Following on from our last post about the film adaptation of The Boy Friend, it might be fun to briefly turn attention to some of the other films from the mad, mad world of Ken Russell…and make them even madder still with a Julie makeover!
As far as is known, other than the cameo role in The Boy Friend mentioned in the last entry, Julie was never directly asked to appear in a Ken Russell film and, on paper, the combination might seem an improbable one. Commonly known, and just as commonly derided, as the self-proclaimed enfant terrible of seventies British cinema, Russell was a filmmaker noted for outrageous excess and anti-establishment iconoclasm. In a series of attention-grabbing films—including Women In Love (1969), The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), Mahler (1974), Tommy (1975) and Lisztomania (1975)—Russell openly courted controversy with his brand of brash taboo-breaking sensationalism, pushing the seventies cinematic envelope, and equally pushing the buttons of censors and moralists the world over. Coupling highly mannered visuals with outrageously provocative subject matter, usually of a sexual and/or religious nature, his films keyed in to the anti-conformist zeitgeist of the seventies and established the blue print of “the Russell style,” described by one commentator as “a broad gaudy combination of directorial flourish, overblown performance, and lurid, sledgehammer imagery; skulls, crucifixes and scantily clad women are de rigueur Russell” (Allon et al, 296).
The resulting notoriety earned Russell a cult-like pop celebrity that he parlayed successfully, for a few years at least, into surprisingly solid box office receipts, but it also fostered an entrenched resistance to his work amongst the critical establishment. Mainstream reviewers were routinely antagonistic to the point of hostility—to wit, John Simon’s (1975) likening of Russell to “a plague of locusts that…makes its subjects ridiculous and then devours them” (76) or Pauline Kael’s oft-cited description of him as “one of the most reckless movie directors who has ever lived” (Lanza, 5). Moreover, film scholars and historians tended to dismiss Russell as a self-indulgent showman, failing to take him or his work seriously. As Barry Keith Grant (2007) writes: “Unlike many other arthouse auteurs, most notably Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, with whom he is often compared (or more accurately, contrasted), commentators commonly see Russell as vulgar, tasteless, excessive, peurile, misogynist, and even misanthropic” (182).
There has however been a small, and steadily expanding, chorus of critical support for Russell. Even in the seventies he attracted his share of acolytes with no less an influential figure than Raymond Durgnat (1977) championing Russell as a daring proponent of Rabelaisian grotesquerie and inheritor of the grand British tradition of fantastic anti-realism. It’s a dissenting appreciation that has gained muster in recent years with the appearance of several retrospective studies that aim to rehabilitate the filmmaker’s reputation and his significance to British, if not world, film history. Reframed as everything from “England’s last Mannerist” (Flanagan) to its greatest “absurd surrealist” (Spicer; Lanza), Russell is recast in this work as a pioneering figure, “a unique stylist” and “true original” with an “individual cinematic voice” which was at once “inimitable and unmistakable” (Allon et al, 296).
These retrospective commentaries underscore how Russell’s visual flamboyance, intertextual allusionism, and iconoclastic mixing of high and mass cultures was arguably ahead of its time, anticipating the pop pastiche stylings of later postmodern cine-aesthetes such as Tim Burton, Baz Luhrmann and Quentin Tarantino, and even helping establish the visual grammar of the music video. Of particular note, it is claimed, is the way Russell reworked the popular traditions of narrative genre cinema through imaginative, and ofttimes perverse, stylization. The biopic, the historical costume drama, the horror film and the musical were Russell’s principal field but all were given an ironic twist and contemporary recoding, generally via Russell’s trademark obsession with subverting the decorous surface of social life to expose its seamy underside, complete with mandatory lashings of sex, blasphemy and madness.
It’s at this point that one can possibly begin to peg the stakes of an imagined intersection between the careers of Ken Russell and Julie Andrews. Throughout the seventies and beyond, Julie was openly keen to move beyond the cloying ‘sweetness and light’ image that had dogged her film career since its original incarnation as the world’s favourite nanny and to establish a more capacious image better suited to the rapidly changing spirit of the times. She was especially anxious to distance the asexual wholesomeness of the received persona—what a 1982 New York Times profile described as “the public perception of her as brisk, prim and squeaky-clean” (Bennett)—and reassert a mature and healthy eroticism attuned to the era’s burgeoning liberationist ethos. As she quipped wryly in the aforementioned newspaper profile, ”Does Mary Poppins have an orgasm? Does she go to the bathroom? I assure you, she does”.
Julie’s principal collaborator in these professional attempts to update—and resexualize—her screen image was of course her principal collaborator in life, husband-director Blake Edwards. Blake made few bones about his “personal want to see the sexless Mary Poppins image transform[ed]” and, starting from his and Julie’s first joint effort, Darling Lili (1970), he embarked on a series of films that were centrally invested in promoting what Sam Wasson (2009) terms “his wife’s erotic development” on screen (250). How successful Blake and Julie were in those endeavours is a matter for debate—and other blog entries—but, in the context of the present discussion, it inspires consideration of how a gung-ho iconoclast like Ken Russell might have helped augment these attempts to overhaul and ‘sex up’ Julie’s star persona.
