unbearable that Viv (Russell’s wife) and I would only take him out to dinner if he remained silent throughout the meal…When I heard that he was living with a deaf lady I came to believe in the old adage that marriages are made in heaven.”

Altered States was dropped in midproduction by Columbia Pictures and picked up by Warner Bros. — earlier blamed by the author for editing the American version of The Devils into incoherence ”because of an apparent fear of pubic hair.” So whatever modest artistic and box office success the picture enjoyed, the director thinks, was due almost entirely to the special effects he inserted almost literally over Chayefsky’s dead body. (The screenwriter hated the film, withdrew his name from the credits, substituted his real name, Sidney Aarons, and died soon afterward.) ”Poor Paddy,” observes the ever-charitable Russell, ”schizoid to the last…ticking his life away, consumed by hate, eaten up with envy.”

And so it goes for page after witty, acidulous, haphazardly organized page. As a director, Russell, who made his way into films by way of the Nautical College at Pangbourne, England, a stint in the RAF, a doomed career as a ballet dancer, and a maker of documentaries for the BBC, can be very good at his best (Women in Love) and staggeringly bad at his worst (Crimes of Passion). Not surprisingly, given the egotism required of film directors, for whom self-doubt can be almost as crippling as for infantry commanders, he tends to be much better at sharing blame than praise.

But Russell can also tell a funny, self-deprecating story — particularly in the ever popular ”How drunk were you?” genre favored by barmy British artists since Dylan Thomas. Or is it Chaucer? Either way, Russell’s most vivid and likable tales re-create the lost world of his Southampton childhood during the ’30s, his eccentric, loving Mum, and his Auntie Moo. Nevertheless, mostly for devotees. B

Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell
  • Book