Photography by Gregory
A short comment by Jason Marshall on the Russell tribute
at the American Cinematheque
As far as my own movie viewing this week, the only really fun thing has been a
Ken Russell tribute over the past weekend at the American Cinemateque in Santa Monica and Hollywood. I had to skip the double bill of Tommy and Lisztomania Saturday night,
but I made it Friday’s showing of “The Devils” and “Altered States” and Sundays showing
of “The Music Lovers” and “Women in Love.” It was the first time I got to see “The Devils” and my reaction is somewhat ambiguous. I think it’s probably a couple of steps from
being a great movie, but I’ll need some time and some more viewings to really know.
But Ken Russell was at the screenings and did a Q&A between pictures — well, he went through the motions of doing a Q&A. Here’s a tip Ken: If you don’t like talking about
your movies or the process of making them, don’t go to these events. He was a bit more talkative after “The Music Lovers” with Richard Chamberlain to help him out. Despite
his vague answers, it was still a treat to see him, especially responding to Chamberlain talking about working with him.
Ken Russell & Dr. Kildare
Photography by Gregory Weinkauf
There was something tremendously touching about watching Richard Chamberlain
seated next to wild man director Ken Russell following a screening of the octogenarian’s
exuberant Tchaikovsky biopic, “The Music Lovers” (1970), Sunday night.
And also fitting that the usual post-screening Q&A set-up was reversed, so that the white-haired cinema maestro sat not before his audience on a stage, but among them, in the seats at the top of the house. This forced an arrangement in which cinefiles, dazzled by
the exuberant color film that had just splashed the Aero’s football-field-sized screen,
paid homage to Russell from below, as beseeching courtiers. Words like “radical,” “influential,” and “groundbreaking” got attached to Russell’s slew of
The feisty, rotund Russell seemed to enjoy his royal roost; he’s a Brit after all.
Piercing any pomposity with flattening sarcasm, he sputtered in response to some
blather about movie-making being a “collaborative process.”
“It is?” Russell nearly howled.
“No one told me that! I did everything!"
As for Richard Chamberlain, who delivered miracles as the tortured genius composer (and what a career, from Dr. Kildare to basically coming out of the closet through the surrogate role of Tchaikovsky), is there a lovelier or more gentlemanly movie actor?
Still looking terrific while posing patiently for photos — including this one for
arts•meme — Chamberlain noted that he just finished shooting a film in New York.
Said Chamberlain: “Ken creates a feeling on the set that is very intense. He’s a little scary. He’s dripping with passion.” Playing the role, he remembered, “I was scared, really scared. I was frightened by Tchaikovsky, but Glenda’s [Jackson, his co-star] riches
never ceased to surprise me.”
He admitted: “I was a gay man in the closet. I was hiding it at that time. I suppose
it did flavor what I did in the film because he [Tchaikovsky] was really in agony.”
“After the film was released, a Russian approached me and asked ‘How could you?’”
[i.e. depict Tchaikovsky as a gay man].
Modestly explaining his exceptionally emotional performance, which includes realistic pounding of keyboards in a gorgeously filmed concert-hall sequence, Chamberlain said, “It’s all Tchaikovsky. I went for Tchaikovsky all the way.”
© 2010 arts•meme
Conversations at the Cinematheque:
Ken Russell & Richard Chamberlain
Filmed in the lush English countryside, The Music Lovers tells the story of the great
Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who though a talented and immensely successful musician, remained conflicted and hampered by self-doubt regarding
his music, as well as riddled with guilt about his homosexuality. In a Q&A session
following the fiilm, director Ken Russell descibed it as “the story of the marriage
between a homosexual and a nymphomaniac.” Interspersed between the high
drama and exquisite musical performances, the film gives a glimpse into the lives
of creative, passionate people living in a time of great opulence and decorum,
as evidenced by the lavish costumes and the sweeping cinematography.
Joining Ken Russell for the discussion was Richard Chamberlain, who played
Tchaikovsky in the film. Chamberlain began by noting, “I saw this film about a month
ago, and seeing it again here tonight, I think it’s the most beautiful, the most gorgeous
looking film I’ve ever seen. Ken’s eye for locations and drama and the fire and
all that stuff was just absolutely fantastic.” Russell impishly replied, “That was you
playing the piano, wasn’t it? I mean, that was incredible!” Chamberlain countered,
“Who actually did it? I can’t remember who did it. I wasn’t actually playing
the piano concerto; my fingers were at the right place at the right time, but the
piano was mute.”
Moderator Grant Moninger remarked that “It looks like everyone in the cast
of the film gives everything that they possibly have; either the performances
or the costumes or the cinematography. What’s it like to be on the other side
of that, and seeing that world?” Chamberlain responded, “It was enchanting;
the palace was so glorious. Everything about it was so beautiful. And Glenda
[Jackson, who co-starred as his wife] - oh my goodness; she was wonderful.
