Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Birthday Girls: Ann-Margret

(Wow – not the biggest Jane Wyman fans, are you? Okay, let's try this...)

Ann-Margret, Tommy
★ ★ (★) ★ ★
(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 inclusiveness—though 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 Luftwaffe—tough, 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 victory—from first scene to last, and from expectations to achievement—that 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

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Blogger Fritz said...

I always thought that my English is very good but you're reviews are always a real challenge for me (in the good way). I wish I could express myself like this!

Anyway, it's been a while since I saw this movie and the performance is one that I could every grade between 1 and 5 and it all would make sense...a 3 is probably the best solution.

4:05 AM, April 28, 2010  
Blogger Robert Hamer said...

"The nomination breaks every known rule for this category, so I'm breaking one, too."

And good on you for that! I remember seeing Tommy for the first time in 2005, and hated it, but like you I also found something oddly magnetic about Ann-Margret's presence as Nora. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when I found out it scored her an Oscar nod.

4:33 AM, April 28, 2010  
Blogger Drew Kunale said...

Nice assessment of Margret's "performance". I put quotes around the word because, even though it's been at least a decade since I've seen Tommy, I remember it mostly being--as you accurately put it--a series of "strikingly voluptuous poses".

But the posing is so earnest and arresting (It'a Ann Margret, for god's sake!) that it somehow soars over everybody else in the film. Besides, posing strikingly has been enough at times to earn Oscar's attention, even win the statuette (see John Houseman in The Paper Chase, for just one example).

Curious omission: You didn't mention the baked bean bath. One of the oddest images in cinema, imo.

9:27 AM, April 28, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

You know, I recently caught some of A-M's TV Blanche DuBois, and she has some interesting moments. It's the sexpot Blanche of all time, of course.

My friend Bruce was close friends with the writer Manuel Puig, and he had an Ann-Margret speech that always got a laugh: (you have to imagine this in a heavy Spanish accent): "Ann-Margret! Sometimes you think she's a good actress, and sometimes you think she cannot act at all. Sometimes you think she is a good girl, and sometimes you think she is a total slut. Ann-Margret! (Long pause). She is anything but reassuring."

12:04 PM, April 28, 2010  
Blogger Michael Shetina said...

I really hope you do a write-up of the '75 actress race soon. It's gone down in history as the category's rock-bottom lineup, but it's actually nowhere near their worst, just one of their least typical. It certainly doesn't approach the medicority of the autopilot lineups of 1994 or 2005 (and I say that as a big fan of Foster and Dench and a recent convert -via Sweet Dreams - to the cult of Lange).

On Ann-Margret's performance... well I'm incapable of judging it the way that I do normally. In a movie that manages to be both outre and bland, that strikes at every available target so broadly that it's completely meaningless, I don't know what she COULD have done. I don't really know what to make of her other than the fact that she gives some emotional core to a film that lacks any sort of core, emotional or otherwise. I actually think she's the weakest of the four nominees I've seen (Glenda's Hedda is so hard to find), but I can't help but love her for trying to make some sense of this train wreck.

This is my favorite of your recent posts because you manage to articulate the sheer bizarro accomplishment - however dubious - of her performance while I typically shrug my shoulders when Tommy comes up in conversation and say "I liked her, but I don't know what the hell she's doing. Less so the film." As an ardent Smith lover, I've been avoiding Travels with My Aunt and will continue to do so.

7:59 PM, April 28, 2010  
Blogger Glenn said...

I saw Tommy for the first time last year and was so surprised to see she was nominated when I checked IMDb afterwards. It just made no sense to me at all since the film was woeful and Ann-Margret didn't really do anything, but that was a "weak" year, I guess.

"weak" in Academy terms. I haven't studied it, but I am sure there's something else worthwhile out there that merited a nominated before Ann-Margret.

7:09 AM, April 29, 2010  

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