Ann-Margret received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Bobbie in Mike Nichol's Carnal Knowledge. This film was something of a controversy when it first came out, and it's pretty easy to see why. It's a movie about sexuality, focusing on Jonathan's (Jack Nicholson) struggles to find the perfect woman for him because of his unwillingness to compromise his "standards" (big boobs, nice legs, etc). There are numerous frank discussions of sexuality that must have seemed unseemly for the time, and the amount of nudity is high for the 70s. Ann-Margret plays Bobbie, a woman he meets at a bar and seems to have everything he wants in a girl. However, after being with her for awhile he begins to realize that she may not be the perfect woman for him after all. It's a very unusual and fascinating movie, that really gets you thinking about the connection between sexual attraction and relationships. None of the performances (not even Jack Nicholson) are particularly outstanding, however.
On paper, Ann-Margret seems like the perfect choice for this role. She's an actress who imbues sexuality into each of her roles, and her sex kitten-ish ways can either get in the way of her performance or enhance it. In this case....it's a little bit of both, actually. Ann-Margret makes a strong first impression, absolutely oozing sexuality like she should. Many people would probably even say that her physical appearance played a very large part in her getting the votes for this nomination....and I would say they are probably at least somewhat right. She's absolutely stunning, and has a different body type for a major movie star, especially for this period in film history. The first part of this role plays to her strengths in a major way, and she develops a palpable sexual tension with Jack Nicholson that is heated and appropriate. Her voice is a key role to the success--and eventual failure--of the performance. She's got a very unique, cooing voice that works well in the sexual scenes and just plain doesn't in the rest of the scenes.
As Bobbie and Jonathan's relationship continues to develop, we begin to see Bobbie's priorities and desires changing while Jonathan's remain the same. Despite the fact that their relationship grows and they end up living together, Bobbie begins to desire marriage while Jonathan sees all women as "ball-busting" and marriage specifically as a way to entrap men. Their situation gives Ann-Margret plenty of opportunities to show off her range, but unfortunately that just doesn't come off in the performance. These final scenes of the relationship's later stages we are supposed to see Bobbie devastated and drained after Jonathan forces her to quit her job and wants her to stay at home and essentially serve him. But instead of coming off as emotionally devastated, we see Ann-Margret being robotic and zombie-like. Her limited acting style that is confined to "crazy" and "sexy" just doesn't work here. Then comes her voice. Her cooing and soft voice absolutely shoots down the weight of any of her line readings and she almost struggles to get them out in a coherent way.
Ultimately, Ann-Margret was not the right actress for this part. She's about half the right actress. For a script as wordy and emotionally rich as this one, Ann-Margret doesn't quite have the goods to develop Bobbie into a totally believable character. She's very attractive and handles the sexuality of the role right, which comes very naturally to her. However, at any sign of emotion her acting ability (and voice) lets her down. She's not a bad actress by any means, but one that needs a certain type of role to be truly great (see: Tommy). This performance has its virtues but the negatives definitely overwhelm the positives on this one. I guess the moral of the story is don't cast Ann-Margret when you want an emotionally rich and grounded performance. 3/5 Thelmas.