Birthday Girls: Ann-Margret
★ ★ (★) ★ ★
(lost the 1975 Best Actress Oscar to Louise Fletcher for One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest)
Why I Waited: Inside Oscar made this sound sort of awful, and everyone's nasty comments about the quality of the overall slate didn't help. Then at some point, probably after I'd seen a lot of other Ken Russell and realized this was his chance to play around with heaps of studio cash, it started to seem like a mad and fabulous prospect, deserving of prolonged anticipation.
The Performance: Though I'm sure we've seen thinner years, Oscar plainly felt he needed to stretch to fill his quota for this category in 1975, hence the made-for-television Hedda, the micro-budgeted and self-distributed Hester Street, Louise Fletcher's winning but borderline supporting role in Cuckoo's Nest, the rare concession to non-Anglophone work in Adèle H., and The Who's psychedelic rock opera. The latter managed to rewrite the unlikely phrase "Oscar-nominated actress Ann-Margret" into the even less expected "two-time Oscar-nominated actress Ann-Margret." Over time, what had been decried as an epochally compromised roster has started to look hipper to me for its far-flung inclusivenessthough I'm clearly not one to downplay the outrage of Hollywood's chronically meager offerings to women performers, and I hope you'll allow me to register my bemusement that in an industry where you can't get proper studio financing for a cornerstone of Western theater starring a double Oscar winner, you can bathe in Columbia's landfill of cash for a two-hour electro-rock jam about a sense-deprived idiot savant who's so very adept at pinball that an entire regime of fascistic idolatry rises and crumbles in his name. Whatever. Suffice it to say, Tommy is by far the most unexpected vehicle ever to usher an actress to a nomination in this category, but that doesn't make the nomination a joke.
To be sure, not everything about Ann-Margret's performance gets off on the right foot, or even winds up there. In truth, it's tough coming into early scenes of her dumb-show mountaintop picnic with her lover and their glistening shag under a waterfall, then packing pinballs into the cylinders of Allied missiles, then literally kenneling herself in her mad loneliness while her husband dogfights with the Luftwaffetough, that is, if you're thinking, "Well, here's an Oscar-caliber performance if ever I saw one." Especially during the first seven minutes when no one speaks or sings, but also through large swaths of the ensuing movie, Ann-Margret's task is to strike voluptuous poses of longing, despondency, hedonism, anger, titillation, mystification, envy, and an odd, final amalgam of brainwashed subservience and mercenary opportunism, selling her son to the world while being his protector-disciple, accessorizing for this role (as anyone would) with a shotgun and tailored fatigues. The sketchy, almost proudly immature conception of the role speaks for itself, but within the starkers envelope of Tommy, where decimating a massive plaster statue of Marilyn Monroe in a church nave counts as a statement about Something, "Nora" is no more bonkers than Jack Nicholson's child psychologist or Tina Turner going all INLAND EMPIRE in fish-eye close-up as the Acid Queen (and, obviously, she's a significantly less bonkers concoction than Tommy himself).
Ann-Margret's vociferous displays of emotion in this bizarre role can be rather gustily amateur: when you want grief, she'll give you Grief; when you want parental consternation, she'll conjure a storm of brow-furrowing and grimace at her spawn like Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed; when you want arousal, she'll ecstatically fondle her own curves, smearing them with soapsuds cast in the role of "champagne" and chocolate cast in the role of "shit," and agitate her crotch with abandon against a long tubular pillow. Yet, in an industry that tends to partition instant likability from forthright eroticism, Ann-Margret has a kind of secret genius for getting the audience to root for her, maybe because she evinces not the least shred of cynicism. "Tommy says 'See me, hear me, touch me, feel me,' and that's so important," she told a reporter, and that soft, sincere credulity radiates in the work, too, even when she's looking or acting or most outrageous. Or maybe we root for her because she seizes the chances extended to her even in dubious parts (and many of them have been dubious) not with the ruthlessness of the climber but with the glee of the anointed fan, who's so glad to be picked for the team and so moved to be thought entertaining that she'll deliver whatever you ask, as best she can.
When she comes on too strong or too superficially hysterical, you blame Ken Russell for exposing her lack of clear technique more than you blame her. And as Tommy plays out, especially if you avoid applying the retroactive pressure of looking for "Academy" acting, Ann-Margret nudges that gift for ingratiating herself into a more surprising achievement of making us feel something for the character. The Who wrote the damn thing, but there's no question who on screen has forged the most empathetic and personal connection to the material. The contrast crystallizes most between the rumbustious, flippant camping of Oliver Reed as her main partner in crime and Ann-Margret's own strategy of cutting to the purest emotions she can find. The war-widow bit fails but the bruised mien of the mother walled off from her own child's unfathomability works. Nora's escalating reliance on drink and other forms of self-stimulation manages to be both tender and witty, particularly when she purrs out The Who's gangly lyrics ("Do you think it's all riiiight... to leave the boy with cousin Keeeeeevin....?") while she's got a martini glass in her mouth. Tommy's own puerile dream of sprinting exuberantly through the surf becomes touching once Nora shows up, living out her own dream of finally, truly loving her son; through juxtaposition, this scene exposes how subtly Ann-Margret has elsewhere been threading self-recrimination and an unnerving, conscious collapse of self-perceptions across the second hour. Storywise, Tommy is nowhere sillier than in its final 20 minutes, but the movie's brazen, almost daringly thin Clockworkadelica somehow pulls it over the finish line. The ship doesn't quite go down, if only as a flamboyant sensory experience and a welcome dose of dementia in commercial cinema, but even less does Ann-Margret go down with it. You realize how inordinately responsible she is for getting you through the whole ordeal, and supplying something like an emotional through-line, sometimes a deceptively complicated one, in a picture that's barely asking for one.
I can't honestly call it a skilled enough performance for three stars, but it's such a life preserver, a buoyant and indelible element of mise-en-scène, a master class in heroically obliging one's director, and a come-from-behind victoryfrom first scene to last, and from expectations to achievementthat I feel stingy not giving it an honorary third. The nomination breaks every known rule for this category, so I'm breaking one, too.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 35 to Go