LONDON (Reuters) - Ken Russell, the British director of “Women in Love” and “The Devils”, has died at the age of 84.
His widow Elize said the famously provocative film maker passed away peacefully in his sleep on Sunday afternoon.
“It was completely unexpected,” she said in a statement issued by his agent.
“He had recently agreed to direct the feature film Alice In Wonderland The Musical and he was working on the script and casting of that.”
She added that Russell was keeping himself “very busy”, and that she was “devastated” at his passing.
Russell began his directing career with the BBC and went on to make some of the most controversial and violent films of the 1960s and 70s.
Women in Love, a 1969 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s novel, became infamous for its nude wrestling scene between actors Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.
The picture earned Russell an Oscar nomination for best director, and Glenda Jackson won a statuette for best actress.
Jackson, now a parliamentarian in London, told the BBC that Russell “created the kind of climate in which actors could do their job and I loved him dearly”.
But she also criticized the British film industry for turning its back on the maverick talent.
“It was almost as if he never existed. I find it utterly scandalous for someone who was so innovative and a film director of international stature.”
Russell was criticized for the level of violence in the 1971 religious drama “The Devils”, while his biggest commercial success came three years later with “Tommy”, an adaptation of The Who’s rock opera.
It starred Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed and a string of other big names in film and music.
He began the 1980s with a foray into science fiction in “Altered States”, which won over some leading critics who had dismissed his earlier work.
His last Hollywood production was “Crimes of Passion” starring Kathleen Turner, after which he returned to Europe and took a break from cinema to direct operas.
Russell made a handful more feature films, although by the late 1980s his star had faded and he focused on television productions and documentaries.
Friends and colleagues paid tribute to a director they said pushed the boundaries of cinema.
“Among many achievements that spring to mind, he made British cinema less insular and self-referential,” said his friend, the music critic Norman Lebrecht.
“He was also a leading creative force in the history of British television. He will be widely mourned.”
Russell was born in 1927 in the southern English town of Southampton, where he developed an early interest in film through frequent visits to the cinema with his mother.
He briefly worked as a photographer before moving into television, where he began with a series of documentaries about leading musicians.
Additional reporting by Stephen Addison; Editing by Louise Ireland