Ann-Margret: The Evolution of a Sex Symbol

Watching Ann-Margret dance is watching a woman give herself up to her body. Watching Ann-Margret dance is watching a woman who is not afraid to show her sexuality and her power. Ten to fifteen years prior, Ann-Margret would have been typecast as a femme fatale; a bold, manipulative, and unrelenting female. Her characters would have been killed in order to preserve the status quo. She has all the attributes of the predatory female characters of noir, the knowing and self-possessed glance, the eyebrow raised in mockery and seduction. The femme fatale, a cultural phenomena, was a direct response to social phenomena, or, more specifically, women’s increasing participation in the workforce and the perceived threat to the ideal of domesticated womanhood. But Ann-Margret and all her audacity came up in a decade where sexuality was praised and explored, not condemned, and she became a figure of a new kind of morality, emblematic of a new era. As her career progressed, Ann-Margret was given the room to explore and complicate this image in her later films and, as we shall see, it led to a nuanced image and filmography.

Ann-Margret and her work can be seen as indicative of a shift in the societal and cultural mores of the 1960s, a move away from fear and towards an embrace of the liberated woman. She is her own agent. She exhibits a sexuality on her own terms and for herself alone. Ultimately,  she is not punished for it, setting her apart from previous generations. Her image was cultivated early on, with her starring role in the remake of State Fair (1962). She auditioned for the role of Margy, performing the dreamy “It Might As Well Be Spring”. However, the studio believed that no one would see Ann-Margret as the innocent girl-next-door and instead cast her as Emily, the sultry love interest of Wayne, Margy’s brother. It was with this casting that her image became cemented.

Ann-Margret was often paired with some of the most identifiably cool and aloof womanizers of the 1960s. She is the only conceivable counterpart to these men, the only one who can challenge them at their own feigned indifference. She starred opposite Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas (1964) and Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid (1965). There is a scene in The Cincinnati Kid where Ann-Margret, playing Melba, the wife of Karl Malden, is seen at a puzzle. As Malden asks her why she always cheats, we see that she merely cuts the pieces as she finds spaces she needs to fill. Her attitude towards men is no different. We see in her the image of a woman who doesn’t follow convention, a woman who isn’t afraid to use something and throw it away. She is a woman running circles around her husband and McQueen. She uses them as she uses her puzzle, just for her own enjoyment, a disposable thing to be tossed aside after her pleasure. She is able to complicate and confuse their lives, resisting them until it suits her, and then giving them all the trouble that they often foist onto others. Melba, in her unrelenting indifference, would be the character that would pave the way for some of her films of the 1970s, which include a challenge to the image of uncomplicated sexuality that had become her trademark throughout the sixties.

This sense of sexuality and abandon becomes complicated when we look at the later works of Ann-Margret. In Carnal Knowledge (1971), for example, we are faced with Bobbie, a woman whose extreme vulnerability and sexuality are weaponized against her. They are used to cause her pain, not contentment or pleasure. Tommy (1975) also seeks to complicate this narrative. In the infamous baked beans scene, we see a woman whose identity and sexuality are tied up in wealth and material gain. We see a woman’s sexuality made grotesque as she writhes among her furniture, covered in the slick of the beans. The juxtaposition of an overt sexuality and the tactile nightmare of the beans in a formerly pristine, all white interior creates a haunting and revolting portrait of a woman’s sexuality. I see these two films as indicative of Ann-Margret’s desire to complicate the narrative about herself that was so prevalent that it subsumed the real woman. With these films, Ann-Margret was able to take the image and comment on the wild unreality of it all. We can see these films as part of a desire, on the part of Ann-Margret, to prove herself as an actor, which she most certainly does. It is a crucial point in the evolution of Ann-Margret, the symbol.

I think that the success and the relative ease of Ann-Margret’s career is something worth discussing. It is a rare story of success not marred by tragedy. When we talk about sex symbols, we often end up discussing their tragic circumstances, which are often fed by multiple sources. Sometimes it is a failure on the part of audiences to reconcile the image with the person, a dangerous conflation that can lead to full-blown, mindless consumption. Sometimes it comes from the tendency for sex symbols to be worked for a few short years and then cast aside. Often they are not allowed to pursue serious roles, even if it is what they want, and they are often assessed to be not important enough to the institution of cinema to merit any distinction. Someone’s sexualization on such a large and unrelenting scale, paired with this kind of dismissal, can and has led to dire emotional and psychological repercussions (think Marilyn Monroe). But Ann-Margret is not emblematic of that kind of story. She was, as she tells it, happy. There were moments of fraught upheaval, as in anyone’s life, but by and large she describes her time as an actress fondly. I believe that this is because she did not allow her sense of worth to revolve solely around the image of her sexuality and because she was given the room and the option to challenge the meaning and validity of something as notoriously fickle and potentially dangerous as the idea of the sex symbol. She is a compelling image of unrestrained sexuality, but it was not an image that hindered her, personally or professionally. She became a sex symbol emblematic of the upheaval of the 1960s, of a certain kind of new womanhood, but ultimately was able to pursue a life and a career that didn’t hinge solely on that image. Hers is one of the few non-tragic tales that Hollywood has to tell and it is a joy to watch.

