…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
There’s a scene in the rock opera Tommy that is so surreal you almost can’t stand it. The glamorous sex kitten Ann-Margret is drunk on champagne and singing about it and her son’s success as a pinball wizard in her chic all-white and furry bedroom. The song quickly becomes an exercise in self-pity as she bemoans how her son’s fate as a deaf, dumb, and blind man is her issue in life to deal with as well… and as she sings, she sees her son appealing to her through the TV. She throws the champagne bottle she is slugging down into the TV screen, and it explodes into a flood of (first) laundry soap bubbles, followed by baked beans that – as they cover Ann-Margret, disturbingly resemble vomit (both the laundry and baked beans were commercials shown on the TV). She luxuriates in this morbid bath, which finally culminates in chocolate-like mud. It’s bizarre, to say the least – perhaps even the more so because it’s Ann-Margret – yes, ANN-MARGRET of Bye Bye Birdie fame – you are watching.
Tommy certainly isn’t a film for everyone, myself included. Based on The Who’s popular rock opera album from 1969, this film version features some pretty interesting cameos in what is basically a psychedelic, punked-out telling of the story of a kind of Christ figure. Tommy is born at the end of World War II, shortly after his mother (Ann-Margret) finds out her husband is missing in action. When Tommy is a little boy, his mother becomes lovers with the head counselor (Oliver Reed) of a local ‘happy holiday’ camp. Soon after, Tommy’s real father resurfaces in their home and, when his father confronts his wife and lover, he is murdered by the lover – with Tommy witnessing it. His mother and her lover tell the young boy that he “didn’t hear it, didn’t see it” and “won’t say nothing to no one” – basically traumatizing the boy into becoming blind, deaf, and dumb for many years.
Fast forward to Tommy as a young man (and played by The Who’s Roger Daltrey). His only comfort and consolation seems to be standing in front of a mirror. Unnerved, his mother sends him to various freakish doctors and specialists (including Eric Clapton as the main preacher of a Marilyn Monroe-worshipping cult, Tina Turner as the “Acid Queen” who sends Tommy on a super-transformative LSD ride), and believe it or not, Jack Nicholson as a ‘specialist’ who diagnoses Tommy’s disorders as psychosomatic (and has some pretty clever British-sounding vocal dubbing done in the process; you so obviously know it is not Nicholson singing). Tommy eventually becomes an overnight sensation by defeating the Pinball Wizard (Elton John) at his own game. Tommy remains despondent until his mother smashes him through the mirror that he so fascinated with, and he suddenly has an epiphany and makes his breakthrough. He gathers many converts and followers, and his parents greedily capitalize on his fame. In the end, however, at his pinball camp, his followers rise against him, murder his mother and stepfather, smash his pinball machines, and burn down the camp. Our last glimpse of Tommy is on the mountaintop, singing about his eyes being newly opened. Hmmmm.
I’m not a huge fan of the rock opera (with perhaps the exception of Jesus Christ Superstar), but for its time, Tommy certainly was a groundbreaker for rock opera movies in company with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, released the same year and now a cult favorite much like Tommy has become. It puzzles me why Ann-Margret was nominated for an Oscar for this role. She does all right, but the role involves a lot of hamming and not too much by way of acting. Still, she proves she is up to the challenge and you almost get the impression she had a lot of fun doing it. Through much of the film, she appears to be the candy confection among the cast – dressed in wide skirted dresses and filmed glamorously through a hazy filter, which is why her eventual rolling in the mud may be a deliberate eye-opener and head-scratcher. She garnered a Best Actress Golden Globe for the role, so I cannot completely go with my initial impression that she was nominated simply to fill a fifth nomination spot. Louise Fletcher deservedly took home the award that year as the stern Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
If you are a fan of The Who (and I do like some of their music), you no doubt have seen this film and may even appreciate it quite a bit. If anything, the cameos are a hoot to watch. I especially enjoyed the fabulous Tina Turner kicking around her legs and shaking her stuff as the Acid Queen, and Elton John was quite a sight as the Pinball Wizard who eventually concedes defeat. No doubt about it, Tommy is a, well – interesting film.