1 Hr., 23 Mins.
Kitten with a Whip
There were attempts, early on, to remodel the capable her into a “serious” actress. Although she’d received much praise for what has come to look like a one-two punch — 1963’s overworked Bye Bye Birdie and 1964’s attractively kitschy Viva Las Vegas — it was decided that the malnourishing of her apparently lofty dramatic potential could, in fact, have an adversarial effect on her career.
When it was announced that Ann-Margret would be starring in Kitten with a Whip, a project conceived first for Nancy Kwan, then for the French bombshell Brigitte Bardot, in October, 1963, it was expected that it would showcase its red-headed star as something other than a bodacious, fun-loving singer and dancer. Maybe she’d prove herself a quasi-nü-Garbo and not a tyro-MM.
When Kitten was released the following November, those career plans fell through. Ann-Margret remained, in the public eye, more bombshell than actress. (Though that wouldn’t stop future would-be thespianic undertakings from getting the green light.) Understandable: The film is campy and often unintentionally funny — not “serious,” as it might have liked to be — and situates Ann-Margret in a role so caricatured that it makes her character in Bye Bye Birdie, who was bubbly but vacuously so, seem Falconettian.
The affectedness, though, is what makes Kitten with a Whip pleasurable, albeit spasmodically so. Appearing as something of an edgier version of the teen movies of the era, it is a cultural artifact which benefits from its conviction that even the most inane of its lines are just part of the territory of The Serious Ann-Margret Movie.
In the film, the actress is a straw-haired, then red-maned, 17-year-old juvenile delinquent named Jody. As the film opens, the latter has set part of the local detention center alight, stabbed a head matron, and promptly made her escape. A few ticks after the opening credits wind down, Jody breaks into the home of David (John Forsythe), a political hopeful whose wife’s away visiting family in San Francisco.
Jody goes unnoticed until morning: David had a late night out with friends. When the latter does become aware of his uninvited guest, however, he's too charmed to think about calling the police. Jody, blinking her long eyelashes with faux femme fatale bluster, muddles the truth, characterizing herself as something of a little girl lost. Feeling sorry for her, David takes her out to buy new clothes, and hopes that the acquaintanceship will only be a momentary one. He plans to send her on her way soon enough.
Not long after David essentially okays Jody’s temporary staying over, though, he unearths just exactly what she was doing before breaking in. This prompts Jody to drop the façade. She ferally asserts that she will not be thrown out, and that if David tries anything tricky — à la calling the police — she’ll cry rape, thus destroying whatever semblance of a political career he has.
Before David can so much as stammer “Y-yes, ma’am,” three of Jody’s friends (Peter Brown, Skip Ward, and Diane Sayer) show up, add dimension to their pal’s blackmailing scheme, and eventually demand a free ride to Mexico.
The movie explodes with pulp dialogue (“Cool it, you creep, and co-exist!,” someone yawps at one point) and simmering melodramatics. But it is most heightened by Ann-Margret’s blustery performance, which is, on the whole, defined by Jody’s jerky, unpredictable emotional palette. But it is also defined by the way Ann-Margret is presented in the movie: The camera loves to look at her as much as we do, constantly making eyes at her curves and exquisitely capturing the thrill of a hip shimmy or a hair flip. Her cat-like, very physical performance is, thus, overwhelming.
But as pointed out by Eric Henderson of Slate, Kitten with a Whip's writer and director, Douglas Heyes, is too hostile toward youth culture for the movie to outrightly work. The feature, I think, in a way generally akin to Henderson's argument, has an unbecoming tendency to alternately ennoble (in cartoonish ways, that is) and undermine teendom. And since David is additionally rather unformed — though thankfully not a forthright underage-girl-eyeing product — it is difficult to deduce whether we're supposed to be having fun with, or getting suspense thriller-like jolts out of, the film. Since the movie is a favorite of the transgressive comedy director John Waters, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-’99) program, and, more unexpectedly, the passé teen queen Lindsay Lohan, there’s a good chance you’ll revere it as jovial camp. Maybe I will too, someday. C
t took only a year or two for Ann-Margret to become one of the most popular movie stars in the world, but nearly 10 would pass before she would be taken seriously as an actress. Until the release of Mike Nichols’ psychosexual drama Carnal Knowledge (1971), for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, Ann-Margret was arguably taken for granted as a neo-Marilyn upon her ascent in the early 1960s and beyond. This was a popular consensus helped, in part, by the way she built her name off lightweight cinemusicals and pop-arty comedies.