 

Elliott Gould’s Subtle Revolt

I watched The Long Goodbye. And then I watched The Long Goodbye again. And then I watched California Split. And then I watched The Long Goodbye. There was something about these two films that felt similarly alive and captivating, an almost tangible quality. There was something intriguing being said about masculinity and space, a challenge couched in the hyper-masculine worlds of noir and gambling. These are two of the many films which actor Elliott Gould and director Robert Altman collaborated on, and although they are not thematically similar, they do have a kind of spiritual kinship with one another. Their desire to explore the relationships of men and the spaces that they occupy, the way that the spaces are shaped by the men and the men, in turn, by the spaces, all contribute to the compelling realism of the films.

The Long Goodbye (1973) is the classic Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler reimagined. Marlowe, the famous noir detective, is all hyper-masculine crass and bravado, a man almost always devoid of emotionality. For this film, Altman transposed Marlowe, a product of the 1930s, onto 1970s Southern California to create a portrait of a man truly at odds with his environment. California Split (1974) tells the tale of two compulsive gamblers, played by Gould and George Segal, as they attempt to keep their heads above water.

Throughout these films, Gould exhibits a kind of feigned toughness and apathy that serves to cover a real vulnerability, one that is slowly stripped away during the film. In an early scene of California Split, Gould rubs shaving cream on Segal’s ribs after they are mugged in a parking lot. From then on there is no doubt, it is clear how much the men look up to one another. It is this incredibly tender gesture that sets the tone for their relationship. No matter the bravado, no matter the antics, the care that they have for one another has been expressed and they will not shy away from it. It is this that I believe differentiates the film from others of the era (films like John Cassavetes’s Husbands (1970), which seem to revel in masculine cruelty). Secure in its subtle compassion, the characters know that that care doesn’t diminish their masculinity. They do not find it intimidating, in fact, the quickness with which their intimacy grows may suggest that this is the kind of bond that they have been looking for all along. They do not bond over cruelty, but over a shared vulnerability. Similarly, in The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe, hardboiled, tough detective, as played by Gould, is simultaneously rougher around the edges and more sensitive. The film opens with Gould asleep in his dingy apartment. His cat wakes him up demanding food. What follows is an endearing portrait of a man attempting to feed his cat at three o’clock in the morning. This sense of care and obligation further sets up the rest of the film and gives us, the audience, a new interpretation of the old, classic Marlowe, a character for whom everything seems to mean close to nothing. Instead, we are faced with a sometimes sentimental Marlowe, one who, even when faced with it, cannot possibly comprehend betrayal at the hands of a friend.

The spaces in The Long Goodbye and California Split work alongside Gould to lend the films a level of complexity and authenticity. Not only was filming often done on location, featuring local Southern California gambling institutions in all their seedy glory, but their accompanying soundtrack is made up of ambient sound. It is the kind of dull, indistinguishable roar that characterizes all public spaces but is so rarely captured on film. The sound isn’t focused solely on our protagonists, it is merely punctuated by them. The sound is immersive. It is palpable and so are the spaces. Gould complements these animated environments with an equally active performance. He is often found wandering around muttering to himself, improvising lines like “it’s okay with me”, all at the encouragement of Altman. It serves to imbue his character with a life that most characters just don’t have. He is the embodiment of frantic, frenetic motion, always chaotic, a coiled spring. He can’t contain his thoughts, there are too many. They are overflowing and we, the audience, are given the excess. He is a character more realized for his foibles and mannerisms and thus more relatable. There is a vitality to Gould and to the spaces he inhabits, you can hear and almost smell them. The musty dank surroundings seep into him and he, in turn, into the surroundings. The smell of days worth of sweat and grime cover Gould and Segal in California Split, the cigarette smoke and stale beer clings to their jackets and we to them in visceral acknowledgement. This is the amazing thing about Altman and Gould together, they are able to create real lived-in spaces and characters that we recognize in such a sensory way. It is made up of so much more than a script, so much more than language.