It wouldn’t be drawing too long a bow to suggest discernible parallels between the directorial careers of Russell and Edwards. Both were uncompromising mavericks with a penchant for lowbrow vulgarity and carnivalesque excess, coupled with a fierce intelligence and (over)active visionary style, and both had a reputation as difficult, if not abrasive personalities with a long history of studio conflict (even, as in the case of MGM’s James T. Aubrey, with the same studio exec). Both also drew polarised critical responses with even their most devoted advocates despairing at the increasing solipsism of their late-career oeuvres. While they worked in ostensibly different generic traditions, Russell and Edwards shared a common investment in what narratologists call “body genres”, populist forms such as comedy, horror, and erotica that aim to evoke physical effects in an audience and that are, as a result, typically devalued as vulgar and sensationalist. Indeed, to see the similarities, one only need look at an Edwards film like S.O.B. (1981) where the revised porno version of “Night Wind”, with its hallucinatory mix of half-naked women, leering carnival barkers, and oversized phallic symbols, looks for all the world like a parody of a Ken Russell extravaganza.
Unlike Edwards, however, whose oeuvre was largely male-centered—if only because his preferred genre of slapstick comedy has been an almost exclusively male-dominated forum—Russell made films in which women routinely occupied the central limelight. Even in his early days as a photographer and documentarian, Russell exhibited a definite predilection for female subjects and concerns. As Joseph Lanza (2007) notes, in an era when British culture was obsessed with “angry young men”, Russell “was also interested in the angry young women” (29). This is not to say that his films were necessarily female-positive. Russell’s obsessive hypersexualization of female bodies and his thematic preoccupation with female neurotics, hysterics, and nymphomaniacs don’t exactly jibe with button-wearing schools of liberal feminism. Neverthless, women assume a privileged position in Russell’s cinematic world and the director afforded ample scope for his female actors to stretch their thespian wings. Indeed, Russell had a marked reputation for working with strong female stars, especially British, and the cast list of his films reads like a veritable roll call of the major female acting talent of post-war British cinema: Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Jennie Linden, Dorothy Tutin, Vivian Pickles, Georgina Hale, Helen Mirren, and Natasha and Joely Richardson to name just a few.
Of these acting collaborators, Glenda Jackson was undoubtedly the most significant. Not only did Russell helm Jackson’s big screen debut in Women in Love (1969), a starmaking turn that earned Jackson that year’s Best Actress Oscar, but the two would go on to make three other films together—it would have been more but Jackson turned down a few of Russell’s offers including The Devils (1971)—and they would maintain a lifelong, if rocky, intimate friendship. In certain respects, Jackson offers a suggestive corollary to Julie. Though a radically different kind of screen performer—RADA-trained, Jackson was firmly of the grande dame school of theatrical Acting with a capital A—Jackson, like Julie, was saddled with a public image of middle class English propriety, no nonsense brittleness, and awkward, slightly androgynous (a)sexuality (Williams, 2010). Her work with the roguish Russell among others helped Jackson attenuate that aura of bourgeois respectability to reveal a game bawdiness and effervescent levity that she would leverage across a string of hit comedy films—A Touch of Class (1973), Nasty Habits (1977), House Calls (1978)— playing the kind of prim-Englishwoman-letting-her-hair-down role that would have been tailor-made for Julie in this era. Had Julie made a few forays into the mad world of Ken Russell, who knows where it might have led…
Allon, Yoram, Cullen, Del and Patterson, Hanna, eds. Contemporary British and Irish Film Directors. London: Wallflower, 2001.
Bennetts, Leslie, “Julie Andrews: Prim and Improper,” New York Times , 14 March 1982.
Durgnat, Raymond. “The Great British Phantasmagoria.” Film Comment, May-June 1977, pp. 48-53.
Grant, Barry Keith. “The Body Politic: Ken Russell in the 1980s.” Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism. Ed. Lester D. Friedman. Rev. ed. London: Wallflower, 2006.
Simon, John. “Madness, Watchable and Unwatchable.” New York Magazine. 27 October, 1975, pp. 76-79.
Spicer, Andrew. “An Occasional Eccentricity: The Strange Course of Surrealism in British Cinema.” The Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film. Ed. Graeme Harper, Rob Stone. London: Wallflower, 2007.
Wasson, Sam. A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.
Williams, Melanie. “Staccato and wrenchingly modern: reflections of the 1970s stardom of Glenda Jackson.” Paul Newland (ed.), Don’t Look Now? British Cinema in the 1970s. London: Intellect Press, 2010.