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Ann-Margret at 30 - Suddenly She's In

Item #1: Reliving the doldrums of the 1961 Academy Awards wake, an unknown Swedish-born young songstress purrs a nominated loser called "Bachelor in Paradise" and jolts millions of jaded TV-watchers into stunned attention.

Item #2: In the 1962 Cinemascopic remake of "State Fair", the Vivian Blaine part goes to an auburn-haired newcomer who singes the screen like heat-lightning with a 5-minute rendition of "Isn't it kinda fun?", seduces Pat Boone (who up until this time, has balked at even kissing his leading ladies), and is accorded an unheard of 12-page cover story by Life Magazine.

Item #3: Janet Leigh, the star of 1963's sprightly film version of "Bye, Bye, Birdie", admits that the ingenue featured player has walked away with the movie, and a revealing cover photo of said performer on the Saturday Evening Post prompts one irate subscriber to assail the editor with "Doesn't that girl wear any underwear?"

Item #4: The honors of Elvis Presley's snazziest vehicle, 1964's "Viva Las Vegas", are effortlessly stolen by his electrifying co-star who, in one number, rips off an ermine cape, dances a dazzling shimmy, and unforgettably socks over a forgetable tune called "Appreciation". Col. Tom Parker makes a mental note never again to team his glory boy with a glorious girl.

Item #5: Halfway through "The Pleasure Seekers", an innocuos 1965 remake of "Three Coins in the Fountain" set in Spain, the honey-haired star, seemingly sewn into a hot-pink skin-grabbing gown, taps out a mean flamenco, launches into the steamy title-tune, and causes an erudite British film critic to fling aside his pencil, cast critical criteria to the winds, and proclaim: "Ann-Margret is simply formidable!"

Item #6: In the bitter black-and-white "Once a Thief", released in the fall of '65, Ann-Margret acquits herself brilliantly in the dramatic role of reformed gangster Alain Delon's houswife turned hooker. Nobody notices.

Two years later, following an unbroken string of flops ("Kitten With a Whip", "Made in Paris", "The Swinger"), Ann-Margret completes a decorative appearance in one of Dean Martin's dreadful Matt Helm geriatrics ("Murderers' Row") and receives no further film offers. The same tastemakers who acclaimed her incendiary performances in "State Fair", "Birdie" and "Vegas" are now damning her as "a posturing sex kitten" and smirking over the mere mention of her hyphenated name. Licking her wounds, she heads for Italy, that oasis for rejected American beautis, and commits herself to a couple of superfluous Vittorio Gassman comedies. At 25, Ann-Margret is ruthlessly chalked off as the film industry's youngest has-been.

Four years have passed since Ann-Margret's strategic retreat to Rome, and on a humid Saturday morning in July, 1971, she sits pensively in her New York hotel suite. From the 14th floor window, the world appears to be at her feet. In fact, it is. With a slim stretch of the imagination, the modest parlor at the Drake could be the peak of the Parnassus and Miss Margret the tenth muse, with iridescent green eys, a golden flourish of mermaid's hair, and her Aphroditic figure poured into an emerald-green open-knit hot-pants outfit that would cause Zeus himself to erupt thunderbolts.

"I'm exhausted", she says.

With a good reason. Nowadays, when the only appearances most entertainers make are weekly stints at the local unemployment bureau, Ann-Margret is booked solid until early in 1972, when she plans to "take off" for a very special reason. Were she to accept even a fraction of the offers that have recently wrecked havoc on her mailbox and telephone (including the Marilyn Monroe parts in both the Broadway musical edition of "Some like it hot" and the projected film version of "After th Fall", as well as lures to bring her bedazzling nightclub act to the Palladium and the Palace), she could easily sign away her life until the apocalyptic 1984.

Suddenly, it's in to like Ann-Margret. The reason, of course, is Mike Nichols' "Carnal Knowledge", the film of this year, in which she not only proves she can act (anyone lucky enough to have caught "Once a Thief" six years ago already knew that) but that she is potentially one of the finest dramatic actresses of the day. With her portrayal of Bobbie (Jack Nicholson's carnal punching bag), a revelation of the bruised womanly soul beneath the ideal Playmate of the Month body, Ann-Margret evoked the kind of critical reaction that greeted Garbo in her heyday. "Superb", "fabulous", "a brilliant actress", "a guaranteed Oscar contender for the Best Supporting Actress award of 1971", raved the critics.

Her amazement, however, is tempered with a wisdom born out of a decade's experience in a backbiting business. Commenting on the critical turnabout, she says: "They'll knife me again. There are people who will hate me all my life. I don't know why. Who knows why? Any entertainer has that. You just have to accept it. I have accepted it".

Unlike the girlish geyser she portrayed in the early 60s, or the self-conscious siren of the mid-60s, or the pathetically wounded and dumpy Bobbie of "Carnal Knowledge", Ann-Margret is, instead, a shy, gentle, old-fashioned and intensely serious young woman of 30 who speaks in a near-whisper.

In New York to tape "Dame at Sea" for a TV special (to be telecast in November on NBC), she consumes a dietic breakfast of half a grapefruit and two glasses of ice water. "Two years ago", she moans, "I was 15 pounds lighter".

Four years ago, she married Roger Smith, the personable star of TV series like "77 Sunset Strip" and movies like "Auntie Mame", who gladly gave up his acting career to manage his wife's, in association with producer-agent Allan Carr, a shrewed, friendly teddy bear of a man.

For starters, Smith and Carr packaged a TV special, wisely geared to downplay Ann-Margret the Sex Symbol and display Ann-Margret the Entertainer. The show, in which she gave full vent to her talents as a persuasive song stylist and dancer (especially in a cheerful takeoff on Ruby Keeler in "42nd Street"), zonked both the critics and the ratings.

