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.