First the bad news: she won’t sing. When Ann-Margret takes her bow at the Castro at 8:30 on Friday evening for “An Evening with Ann-Margret,” she won’t thrill the crowd with a rendition of “I’ve Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do” or “Viva Las Vegas” or any other of her signature movie ditties. And that’s understandable. The ’60s sexpot is appearing at the Castro partly as a good-will gesture to Outsider Enterprises’ ongoing benefit series of “movie princesses of the past” camp extravaganzas — but mainly to promote The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the stage show in which she’s starring at SF’s Golden Gate Theatre through March 10. So when Ann-Margret finally steps up to the mike, don’t expect her to roll naked on a paint-covered canvas the way she did in The Swinger (1966). She’s got a lot of entertaining to do, but you’ll have to pay extra for the good stuff.
The good news is that, along with the drag queen tribute numbers and the star-treatment interview with Ann Fraser on the Castro stage, they’re screening Viva Las Vegas, arguably her best-known role — the one where she gets the full Elvis. El plays a race car driver; A-M portrays a hotel swim instructor. She dunks him. Viva Las Vegas kicks off a giddy weekend of vintage Ann-Margret-iana, with Bye Bye Birdie and Kitten with a Whip on Saturday, Carnal Knowledge and Tommy on Sunday. Stick around for all five films and you’ll receive a capsule history not only of the last days of the old Hollywood star system, but of one of the most underrated actors who ever pranced across a screen in her underwear.
It’s well known that Ann-Margret was the face — and body — that launched a million boners in the ’60s. Ask any Baby Boomer guy about her, and you’ll hear something like: “I got my first erection watching Ann-Margret.” The most fascinating thing about the career of the Swedish-born, suburban-Chicago-raised starlet (who came to Hollywood at age seventeen), though, was that when no one was looking she actually grew into a decent actor and a more-than-respectable comedienne. For every baby-doll part in stuff like State Fair or The Pleasure Seekers, there’s a surprisingly effective characterization in say, The Cincinnati Kid, or the Grumpy Old Men series. Her filmography has some real meat in it amid the cheese: the role of Bobbie in the Mike Nichols-Jules Feiffer-Jack Nicholson-Art Garfunkel testosterone circus Carnal Knowledge; the sprightly Lady Booby in Tony Richardson’s Joseph Andrews; and perhaps A-M’s best acting/singing job, as Roger Daltrey’s ditzy mum in Ken Russell’s seriously underrated version of the Who’s Tommy.
Tommy and Carnal Knowledge are Ann-Margret’s official best movies (she received Academy Award nominations for both), but to get to the heart of her mystique we have to take a trip back to 1964 and Kitten with a Whip. The film bristles with dramatic and prurient possibilities, only about ten percent of which are realized. For that reason, it’s the only truly indispensable movie in the Castro’s Ann-Margret weekend. See it and be astonished, because it’s the whole world in 83 minutes. (Castro booker Anita Monga reports that she was initially worried about securing good prints of A-M’s films, especially one of her trashiest: “I thought they’d be hard to find, but Universal had one readily available for Kitten with a Whip. I was shocked.”)
Samuel Fuller should have made it. Or David Lynch. Kitten with a Whip famously opens with a shot of girls’ reformatory escapee Jody Dvorak (Ann-Margret) darting across a rail yard at midnight in her nightie, unsuccessfully trying to hitch a ride on a train. Accompanied by a music track of bongos in reverb, desperate Jody makes her way to the comfortable suburban San Diego home of one David Stratton, played by John Forsythe. Wealthy businessman David, whose semi-estranged wife is conveniently out of town, is preparing to run for the US Senate, so when his friends and his political handler drop him off at home after dinner out, he’s more than a little surprised to find lissome Jody curled up in his daughter’s bedroom, cuddling a stuffed animal.
David’s first instinct is to call the police, but something, some character flaw, perhaps, or maybe the suppressed urge to see what’s under the nightie, stops him, and right then — BAM! — Jody’s got him, and they both disappear down the rabbit hole. Sophisticated straight man extraordinaire Forsythe is perfectly cast as David. He conveys transparent wholesomeness, upper-middle-class noblesse oblige, hopeless street naïveté, and a lingering, flickering sexual curiosity about his uninvited guest. David may indeed want to help Jody instead of bonking her, but who would believe that of a political candidate caught at home alone with a runaway teenage hellcat while his wife’s away? What would Bill Clinton do? What would Gary Condit? On second thought, let’s forget it.
Jody sizes up David lickety-split. She sobs, he melts. She’s a troubled youth, a victim of abuse. She shows him her scars, and delivers the first of many howlers: “That’s the Jody doll. You wind her up and any way you point her she turns out lousy!” Ann-Margret, at least at this point in her career, was a sincerely rotten actor, and the fudgy screenplay (by Douglas Heyes from a novel by “Wade Miller” — H. William Miller and Robert Wade), which teases the sexual titillation from every possible angle, indulges her with umpteen laugh-out-loud exclamations: “Don’t you ever bruise me!” “I can’t help it. I see something all bright and shiny, and right away I gotta pull it apart.” “You’re sick!” In a wonderful scene, David sneaks down to the local women’s clothing shop to buy Jody a new outfit, and naturally he gets caught by a family friend, a snoopy old bag who of course notices the sexy duds aren’t his wife’s size. Jody blackmails him for his generosity, leaves some claw marks on his chest (still more evidence!), and David begins hitting the scotch. He doesn’t want sex from Jody. Uh-uh. And she didn’t mean to stab that matron at the reform school. Oh no.
The movie opens up, if that is the word, with the appearance of Jody’s partners in crime: smooth hipster Ron (played by teen-pic regular Peter Brown), muscle guy Buck (Skip Ward, blond surfer goon of countless beach party matinees), and daffy Midge (Diane Sayer), who spends her screen time repeating variations of “It’s so neat!” They take David hostage, and youth-market clichés run wild. Ron is a poli-sci student in coat and tie who moonlights as a dope smuggler and says things like: “Cool it, you creep, and coexist!” and “I’m bleedin’ booze!” Their frantic road trip to Mexico is the best part of the movie — it gets them out of David’s house and treats us to the leftover sets from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, along with Henry Mancini’s uncredited music from the same film. For sheer dumb entertainment with a whisper of cautious sleaze, Kitten with a Whip has it all over anything in the Ann-Margret filmography. One warning, though: there’s not a whip in the entire movie. Kitten with a Whip screens at 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday on the lower half of a double bill with Bye Bye Birdie.