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Roger Smith

Red between the lines

Ann-Margret takes the stage.

'HANDS OFF, buster! Don't you ever bruise me."

That's a 23-year-old Ann-Margret, hissing at John Forsythe, her 44-year-old costar in Kitten with a Whip, back in 1964. She's a teenage octopussy on the lam from the law; he's a principled politician with a reputation to lose: "God knows what I'd do to you if you ever bruised me," she threatens, then leaves a fistful of bloody claw marks in his chest hair to prove the point. Forsythe wasn't listening carefully enough, but Father Time seems to have heard her; looking at the 61-year-old actress today, you'd swear he hasn't touched her since.

See for yourself: thanks to impresario Marc Huestis and the Castro Theatre, the flame-maned Swedish-American of the Year 2001 appears live and in person Friday night, followed by a fistful of her most-cherished films. You knew this Northwestern University alumnus is Swedish, didn't you? As Swedish as I Am Curious, Yellow, born in the alpine hamlet of Valsjöbyn. But did you know she's really a brunette? In a world filled with confusion and doubt, we all have so much left to learn. Spend this weekend at the Castro, and you'll have mastered lesson number one: Ann-Margret knows how to shake that thing.

Don't take my word for it; ask the hillbilly costar she shares Viva Las Vegas with – a hepcat known as "the male Ann-Margret." He's "Lucky" Jackson, she's "Rusty" Martin – a match made of motor oil and black stockings – and he sings of that very sentiment, of the girl with the shaking thing. The girl George Burns claimed to have discovered, the girl with two first names, two Oscar nominations (for Carnal Knowledge and Tommy, both part of the Castro package), and way too much of everything else. Look at the way she squeezes herself into that two-sizes-too-small cocktail dress for her first appearance in Carnal Knowledge; try to look away when she drops her fur coat on Jack Nicholson's floor – the first salvo in what he comes to insist was her single-minded scheme to bust his balls.

Silly movie star: there's nothing single-minded about Ann-Margret. Last year she recorded an album titled God Is Love: The Gospel Sessions (it's since been nominated for a Dove Award, the Christian recording industry's highest honor); she also hit the road in a touring revival of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas – she's the brothel madam in the Bob Mackie gowns. So who is Ann-Margret: Angel? Devil? Kitten? Whip? A brunette who became America's most babelicious redhead but goes blond for bits of Kitten with a Whip, and Bye Bye Birdie, too. Maybe she's only that hyphen in the middle, a separation and a suture, both herself and the contradiction of herself: sexual-innocent, virginal-violated, Ann-Margret – as terrorizing with her clothes on as she is tragic with her clothes off. Perhaps she's a unified vision of the fractured actresses in Mulholland Drive – blond, brunette, blond, brunette, and finally so vibrantly red she's as blinding as the sun. A celestial entity, a shaken thing.

(Did you ever hear the rumor that director George Sidney was so taken with the shape of the actress he first directed in Bye Bye Birdie and last directed in The Swinger – that's the one about the centerfold in the psychedelic body-paint – that he had his cinematographer surreptitiously shoot a four-minute close-up of her derriere? Think about that when you see her first scene in Sidney's Viva Las Vegas, the one with the weird cut of A-M walking naval-first into the camera, then apparently absorbing the entire apparatus, only to emerge in reverse angle, the lens stunned and loitering on the lovely wake she leaves while walking away.)

In Bye Bye Birdie, A-M opens the proceedings by bellowing her ample lungs out in front of a blue-screen backdrop that makes her look as if she were the only woman who ever existed, when in fact she's only a symbol of American girlhood, chosen from among millions to bestow a kiss on a faux Elvis who's just been caught in the draft. Yearning for an imitation of the actual Presley she'd be intimate with just a month or two later, she has a simple mission: keep the audience distracted from the forgotten young actor who plays her high school honey – a lady-boy so willow-bent he makes Roddy McDowall look as hunked-up as "Duke" Wayne. Included among Bye Bye Birdie's additional avatars of masculinity are Dick Van Dyke (on hand as a biochemist turned songwriter whose dabblings with methamphetamine eventually help to humiliate a troupe of Communist ballet dancers) and (as A-M's dad) Paul Lynde – 1960s America's favorite she-male without a wig. If you can get past dyed-black Janet Leigh as the 30-year-old virgin who's been saving herself for Van Dyke, then you'll have no trouble remaining stoic when Lynde starts warbling an anthem of passion to his male role model, Ed Sullivan.

In Tommy – the most dyspeptic rock opera ever filmed – she plays Roger Daltrey's mommy. And Oliver Reed's lover. (Jack Nicholson, his balls ostensibly on the mend, even slips in for another squeeze.) In this pallid remake of The Marriage of Maria Braun (A-M's hubby's dead in the war, then not dead, then dead again), our heroine seems stranded on the verge of a sexual freak-out in every scene. When at last she takes her Oscar-caliber self-love bath in a tidal wave of baked beans, her apotheosis is complete: slathered with ordure and spilling out of her body stocking, Ann-Margret becomes our American Catherine Deneuve. Or the inverse of Acid Queen Tina Turner, who – shaking a thing or two of her own – propels director Ken Russell to new heights of ingenuity: looting Bruce Conner's Cosmic Ray for a desperate assortment of frantic zooms and strobe-manic flashes.

Bernardo Bertolucci only wishes he could have directed an episode as glamorously embalmed as A-M's reunion duet with the lecherous Nicholson, halfway through the eternity that is Tommy. Paul Thomas Anderson only wishes he could have replaced Julianne Moore with A-M for that drugstore freak-out scene, somewhere in the final hours of the eternity that is Magnolia. Mike Nichols only wishes he had directed a long, long take as sublime as the one in Carnal Knowledge where A-M works up the nerve to tell Nicholson she thinks the two of them should shack up. (Oh wait, Nichols did direct that scene.) I only wish Orson Welles had directed Kitten with a Whip, which loots a Tinkertoy vision of Tijuana, a post-noir splay of fingerling death-shadows that creep across Forsythe's living room, and a flurry of music cues from Touch of Evil.

But so many are the wishes that Ann-Margret has fulfilled, only the churlish could ask for more. Sometimes she's even made us wish we'd asked for less. Finally making flesh of her own mythology, she stood as naked as Little Annie Fannie in Carnal Knowledge – and made the moviegoers who'd so long lusted for just such a moment feel somehow slightly ashamed. (So crushing was the impact of the moment that censors in several states banned the feature from their screens.) She's come quite a distance from Bye Bye Birdie, crawling across Elvis and Daltrey and a dozen Euro-cheapies so forgotten they might as well have been an ocean filled with nothing, painted blue. She's hovered around greatness so long she makes greatness look like second best. Her greatest gift is the way she convinces us, time and time again, just how real a star can be. My guess is she'll keep her fur on when she swings into the Castro floodlights – a older thing, still shaking, forever mortal, forever new. Sometimes, like the man in Kitten with a Whip says, it's best to take what you got for what it is, before it isn't – you dig?

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By Chuck Stephens

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