There are lots of things to ask Ann-Margret about "Tommy," I kept thinking. About being directed by Ken Russell, and about what she thought the meaning of the original rock opera was, and about what Roger Daltrey was like, and . . . somehow I kept drifting back to the baked beans.
There's a scene in the film where Ann-Margret's literally attacked by the products of a consumer culture. She's watching ads on TV for soap and baked beans and chocolate; and suddenly the set explodes and she's inundated with the products. It's a scene typical of Ken Russell, a British director who engages in cheerful excess in film after film, sometimes successfully (as with "Tommy") but more often not.
"I knew when I read the script that that was going to be a rough scene to film, if we could do it at all," Ann-Margret said. She reclined on a sofa in her Continental Plaza suite, looking somehow innocent and sexy at the same time, while her mother, Mrs. Olsson, knitted nearby. "We shot 'Tommy' during a period of three months, and the TV scene was the second to the last one we shot. Russell needed all that time to prepare it.
"People ask me how we did it. It was done exactly the way it seems to have been done. Those were real soapsuds, and real baked beans, and that was real chocolate. After we got the chocolate smeared all over, we had to take a day off from shooting - we didn't work on Sundays - and you wouldn't believe what that set was like by Monday, with the chocolate under the hot lights . . ."
The problem, she said, was that Russell knew he'd only have one chance to get his footage. The scene begins in a bedroom that's dazzlingly white and spotless. It ends with chocolate and beans everywhere. If Russell didn't get his footage the first time, the set would have had to be redone. So he used three cameras, Ann-Margret recalled, and they were all shooting at once when the soapsuds exploded out of the TV screen.
"They only knew in theory how it would work; they'd never tried it. What happened was that the room filled with suds - literally filled up. And I was rolling on the floor under the soap and I caught a piece of glass in my hand. Under liquid like that, you don't really feel the cut very much. I thought I'd nicked something, and then I saw the suds turning pink. And the next thing I knew, I'd had 23 stitches taken. That was bad enough, but as for the beans . . . To this day, I can't look a bean in the face."
The interview took place during Ann-Margret Day in Chicago, so proclaimed by Hizzoner, and A-M recalled that it was her first visit back to her hometown in four years and her mother's first visit in nine. The years in between have been good ones for Ann-Margret (aside, of course, from her near-fatal fall at Lake Tahoe).
When she was here in 1970, she was promoting a motorcycle movie named "C. C. and Company," in which she co-starred with Joe Namath. She still uses footage from "C. C." in the film clips shown during the costume changes in her nightclub act - more perhaps for the entertainment value of seeing Ann-Margret and Joe Namath on motorcycles than for any intrinsic artistic merit.
But then her next role was in the hugely successful Mike Nichols film "Carnal Knowledge" (she was nominated for an Oscar). And then there were her highly rated television specials, and now "Tommy," which grossed $83,000 in its first week at the State Lake. Ann-Margret's comeback, quarterbacked by husband Roger Smith and manager Allan Carr, seems to be on schedule.
"But I never appear on stage in Chicago," she was saying. "The last time I performed here, I was singing 'Baby, Won't You Please Come Home' for the Harvest Moon Ball in 1961. I've gotten as close as the Lake Geneva Playboy Club-Hotel, but no closer. There doesn't seem to be the right place here with adequate backstage facilities. My act is such a complicated production."
She opened Thursday in Miami, which, with Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, is one of the few places with the right combination of production expertise and audiences. When she was in England to film "Tommy" she taped a TV special but didn't perform live for the same reason - and because Ken Russell was working her so hard.
"He's extremely demanding," she said, "but I like to be pushed. I've been in 27 or 28 movies, and so many of the characters I played were cartoon characters, really. It's nice to play a three-dimensional person every once in a while for a change of pace.
"That made the character of the mother in 'Tommy' so interesting. She ages 20 years in the movie, from 20 to 40, and a lot of the time, she's not very glamorous. But she's a fascinating character. Ken Russell insisted on perfection, and that included not cheating on the crowd shots. A lot of directors would shoot the crowds one day and the actors the next. But Russell insisted on getting everybody in the same take, a lot of the time, for realism. There were some really complicated shots that he did 25 takes of."
When she first heard the album of "Tommy" in 1969, she said, she had no idea it would ever be made into a movie. And she missed the original stage versions. But when Russell sent her his script, she liked his approach (which seems to be a combination of manic overkill and wall-to-wall sound) and liked the character. And the cast was surrounded by the music on the set: "Russell played it as loud as it would go. We were just consumed by it. Everything was louder and bigger than life. Even Oliver Reed's belch: Pete Townshend did it on the Moog synthesizer."