British filmmaker Ken Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 84, had a knack for creating images that were unforgettable for both their pop-art beauty and their boundary pushing eroticism: Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling naked in Women in Love (1969), Vanessa Redgrave passionately kissing Jesus in The Devils (1971).
But one scene in his work stands out from the rest for its sheer tongue-in-cheek audacity. In Tommy (1975), Russell’s psychedelic adaptation of The Who’s rock opera, a pinball wizard’s emotionally fragile mother (Ann-Margret) suffers a surreal nervous breakdown, rolling in baked beans, bubbles, and melted chocolate after throwing a champagne bottle into a TV set. “The crew members were all wearing high boots,” recalls the actress, who earned an Oscar nomination for her gutsy performance. “And here I was in my spandex catsuit that was shrinking each time I did a take.” Here’s what else the actress tells EW about the scene that brought her Oscar glory – and a trip to the hospital.
“I remember the first time I met Ken, I was going over to do all the songs for Tommy with Pete [Townshend] and everybody at The Who’s studio in London. I was told that Ken was quite different [laughs] – unusual. I didn’t know what to expect. So we went to lunch. He was gentle. He was really like a lamb. He was charming and mischievous, and he had those bright blue electric eyes.
We did that scene in three days. Each time that he would want to do another take of this sequence, I would have to go in, change, wash my hair, dry it, curl it, and come back. The crew members were all wearing high boots, and here I was in my spandex catsuit that was shrinking each time I did a take. The music was blaring in each scene, really loud.
It was such fun! They had built a wooden tube coming from way above to pour the things down to make it shoot out at me. No one had tried it before. Ken wanted me to look up and pretend that I don’t see anything until it hits me. And when the beans hit me, it just THREW me. My goodness!
When I threw the champagne bottle at the TV set, it really smashed. They got rid of all the broken glass on the carpet, but they had not gotten rid of all the jagged glass in the TV set. And Ken wanted me to thrash my arms around. And of course, one time, I brought my hands up and the soap suds were pink from blood. So they took me away, put loads of towels on me. And here I come into the hospital, looking like a drowned person in this silver knit shrinking catsuit with blood all over. There were 27 stitches.
I’ve never done a movie like that before or since. But the whole experience was wonderful.”