Federico Fellini and Russ Meyer might have been obsessed with big bosoms, but that was nothing compared to British director Ken Russell with his thing for throbbing erect mega-dicks about to burst! Russell wasn’t gay, however, just extremely eccentric. Controversy was his middle name and there was nothing he loved better than playing with the repressed subconscious minds of censors and pressing their ultra-sensitive buttons at the same time. You better believe that Russell’s wild erotic imagination was also delighting his audiences, and his films remain super edgy even by today’s standards.
For my story on him in my book Sinemania!, I’ve told funny anecdotes from behind the scenes, highlighting his mind-blowing creativity, bizarre fetishes, fashion faux-pas, and weird on-set behavior, including notorious temper tantrums. Ken Russell was one mad genius. His technique and his distinctively gonzo approach to storytelling resulted in unique movies: ‘The Devils’ and its cathartic religious delirium, ‘Tommy’ and ‘Lisztomania’ where rock opera and classical music melt in a fusion of video clip mania, and ‘Whore’ and ‘Crimes of Passion’ with their sexually deviant silliness. Russell was a pioneer at showing male nudity (‘Women in Love’), mocking Hollywood legends (‘Valentino’), and putting the unthinkable on screen just for the sheer fun of it. Either you love or hate his irreverent work, it’s that simple. There’s no middle ground with Ken Russell.
Russell might have been quite a handful for the actors he directed, but he could be particularly faithful to some of them, employing them in his films again and again. One name that will forever be linked with his is ‘Mr. England’ himself, Oliver Reed!
That very charismatic and macho actor was one of the most famous British stars of his time. Ollie Reed even looked like Russell and could have passed for his brother, each having a passion for the bottle and binge boozing. The drinking buddies made several movies together in the ‘70s and shared tons of crazy unbelievable moments, the weirdest being a sword duel. They even had their own private code for acting, Reed asking Russell before each scene: “Do you want take one, take two or take three?”, referring to his own personal method of acting that involved the level of intensity required for that particular scene.
For more juicy details of the highs and lows of Ollie’s pub fights, Guinness World Record consumption of pints, sexual prowess, and irrational behavior, let me recommend a fantastic book: ‘Hellraisers’ by Robert Sellers. The graphic novel version is also a wonderful read, especially with the very talented illustrator, Jake, accurately caricaturing the above four British thespian musketeers who lived and drank to excess. See for yourself, you won’t be disappointed! Sellers’ biographies are some of the most enjoyable to be found these days and his stories are right up my dirty alley! For maximum effect, read them in a quiet pub.
Here’s Oliver in action after a bit too much to drink. He is indeed the wild one!
I’d just like to point out here that in the Oliver Reed bio, ‘Evil Spirit’, the author writes that Reed was not as drunk in front of camera as he appeared to be; it was all an act to keep the legend of his persona alive.
Barf-fly king Ollie’s most notorious drinking companion was the drummer of The Who, Keith Moon. This photo of a poster in a London pub window was taken just last year and shows that the two iconic boozers have obviously not been forgotten.
In England back in the day, Ollie and Moon the Loon were out of control. If you were the unfortunate proprietor of a pub or a hotel manager, the sight of this devilish duo entering your establishment was enough to make you tremble, knowing the kind of havoc these two buffoons could wreak. In 1975, they both appeared together in a Ken Russell movie. Keith played the hilarious pedophiliac Uncle Ernie in ‘Tommy’, the grandioso rock opera composed by The Who’s Pete Townshend.
The wacko Moon was perfectly cast to portray the toothless perverted sex maniac who torments a deaf, dumb and blind Roger Daltrey in a very entertaining and effective scene. But it’s disturbing to know that Moonie died three years later of a drug overdose at the young age of 32 and I’m sure Ollie had to drown his sorrows even deeper after the loss of his pal. His behavior became even more outrageous without his sidekick.
Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon’s band-mate in The Who, was very convincing as the quiet, wide-eyed, and blind Tommy, the main character of that dark and extravagant musical fairy tale. Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed played his parents. Ollie was great in the role of the shady step-father whose look and attitude was reminiscent of singer Ian Dury of ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’ fame, most noticeably in the Acid Queen scene with the frantic Tina Turner. Tina stole the show singing in a Soho bordello-type room, and its music video quality makes it one of the greatest rock music scenes in a motion picture.
Ken Russell enlisted Roger Daltrey again the very same year when he had him star as the womanizing classical pianist Franz Liszt in ‘Lisztomania’. The crowd hysteria and mega phallus are basically the best parts of that movie. Sorry, it’s a bit too chaotic for my taste and only deserves a ‘D’ for effort.
Okay, maybe a ‘C’ for the fantastic movie poster and Daltrey’s poodle hair-do!
But it wasn’t the first time that Russell used the same actor twice in the same year. In 1971, he had cast Twiggy for a cameo in the Christ rape scene in ‘The Devils’ and gave her the main role in ‘The Boy Friend’.
That’s what I call a gorgeous movie poster! Twiggy, the most famous British model of the ‘60s, ended up having a durable acting career.
For me, the most enjoyable and magical Ken Russell movie has to be ‘The Devils’. The first time I saw it as a teenager, I was mesmerized by it, developed a huge crush on Michael Gothard who played Father Barre, and discovered Oliver Reed, about whom I’ve since read anything I can get my hands on. So when I came across Toronto writer Richard Crouse’s book from ECW Press about the making of ‘The Devils’, I was in heaven!
Here I could indulge in my guilty pleasure of reading about Ollie‘s bad-boy behavior and find out what went on behind the scenes of my favorite movie of all time. And on top of that, illustrator Ghoulish Gary came up with that extraordinary cover! It can’t get any better, can it? Yes, actually. Crouse’s writing is vividly descriptive, providing the inside scoop on the making of that cursed film. It’s a goddamn great read and if you love ‘The Devils’, get the book now! It beats knitting with nuns any day (unless it’s the nuns from ‘The Devils’ – they’re a fun bunch!) One of the many things I learned from Crouse’s book was that Ken Russell was the first to think of making Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel on youth ultra-violence, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, into a movie before Stanley Kubrick took on the project. Can you imagine what that film would have looked like had it been made by Russell?!
I can totally picture Ken as Alex, and Ollie and Keith as his fellow trouble maker gang members! Yes, that’s what’s missing in Ken Russell’s work: ‘A Clockwork Orange’ shot with hidden cameras filming Oliver Reed and Keith Moon going at it in a pub with Ken Russell egging them on! Shame they’re all dead now so that movie’s an impossibility. But ironically enough, one of them did die in a pub actually called The Pub. Can you guess who? The answer’s easy: it was Oliver Reed. Not even in his wildest dreams could he have imagined a better and more appropriate way to go!
That fateful day was May 2, 1999. Reed was taking a break during the filming of Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ in which he played Proximus, an ex-gladiator who becomes a gladiator trainer. Ollie was ordering his last rounds of beer in The Pub in Malta and engaging in some arm wrestling when he keeled over dead of a heart attack. (Also in the film was Richard Harris in the role of Marcus Aurelius. They had no scenes together but I’m sure they shared some pints!)
Ollie’s last performance was one of his finest, but for me his best has to be the one in this clip.
The man who loved to exhibit his cock’s ‘bird-claw’ tattoo in public had one thing to say about Shelley Winters after that incident: “My row with Shelley Winters was caused by her abominable lack of manners. She is getting old now and I think she is quite crazy.” That’s a funny quote from the man who proclaimed in his autobiography that before he died he wanted to drink in every pub around the world and make love to every woman on the planet. Not sure if Shelley quite fit the bill, but the ‘bird-claw cock’ could go back to his delusional ‘cuckoo’s nest’ by saying, “I like the effect drink has on me. What’s the point of staying sober?” Well, that’s the only sane thing he ever said! I’ll drink to that!