Farewell to a director who tested the limits

By Adam Markovitz
December 02, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST

Though he often ran afoul of critical favor, British filmmaker Ken Russell, who died at age 84 on Nov. 27 after a series of strokes, was one of cinema’s most provocative auteurs. He landed his first hit with Women in Love (1969), which includes a now-infamous scene of two nude men wrestling. The film earned Russell a Best Director Oscar nod and established him as an envelope pusher, a reputation he nurtured with risqué films like The Devils (1971), starring Vanessa Redgrave as an overheated nun; Tommy (1975), based on the Who’s trippy rock opera; and the drug-fueled Altered States (1980). He earned critical scorn for censor baiting, but Russell was just as notorious for his willingness to fight back: He once swatted a British film critic with a newspaper on live TV. ”Ken was charming and mischievous,” recalls Ann-Margret, who memorably writhed in beans in Tommy, earning an Oscar nomination. ”I’ve never done a movie like that since, but the whole experience was wonderful.”