Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Ann-Margret Unbalancing Act

TCM showed The Pleasure Seekers tonight (they've been getting access to more and more Fox films, presumably -- I don't get the channel -- as the Fox Movie Channel phases older films out). I've written a couple of times before about how this terrible film is the perfect cheesy, prematurely-dated example of all the problems old-school popular culture was facing in 1964. The visuals, the attitude to sexual freedom, and the music are all clearly the products of people who wanted to appeal to the Youth Market but had no idea what young people were like. The Bossa Nova version of "Blue Moon" at a dance for wealthy Jet Setters is still one of the definitive 1964 moments.

Pleasure Seekers was followed by another Viva Las Vegas showing, which I didn't watch (that's a movie that works better in excerpts, anyway). But two 1964 Ann-Margret movies in a row got me to thinking about her again. I always liked her, at all stages of her career, and never got why critics in the mid-'60s seemed to dislike her: in The Cincinnati Kid she's actually very good (granted that it's not a difficult part for her to play) and her bad movies aren't bad because of anything she does. But though she probably would have become a big movie star if musicals had been more in fashion, it occurred to me that there's something most of her early movies have in common: they're almost all unbalanced by her presence, tilted in her favor either more than the story warrants or more than the actual star wanted.

The early Ann-Margret movies, apart from Kitten With a Whip where she's sort of the star and Pocketful of Miracles where she wasn't well-known yet, all seem to beef up her role to some extent:

- State Fair increases her role's importance compared to the same part (as played by Vivian Blaine) in the previous movie version.

- Bye Bye Birdie, of course, is one of the era's most famous examples of a movie where the director threw more and more material at a part that was supposed to be supporting. It culminated in the legendary opening and closing scenes (shot after all the other production had wrapped), effectively turning it into her movie and her story, since the real arc of the film becomes how she goes from screechy teenager to sultry woman.

- Viva Las Vegas, same thing (same director as Birdie); there's a famous story that Colonel Parker insisted on the scrapping of some of the material that was planned for her, though this may not necessarily have been only because she was stealing the movie from Elvis -- apparently what really bugged Parker was that Sidney was going way over budget, and the whole point of the Parker/Presley strategy was to make movies very cheap, so that they could always make back their cost no matter how bad they were. In any case, the movie has a weird structure because her part sort of drops away to almost nothing after "My Rival," and yet she still dominates the movie because she's a much more natural movie performer than Elvis is.

- The Pleasure Seekers is another version of the Three Coins In the Fountain story, where the three girls are usually supposed to be about equal. Here, though the other two girls actually have marginally more substantial stories (I said marginally; they're all kind of terrible, and Carol Lynley is stuck with a scene that the film's producer would recycle in Valley of the Dolls), A-M gets four solo musical numbers -- written by the Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn team, who had no idea how to write for her -- once again tipping the movie to her.

- The Cincinnati Kid isn't really tilted that much toward her; it's just that both the young female parts are a bit irrelevant (that was one of Sam Peckinpah's problems with the project, apparently) and A-M plays her part much better than Tuesday Weld plays hers, thereby making her the definite female lead when it was probably supposed to be Weld, or neither of them.

A lot of these examples have to do with directors and producers tossing extra material at Ann-Margret because either they were infatuated with her, or really thought she was great (with George Sidney it seemed to be a combination of both) or because they thought she was destined for stardom and wanted to get in on it. But the way these movies use her, they probably didn't help her become a star; they seemed to suggest that she was an outsize personality who was always trying to dominate any scene she was in, and couldn't do a normal co-starring role with another actor. I can barely think of an early A-M scene where she's not completely in control of the scene, whether the story calls for it or not.

All of this, as I said, just shows that she needed to be in musicals, where everybody is always trying to upstage everybody and the more you try, the more fun it is (sometimes). And of course starting in Carnal Knowledge she proved she could tone it down and re-invent herself as a character actress who could stand still and let someone else have the scene. But in her early years, at the height of hype -- hype which I think was well-deserved -- her movies are all written and shot in such a way as to make it clear that no one has a chance to be noticed when she's on screen.

Which, paradoxically, I think made it harder for her to establish herself as a star. After the Elvis experience, there was really no way for her to get male co-stars of any stature for a while (except Alain Delon in Once a Thief, and in an English-language movie he wasn't exactly a star), because there was no reason to believe a male co-star wouldn't get eaten for lunch. Which is why her few '60s movies as an attempted star mostly have male co-stars who are used to getting eaten alive by leading ladies. Like Tony Franciosa, Hollywood's man of choice when you needed a guy who understood that when he was onscreen with A-M or Raquel Welch, nobody would be looking at him. This may also explain why she was passed over for parts in the big musicals that dominated the '60s; she was considered for Mrs. Molloy in Hello, Dolly!, but even assuming Streisand would have accepted it, she would have been way too outsize a personality for that rather little part.

That's a bit too much writing about one starlet from the '60s, even one I think was more genuinely talented and interesting than we usually got to see in movies. (I've compared her, and still do, to Anna Karina: they had the looks, the distinctive personality, the obvious fascination they inspired in their directors, and even the ability to sing and dance -- but they didn't always put it all together in the same film.) I just find it intriguing that it doesn't necessarily help a potential star to have supporting parts inflated for her (or, perhaps worse, to inflate them simply by being on the screen); it just gets you a reputation as someone who isn't enough of a team player to be a star.


Thad said...

I couldn't get past the first half-hour of that copy of The Pleasure Seekers you sent me awhile ago. Sorry.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I couldn't get past the first half-hour of that copy of The Pleasure Seekers you sent me awhile ago. Sorry.

I don't mean to say that movie doesn't suck -- it does. It's like The Oscar, a perfect encapsulation of everything that made Hollywood so out-of-touch in that era.

Jorge Garrido said...

"In any case, the movie has a weird structure because her part sort of drops away to almost nothing after "My Rival," and yet she still dominates the movie because she's a much more natural movie performer than Elvis is."

I agree with everything in this post except this part. Elvis may have been one of the most natural actors who ever lived - effortlessly charming. And I think, along with Blue Hawaii, that Viva Las Vegas is his best "bad" movie. It's a movie that lets you hang out with Elvis for a few hours. Ann-Margret, as great as she is, is just window dressing.

And, personally, I like her WAY more than Anna Overrated Karina.