Tommy is…how to end that sentence? There seems to be no adjective that can explain this movie so it may be best to simply say: Tommy is unlike anything else than you have ever seen before. This could certainly sound like a big compliment, like a hymn to creativity and originality but (sorry, Tommy) I don’t mean it like that. I can understand that Tommy may have a lot of fans, some even passionate, but I rarely ever felt so much…anger and annoyance while watching a movie. Tommy feels like such a cheap attempt to create something meaningful, it’s as if the movie makers thought to put as much senseless and chaotic scenes into it as possible and hoped that somewhere along the way someone will think that they actually said something here when in reality they didn’t say anything at all. I can live with empty, meaningless movies, especially when they are musicals, but Tommy appalled me in so many ways that I needed all my self-control to stop me from throwing something at my TV only to free myself from the over-the-top camera movements, the horrible storyline and the never-ending, awful musical numbers (my apologize to all fans of Tommy). I guess I should have expected something like this from director Ken Russell who had already showed his love for extravagant movie-making five years earlier with Women in Love but there was still a lot of style and substance in this one and the actors were at least asked to act instead of posing for one number after another. With Tommy, Ken Russell basically threw everything together that appeared as ‘different’ and ‘unique’ as possible and turned it into an empty, visually appalling concert. Since my first viewing, I have warmed up a bit to the artistic intentions and some of the songs have begun to find their way into my memory but overall, the movie itself remains a red flag for me.
So, what does all this mean for Ann-Margret? Usually, it’s very easy for me to separate a performance from the movie it stars in. I find Sophie’s Choice to be a lifeless and banal production but Meryl Streep still gives one of the greatest performances of the last century. Monster is certainly no masterpiece but Charlize Theron blew me away like hardly any other actress before. And A Star is Born also remains a rather uninteresting experience for me despite Judy Garland’s towering portrayal. But in the case of Tommy, it became very difficult for me to judge Ann-Margret properly simply because the movie does not offer her anything that even comes close to what one would usually expect from an Oscar-nominated performance. It makes perfect sense that Ann-Margret won a Golden Globe for her work – the musical category is simply made for a performance like this but the words ‘Oscar’ and ‘Ann-Margret in Tommy’ don’t truly connect. The problem is that there was nothing that Ann-Margret could have done to give an Oscar-worthy performance – Tommy is a simple sequence of over-the-top musical numbers which swallow everything and everyone in sight and even when an actor is actually carrying such a musical number, the cinematography, editing and horrible execution destroy every good impression somebody could have made. Besides that, the screenplay also does not offer anything that anyone could have worked with – no character, no depth, no growth. And that’s why this nomination is so often referred to as one of the strangest in the Academy’s history – it’s the combination of a movie like Tommy actually convincing a majority of Academy members and the fact that Ann-Margret’s performance is simply so unlike anything else they usually go for. The fact that 1975 is so often considered one of the weakest years ever for this category (even though Louise Fletcher’s and Isabelle Adjani’s performances alone are reasons enough to refute this legend) may somehow explain this nomination but most of all it’s probably the simple fact that Ann-Margret worked her way up the ladder of success with great determination and impressed a lot of people by doing so. That she would be able to turn herself into a two-time nominee must have seemed impossible several years ago but in 1975, enough people were convinced that she earned this title. I realize that I have not really talked about Ann-Margret’s performance yet – does her work itself not justify a nomination? I want to save the answer for my review but I think that her performance itself probably was not the major reason for this nomination simply because I find it impossible to see a lot of Academy members actually making it all the way through Tommy. I do realize that there a lot of people who like this movie, that it was very successful and that the 70s were a decade in which the Academy was certainly changing but still – old Hollywood was still powerful enough and so I think that Ann-Margret’s personality and her Cinderella-like story of success were the major key to her nod for her work as Nora Walker in Tommy.