In less deft hands, the bombastic masculine energy that characterizes both of these films could have overshadowed or completely obscured the intimate moments of care shown by our protagonists. The Long Goodbye and California Split are complex films with complex characters and it is no doubt that Gould excels in these complex areas. He is able to lend the characters and the story a degree of sympathy that would be missing otherwise. There is a challenge inherent in every movement Gould makes; a challenge to traditional moviemaking, traditional leading men, a challenge to Hollywood; it’s slickness and veneer, it’s inability to deal in complexities, its desire to capture an idealized and elevated world. Every moment we follow Gould, we fall a little more in love with him, his behavior rings more true. As he drags us deeper into the grimy, sordid, morally bankrupt spaces he inhabits, we thank him for showing us the truth, a world that though deeply cruel, can also be punctuated by moments of beauty.

 

The Myth of Hughes, the Reality of Women

“The female body has always been a key building block of cinema- a raw material fed into the machine of the movies, as integral to the final product as celluloid itself.”

-Karina Longworth, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, pg 5.

A biography is a very specific, very delicate balancing act. A biography has to walk a fine line of truth, skepticism, and empathy. A biographer needs to be constantly vigilant against the seemingly unceasing tendency towards hagiography and sensationalism. In an era oversaturated with information, a biographer needs to find a compelling way in which to connect and convey information, a way that is unique and that doesn’t render the information stale. Karina Longworth has done just that in Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood. Hughes, an almost mythic figure in American culture, has been written about and dramatized for decades, so it seems an almost impossible task to find a new way to explore his life. But Longworth is able to accomplish this by writing about the women who fell or were forced into Hughes’s orbit. By doing this, she is able to explore the man and his career at various stages. Among the women discussed in detail are Billie Dove, Jean Harlow, Faith Domergue, Ava Gardiner, Jane Russell, Jean Peters, and Terry Moore. These women were often lured into Hughes’s life with expectations of fame and a career in film. They were then molded and groomed into Hughes’s ideal-a woman whose sexuality was up for display and rabid consumption. They were stripped of their autonomy. They were made just for Howard and they languished under his control. He was a man, it is made clear, that manipulated his way into people’s lives, offering them a career or marriage, things that he would never deliver, in order to get what he wanted. The book offers a telling look at Hollywood and dynamics that, until recently, operated without criticism.

Throughout the book, we are shown Hughes as he goes about molding women, their identities, personas, and images, to a disturbingly uniform image of what he thought sexuality and womanhood entailed. The book illustrates how women’s bodies become the site of power struggles and of men’s fantasies. Playing out many of his own desires on screen, Hughes was then able to use the success of Jean Harlow and Jane Russell, the only real successes he had in Hollywood, as a way to lure other young, aspiring starlets into a web of deception and isolation from which it was nearly impossible to get out.

Much of the book is focused on Jane Russell, and for good reason. Russell became for Hughes the ideal woman and further cemented the notion that his star-finding power was unparalleled. In fact, as Longworth is able to show, much of his later predation on young starlets can be charted back to his handling of Russell’s career. Most famously, or infamously, Russell starred in The Outlaw, a film unremarkable in all ways but its publicity campaign. Hughes mounted a campaign based solely, much as the movie is, on Russell’s sultry demeanor and her breasts. His resulting fight with the Hollywood Production Code, a self-policing body that deemed movies either fit or unfit for exhibition based on a code fully entrenched in the morality of the times, further piqued audience interest in the film. Hughes was able to manufacture anticipation by exploiting these things and by holding the film from being shown for years. The film was eventually shown and while it was not considered a critical success, Russell was deemed a star. Through Longworth’s research we are able to see Hughes’s behavior towards the women he had under contract. Russell, Longworth notes, was put through publicity shots and scenes that were both humiliating and grueling, not to mention a whole film arc that rests solely on a rape fantasy. In one story, Hughes demanded that Russell bounce on a bed in a nightgown for publicity photographs. She remembers the day with a deep humiliation. When she asked Hughes for help to end the shoot, he refused (195). Of course, all of this was under his supervision and done at his request. When The Outlaw was released it became a success of sorts. In this, he felt justified in his actions. A woman was reduced to her most basic and anatomical parts, humiliated at the hands of men, and its success only served to fuel Hughes’s behavior and his notions of what a movie-going public wanted. Later on, he would leverage the fame of Russell, and what he saw as his role in crafting said fame, in order to sign aspiring actresses to contracts. While ostensibly taking measures for their careers, Hughes set them up in bungalows that served as virtual prisons. The women were guarded by detectives and chauffeurs that reported their every move to Hughes. Additionally, they were allowed to leave their bungalows only to dine with Hughes. Of course, these women never starred in any films and never had a chance at the stardom they so desired. They were idealistic and trusting, not aware of what they had fallen into. Hughes was able to leverage his persona as a star-maker in order to lure women into his orbit where he kept them for his own use. By telling the story of Russell, Longworth is able to expose the machinations of a predatory man, showing us the threads of his decades long plotting; how one success begat whole volumes of atrocious behavior. Through the book and the research, we are able to see Hughes as a microcosm for the larger film industry, to see that while horrendous, he is not singular. His behavior is a symptom of larger ills.