But Ken creates a feeling on the set that is very intense; and he’s a little bit
scary, but he really does bring out the best in everybody.”
Russell is perhaps one of the most prolific directors of the last half century,
with 70 film and TV works to his credit. Within a span of five years, Russell
made several noteworthy and highly successful films, including The Music Lovers,
The Devils, The Boy Friend, Mahler, Tommy, and Lisztomania, as well as
directing episodes of the British documentary TV series "Omnibus." Before
he began making films, he was a freelance photographer whose works regularly
appeared in British magazines and other publications. In early 2010, there
was an exhibit of some of his iconic photographs from the 1950s that
toured various galleries in England. Of his career as a photographer, Russell
has said, “I wanted to be a fashion photographer, but it was too early for my
kind of style. So I began to freelance.” Even at age 83, Russell is still working,
with a screenwriting credit on the film Master Class, based on the play by
Terrence McNally which is currently in post-production.
With a run time of over two hours, Russell recalled the script for The Music Lovers
as being quite hefty: “It was very big, and very heavy; just lifting it you know,
was unbelivably difficult.” Chamberlain agreed, “Yes it was. Something interesting
about the script - when we were first reading through it, I noticed that Glenda didn’t underline her lines, the way that the rest of the actors did. And she didn’t underline
hers because she didn’t want to, in a sense, separate herself from the ensemble.
I thought that was quite wonderful.” Russell chimed in, “She never ceased to
surprise me; I think you were referring to a read-through. And everyone was
‘acting,’ you know, the part; and rightly so. And Glenda just spoke natural[ly];
and it was as simple as that, wasn’t it? There are ways of acting and there are
ways of acting. She was the master of under-acting.” Chamberlain concurred,
“Yes, even though she hit incredible highs. But that ending is so incredibly beautiful.
The film was as much about her as it was about Tchaikovsky.”
In another twist to his multi-faceted career, Russell revealed that before becoming
a photographer, at one point he was an aspiring dancer, and included in his many photgraphs are some of his dancer friends: “I had friends who were dancers,
and I used to do studio portraits of them with props that I had borrowed."
One of his subjects, Helen May, was a former ballerina who had danced with the
great Anna Pavlova. By the time Russell photographed her, she was living
in a house surrounded by old ballet costumes and posters. Not surprisingly
– especially since the lead character is known primarily as a composer of
famous ballets – there is a dance sequence in The Music Lovers that
Chamberlain recalled as such: “It was beautiful, but it was raining slightly
and the floor of the stage was very slippery. I noticed that the dancers were
really putting their lives on the line, it was so slippery and dangerous.
The ballerina was wonderful, I can’t remember her name; she was a big star
with the Royal Ballet.” It was Georgina Parkinson, who passed away in
December of 2009. Coincidentally, Chamberlain himself used to study ballet,
and an audience member remembered him from when he used to take class
with a well-known Russian teacher at a local studio in Los Angeles years ago.
Chamberlain concurred, “Yes, I used to love taking ballet lessons from them;
they were wonderful.”
In another question from the audience, Russell was asked how he developed
a style that seemed to be so radically different from what others were doing:
“Well I don’t know; I just didn’t copy anyone else. They were all too good to be
copied. I devised my own tricks, thinking no one else would dare to attempt them.
I saw a scene today that I remember thinking, 'I wonder if anyone will recognize
that scene,' and of course, you didn’t. And that scene was a whole row of silver
broaches, stretching as far as the eye could see; and that was done purely
with paint. We just painted the broaches silver, because they were a horrible grey;
and I changed all that. I wondered if anyone would notice. Did anyone notice? No?”
Responding to a question about a prominent kissing scene in the film, Chamberlain remarked, “In truth, Glenda and I both nearly went mad in that scene; we did it
over and over again and Ken was playing this Shostakovich symphony at top volume,
and we did it over and over and over again and we really thought we were going
to lose our minds.”
When an audience member asked Russell if there were any among his films that
was his favorite, and if there was anything that he would have done differently,
he answered, “No, I’d do it all exactly the same. As far as I can tell, there’s
only one way to make a film, and that’s the right way; and you know,
anything else is wrong, not to be bothered with.”
© 2010 Felicia Tollette
The 83-year old British director recently attended a very
successful weeklong retrospective of his films at the
Lincoln Centre in New York.
Within the framework of a "Tribute to Richard Chamberlain",
the American Cinematheque featured "The Music Lovers" last
May 1st. During the discussion Richard Chamberlain made the
following comment: “Ken was an incredibly charming person outside
of the studio. But on the set, he was like a crocodile,
like a dragon; he was very, very intense – a little bit scary,
and he created a kind of atmosphere on set that was really
wonderful for the actors, in the sense that you thought,
something important is going to be happening here."
To know more about the "Tribute to Richard Chamberlain", click here
Watch the famous piano scene in "The Music Lovers"
"The Music Lovers" is available on DVD here
and on tape here