Ann-Margret makes one thing clear every second she’s on screen in Bye Bye Birdie: no matter how hokey, forcibly madcap, or just plain dumb the material gets, she’s coming out of this thing a star.
And she did. The role of Kim McAfee—a sweet 16-year-old from Ohio who wins a contest to receive a televised kiss from rock pinup Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson)—proved to have the qualities she needed to establish her persona: a brazen innocence that leaves everyone else around her off-balance. One of her numbers here, “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” is an eyebrow-raising ode to turning 16, but by the time Kim has felt her own small-town stardom rise and she leads an ensemble dance to “A Lot of Living to Do” at a local club, she’s zoomed straight past her twenties to an experienced, confident 35. (Ann-Margret was 22 at the time.)
“A Lot of Living to Do” is probably the film’s only really strong dance sequence; it’s a wild conflagration of flapping limbs and pastel costumes. Best not to talk about Janet Leigh’s signature number, a bizarre attempt to seduce an entire Shriners’ meeting. (In fact, it’s best not to talk about her character, who is supposed to be Latina, at all.) And while Bye Bye Birdie is clearly a spoof that doesn’t take anything seriously—it satirizes middle America, Elvis movies (though Pearson does a terrible Elvis impression), and youth crazes in general—I’m afraid a dated number in which Dick Van Dyke’s songwriter tells Leigh, his rightly aggrieved secretary, to just “Put on a Happy Face” is meant to be charming.
Leigh has a nice voice, though, as does Bobby Rydell as Kim’s long-suffering boyfriend. (His ballad, “One Boy,” might be my favorite song.) But most of the other singers are horribly pinched, including Ann-Margret. In fact, Bye Bye Birdie’s low point is its opening number, in which she marches toward the camera—a vibrant blue screen behind her—screeching the title song. It’s a blast to the senses that the movie never fully recovers from, an all-out assault of sensory input and insistent star power.