Burt Rosen and David Winters, the producer-director team who have designed TV specials showcasing many of the world's best-known ladies (including Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Peggy Lee, and one unfortunate encounter with Raquel Welch), speak with special admiration of Ann-Margret.

"For her first special", says Winters, "we went to Sweden to film a segment of her singing a folksong in her native land. We scouted all over the country for locations. One morning at three am, the cameraman and I found a fabulous spot. I called her, waking her up, to tell her about it. In 45 minutes, she was there, wearing a long white gown and looking like she'd been filming all day. And the weather was freezing. I also had an idea to have her dance on the wing of a 707 in Seattle. She was willing. But it fell through because they couldn't get engines on the damned plane!"

Rosen adds: "On the second show, she was doing a comedy routine with Dean Martin, and the lights were hot, she hadn't eaten all day, and she was very nervous about doing comedy. When the sketch was over, she went backstage, crumpled, and fell down - out cold. They gave her oxygen, and 20 minutes later she was on stage again, as if nothing had happened. She's a great talent, if properly used".

Following her TV successes, Ann-Margret enlisted in Stanley Kramer's "R.P.M." as Anthony Quinn's grad student mistress. The film fizzled, but it marked the turning point in her career. "R.P.M." becomes so absolutely muddleheaded that only Ann-Margret can be recognized as truth", wrote Vincent Canby in the N.Y. Times, "She's beautiful and funny".

Next, the teaming of Miss Margret with Joe Namath in "CC and Company", produced by Carr and Smith and written by Roger, may have driven critics screaming from screaning rooms, but it packed 'em in at the drive-ins and garnered a free tonnage of publicity.

Then after reportedly considering and rejecting the likes of Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch for the over-the-hill sex bunny of "Carnal Knowledge", Mike Nichols (at the suggestion of Mrs. Kenneth Tynan) chose Ann-Margret.

The resurrection of Ann-Margret was complete.

She calls "Carnal Knowledge" "the hardest movie I've ever had to do. Every minute I worked on it was hell". Oddly, many of her finest moments in the film are expressive silences - Bobbie sitting in bed, poking at her packaged manicotti dinner, staring numbly at a portable TV; Bobbie, framed in an unflattering close-up, slouching against a white wall in a melancholy stupor; Bobbie in a bedraggled bathrobe, sitting in an anonymous hotel room and gratefully accepting her lover's tonguelashing as proof that she at least exists.

"I lived Bobbie day and night. Between takes, I would sit in my dressing room and stare at the wall and think about Bobbie. She was so desperate. It frightened me. I could identify with her. I felt depressed all the time".

She credits both Nichols ("a supersensitive genius") and Nicholson ("fantastic") for keeping her going, just as she praises Van Heflin, Alain Delon and Jack Palance for helping her through a similarly role in "Once a Thief". "They were all wonderful to me. It was a very difficult role for me to do. To me, "Once a Thief" was one of my best performances".

"I've done 22 pictures, and I only see each of my movies one time, usually in a screening room. I don't know who that person is up there. I really don't. And I cannot be objective. All I know is that each one of my movies, I have tried my hardest to do the best job that I can possibly do. I feel a great responsibility to my public. I do not take that lightly".

She bounds up to answer the phone, returns, and takes an unenthusiastic stab at the grapefruit. "Through the ten years", she continues, "there are many people who have given me the knife very deeply. I could say the wounds are gone, but they're not gone. For someone to say something nice, for someone to understand what I'm trying to do, that means the world to me. I only want to make people happy, because there's so much unhappiness in the world. You can feel the tension, you can see it around you, especially now. You can see the glazed eys, people not knowing what to do - or if they want to kill themselves. It's frightening. I've been to Vietnam twice... If I can just do something - whether it be for 20 minutes or an hour or whatever - to entertain, to make people forget their big troubles, the I feel that I have accomplished something".

Rather than talk about her career, however, she prefers to speak about her family - her husband Roger, her 13-yearold stepson Dallas (the product of Roger's former marriage to actress Victoria Shaw), and her parents (concern for her father's recent illness took priority over appearing at the "Carnal Knowledge" premier).

"Believe me or not", she says determinedly, "next year I really am going to take off, I want to have a baby. Right now, that's what I want the most. I'm 30 now, and I think it's very dangerous if you wait too long. Roger and I have been married for four years, which is incredible in this day and age. We've been together for eight years, which is truly incredible, in any profession. In the suburbs that's a record", she laughs. "I'm pretty proud!"

With a combination of excitement and exhaustion, she outlines her future commitments: eight weeks of concerts, a movie in September called "Radio Land" ("I've read the script, a wild dramatic story, and I loved it"), a return engagement to Las Vegas, and another goround at the Fountainbleau (where her nightclub act recently smashed Sinatra's previous record).

"Right now, I'm rehearsing for 'Dames at Sea' 10 hours a day", she says, "It originally was going to be done as a movie, but then NBC bought it. It's such fun because I'm doing my role (the Ruby Keeler part) with complete honesty. I don't see that character any other way. Everything that this lady says, she means. Sh's not trying to be funny or coy. She's just straightforward and honest". In the same genre of "Dames at Sea", Miss Margret also plans to star in a movie version of "Little Mary Sunshine", for which Smith and Carr have recently commissioned the script.

Still scarred by those years of reviews reviling her as a mindless sex pot, she emphasizes: "I'm working my head off on "Dames at Sea". I've worked my head off on everythingh I've done. I don't take things lightly. I live and breathe everything I do. And that's why I've got to take off".

With a weary smile, she crosses her lithe beige-booted legs and adds, almost inaudibly: "And then, maybe I can have a baby".


By Scott MacDonough


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