Raising issues of power dynamics, sexism, the male gaze, and predatory masculinity, Longworth offers us a fresh and relevant portrait of a man who exploited all of these things as well as the Hollywood system in order to act out his own desires. It is apparent that this type of behavior is not a solitary occurrence but should be viewed as a symptom of a system that values women solely for their bodies and the reactions that they are able to elicit in men. Hughes played on and exploited these things and was able, for a time, to become a force in Hollywood. Longworth highlights the women whose lives intersected, for good or ill, with Howard Hughes’s and by doing so, she gives a voice to the previously silenced. These women have lived their lives in the shadow of Hughes, largely and mistakenly considered a boundary-shattering entrepreneur and an all-American hero. These women are now centered in the narrative. It is finally their story, not his.

Longworth, Karina. Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood. New York, Custom House, 2018.

Discovering a Forgotten Gem: Claudia Weill’s “Girlfriends”

“As I grew up in the 50s and early 60s and so forth, there was always the lead girl, who was pretty and smart and pert and so forth, and beautiful figure and perfectly dressed. And then there was the side-kick, the best friend. And she was…usually a little more overweight, maybe underweight, not as conventionally pretty. It was her personality that was interesting. Often she was funny…I guess I wanted to make that person the protagonist. The one who doesn’t get married right away, the person who’s not living the dream life, the person who is having to create a life for themselves. I wanted to see somebody like me in a movie.”

-Claudia Weill on Girlfriends, 2019.

Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978) is a story of the disintegration of a friendship and a search for identity. Its power is in its demand that we center female friendship as the stuff of devastation and profound beauty, a fragile thing just as or more important than romantic attachment. Susan Weinblatt, played by Melanie Mayron, is overcome when her friend and roommate, Anne, unexpectedly announces that she is to be married. Susan and Anne appear to be kindred spirits. They are both aspiring artists; Susan is a photographer and Anne is a poet. Susan’s aspirations, her life and career appear to be at a standstill. The thing that she relies on for a sense of stability is her friendship with Anne. When Anne leaves, it is catastrophic.

The beauty of Girlfriends is in the details, in the signs of care and of loneliness, in the feeling of devastation that follows when someone is finally gone. It’s not theatrical, it’s not dramatic, it’s just silent and empty. The film’s beauty is in its acceptance and display of how hard it is to exist in that loneliness, while at the same time acknowledging the impossibility of living anywhere else. It shows how, even when you think relationships are over, growth can still be fostered between two people. It is the most beautiful evocation of friendship and self-realization that I have ever seen and it is precisely because there is no bombast to it. It is relatable. It is simple and it is kind. It feels the way a monumental loss feels; the world continues and you are just left with your grief. You are left to find your own way out. The film follows Susan as she struggles to find an identity outside of her friendship. She is in a state of almost suspended animation when Anne leaves. The film is able to deftly weave in the complexities of friendship, those mutual feelings of support and jealousy, and the way the two can mingle when you feel abandoned. Weill creates a poignant picture of the intricacies of friendship, how it can be a source of joy and support, but also a site of envy and resentment. She shows how integral it can be to a person’s identity, to their sense of being and belonging, of how much can be at stake when two women commit to each other. Women’s relationships with one another, the film appears to state, are among the most important relationships a person can have. Susan, our protagonist, finds her way, finds herself, and even, by the end of the film, has had her own photography exhibition. It is then that she is able to reconcile with Anne. It is then that their relationship is able to grow.

Girlfriends was originally to be a short film, but when Weill saw the characters, she realized that more time was needed to explore their story. It was done on the most limited of budgets, funded by loans and grants. That is, I believe, why Weill was able to do what she did. She was able to explore the female psyche, female relationships, and to center and find power in the mundane, in the simple. She was able to delve into the previously overlooked, to give it prominence. Weill’s ability to convey the complexity of human relationships is in these details. We realize, for example, that Susan has indeed moved on and into her own life when she begins to decorate the apartment that she and Anne had briefly lived in together. Her inability to decorate, we come to realize, was tied to her conception of the space as both her and Anne’s. Its emptiness stands as a testament to some of the last moments they spent together. But now it is just evidence of her inability to move on and forge a new identity. When Susan is able to heal, she is able to personalize her space and to make it her own, as she finally has done with her life. It is in these pristinely thought out and subtle details that Weill excels and it is for this reason that the film and Susan seem so incredibly relatable and authentic.

Left: Claudia Weill pictured with Melanie Mayron. Right: Mayron in a scene from the film.

“What Inspired Claudia Weill to Make a Different Kind of Friendship Movie.” The Criterion Collection. 2019. Video. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6385-what-inspired-claudia-weill-to-make-a-different-kind-of-friendship-movie