‘He doesn’t know who Jesus was or what paying is’, Nora Walker says during one of her more affectionate moments when she watches her son Tommy who became blind, deaf and mute after he witnessed the murder of his father – but these lyrics seems so meaningless since there is no reason to believe that Nora Walker does know that, either. Later, she again pushes her son aside whenever it is possible for her only to become a loving mother again minutes later. In one scene Oliver Reed announces that he found a doctor who could help Tommy while Nora is lying in bed, reading and eating chocolate. Ann-Margret uses this opportunity to show ‘bored, rich Nora’ and delivers the line ‘Let’s see him tomorrow’ as if she couldn’t care less – in the next scene at the doctor’s office Ann-Margret turned Nora into ‘caring, loving mother’ again and uses her close-ups for an over-the-top portrayal of grief and sorrow that contrasts with anything that has been done by her so far in this role. Again, it seems more fitting to blame Ken Russell for all these mistakes but at the end, poor Ann-Margret is the one who has to answer for them.
But – here comes the b-word again and it’s good news, Ann! – even with all the problems in this ‘performance’ it just can’t be denied that there is a certain level of – gulp! – fascination that Ann-Margret achieved in this role. Okay, it’s on a very low level but it’s there. No other performer in the cast is able to achieve this like her – not Elton John, not Tina Turner and not even Roger Daltrey in the lead role of Tommy. Despite her limited screen time and secondary importance to the plot – Tommy is Ann-Margret’s movie. It’s often easy to say that an actress receives bonus points for fitting her performance to the style of the movie. But of course, if the movie is such an over-the-top mess like Tommy, is this a good thing? Well, Ann-Margret is over-the-top, her performance very often is a mess but even with all this, there are some…moments that simply stand out and make it impossible to forget her (in the good and bad meaning of the sentence). All the other actors, the directing, the cinematography, the editing, the screenplay – all this can easily be blamed for the overall failure of Tommy but Ann-Margret somehow escapes this. She seems like the only one who really takes this movie seriously and more often than once presents the only true moments of real emotions and feelings. When Nora is rolling herself in beans and chocolates and penetrating herself with a long pillow it again symbolizes everything that is wrong with this movie but Ann-Margret does not truly appear to be touched by this. Instead, she attacks her role with a very serious aggressiveness while obviously also enjoying the sheer silliness of it all – a combination that helped her to achieve a level of integrity and fascination that could have helped her to leave the awfulness of her movie behind her if she had been allowed to create a real character instead of an always-changing empty vessel.
But –unfortunately, this times it’s bad news – all these positive aspects of her performance do not come from her acting. In this department she does too many missteps, from her over-the-top facial work to her inability to prevent herself from being swallowed by the movie around her too often (Ann-Margret is certainly no Glenda Jackson who was able to fight against Ken Russell and his visions) – but rather from her own personality, from her ability to sell her material no matter how meaningless it is and from her talent to appear utmost serious even in the most laughable situations. She moves, dances and sings so wildly as if her life depended on it and she is able to turn Nora into the most interesting aspect of her movie, despite all obstacles. Of course, Ann-Margret also sings well and has the ability to get the most out of her songs, emphasizing the catchy parts of the melodies and filling her voice with the emotions she is supposed to convey at this moment.
So, Ann-Margret most definitely earned her reputation as being one of the strangest ‘performances’ ever nominated for an Oscar – she’s bad, she’s good, she’s memorable, she’s forgettable, she jumps from one scene to another without any creation of a character but still comes out as the most recommendable aspect of Tommy at the end. Hardly any other performance is so confusing and makes it so hard to rate for the sheer awfulness that surrounds it, the sheer over-the-topness that almost destroys is and the sheer dedication that saves it. When all is said and done, the flaws in this performance certainly outnumber the goods (by far) and usually, a performance like this would get an easy 3 from me but for the sheer…spectacle of it and for being strangely captivating even when she is bad, Ann-Margret gets a little upgrade and receives