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They Wouldn't Let Ann-Margret Be Bad Enough

Her character in NBC's "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" has been softened - and the author of the book is angry

The Café Royal on Regent Street in London, was once the hangout of Oscar Wilde and Henry James, H.G. Wells and James McNeill Whitler. Renoir, it is said, sometimes dropped in. Specialists, all, in the peculiar relationship of reality to fantasy, even they might have had trouble dealing with the goings-on here in July of 1986.

Two days before the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, the Cafe's downstairs room, Nicols, has been redressed to resemble New York's (now defunct) Colony restaurant in 1957, the sort of place where ladies wore hats while they ate lunch and waved at friends called Petal and Tucky, Neddie and Bratsie, Esme and Kay and even Wallis (as in Windsor). We are in the territory of the very rich, the closest America has ever come to royalty. This is a scene from NBC's "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles", a story of love, social climbing and sudden death in high society, based on the best-selling novel by Dominick Dunne. (The TV-movie is scheduled to air Sunday, Feb. 8, and Monday, Feb. 9, from 9 to 11 P.M. [ET] both nights.) Between takes on this sweltering day, a standing fan turns, but it doesn't even ruffle the parsley on the aspic.

After awhile the room's atmosphere resembles a gym where the exercise mats are filled with goat cheese. Claudette Colbert, who at 83 is making her first film in 25 years, says, "I've never worked in this kind of heat." Sharing Colbert's table is Ann-Margret, in a conservative gray suit (by Nolan Miller, of Dynasty fame), with a matching hat that covers most of the wig she wears in this scene. The part that's showing is being primped by Sydney Guilaroff, who teased Garbo and Crawford in the grand days of MGM. Colbert is in an elegant purple suit by Donald Brooks (who did her 12 costumes): unseen by the camera, her feet are in beige loafers. She flubs a line and a crew member with a regional English accent reads her the correct dialogue: "Ann, be wealistic. You're being dwopped wight and left."

"The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" is about a woman's challenge to the impregnability of one of New York's "400" families. Alice Grenville (Colbert), a matriarch of class and breeding, expects that her only son, Billy (Stephen Collins), will marry somebody "appropriate." But in 1944, at El Morocco, he meets Ann Arden (Ann-Margret), a showgirl with a questionable past who gets a tenacious sexual hold on him (though she really loves him) and marries him. From then on, Ann relentlessly tries to fit in with his crowd, copying their manners, clothing and furniture, but she is never really accepted.

Ultimately the marriage goes bad and, one night, after a loud quarrel in which Billy says he can divorce her without giving her anything, she kills him with a shotgun, claiming that in the dark she mistook him for a prowler. Her mother-in-law, who never believes it wasn't murder, closes ranks and uses all her considerable influence to support Ann's story: sheltering a murderer is preferable to a public revelation that her son made a mistake in his choice of a wife. (Says John Rubinstein, who plays Bratsie, Billy's playboy friend, "I was raised in a society among adults who resemble these people in some way. If you were an ax murderer, your family would forgive you if you had the proper table manners.")

Challenging any plot on Dynasty, this story is made more fascinating by the fact that it's based on real incidents in the lives of a New York society family named Woodward. It is, as Ann-Margret says gleefully, "juicy!" Audiences who haven't read the Dunne novel will be enthralled by the brisk, literate, sometimes hilarious screenplay by Derek Marlowe and will empathize with Ann Grenville, whose nose was always pressed up against the glass, no matter how rich she got. Those who have read the novel may be piqued by the sanitizing of Ann Grenville.

In the book she is rarely less than sympathetic, but is far grittier: her social climbing, snobbery and money-spending are epic. She has many men in her past and a number during her marriage (only alluded to in the TV-movie). Not to mention the crucial shooting of Billy: in the TV version the audience makes up its own mind about Ann's intentions. In the book there is little doubt that she meant to kill her husband. To judge a film in terms of the book on which it is based is folly, since different media have different requirements. But it is interesting to look at how the requirements diverge. TV has developed an unwritten law: it's OK for a character to be sinful, overambitious, even awful, so long as it's not the leading character in a show. Preston Fischer, producer of "The Two continued Mrs. Grenvilles," says, "You could not do 'Gone With the Wind' now on television because Scarlett O'Hara was too much of a bitch."

Executive producer Susan Poilock, who negotiated the rights to Dunne's book for Lorimar-Telepictures, says, "It was a difficult sale to make to my own company and to the network, with such a strident heroine. The network truly demanded that she be softened, as did Lorimar. They felt it would be more satisfying to the audience and that no actress of stature would play her as written." Ann-Margret, sitting in her trailer at London's Marylebone Station (decorated to look like Tacoma, Wash., where Navy lieutenant Grenville was stationed in 1944), is told that many people who read the book thought she was perfect casting as Ann. She widens her eyes in shock, raises her brows and says, in imitation of Jack Benny, "Well!" But she won't discuss why she is shocked.

Later, director-supervising producer John Erman explains, "She was taken aback because she thought you were referring to the negative aspects of Ann's character [in the book]. Once she read the script, though, she was intrigued by it." (Somebody who refuses to be identified says, "Ann-Margret hated the character in the book, but she's the sort of person who will never say an unkind word about anybody. . . . She won't even listen to other people saying unkind things..") Author Dunne, who has been a producer himself and understands the need for change from one medium to another, adheres to the party line at first. Several days later, sitting in Erman's trailer, he says, "I get so ------ off about this.

Careers were built on bad girls. Bette Davis became a star playing bad girls. People are fascinated by beautiful, manipulative women. It's the story of movies. So when they all have to be whitewashed on television, it makes me go crazy. I can't answer or speak for the network except to say that they're full of [expletive]. It's absolutely ludicrous. All I know is that the book has had an enormous success, both in hardback and paperback. and I think what you've got to take into account is that the paperback audience is the same audience that watches TV. I mean, this is not an elitist audience. I don't think it has anything to do with certain female stars not wanting to accept such a role. I think it's just the network's Standards and Practices. I'm sure Ann-Margret would have done it as written." He breathes deeply, shakes his head and sniffs a gardenia in a nearby vase.

What doesn't change from book to TV is Dunne's pungent portrayal of the very rich and exclusive (in the purest sense of that word), the sort of people who are always taking lovers, though they seem incapable of love. Some cast members have had brushes with the elite. Stephen Collins says he had a very rich friend when he was growing up, "who told me, 'My stepfather says if I change my name to his he'll give me a million bucks when I'm 21-but I'm not going to do it.' Next thing I noticed, he was at school with a different name." Elizabeth Ashley, who holds no lukewarm opinions, plays Ann's only real friend, Babette, in t tie novel a woman of modest beginnings who married well and divorced better, receiving the largest settlement in New York history. Ashley says, "These people were, in a sense, robber barons, but felt they had built America, when all they did was steal the best piece of real estate on the planet."

Ashley goes the opposite way in talking about Ann-Margret. "Her generosity of spirit in the work is remarkable," she says. "She was on another project that ran over, took the red-eye from Los Angeles to New York, took the Concorde to here and started rehearsals the next day. I find that kind of care, concern and sensitivity, in all my years, quite unique." Erman, who is working with Ann-Margret for the third time, adds, "I would like to direct her in any part for any woman that has ever been written. She has this marvelous, ingenuous quality and doesn't do any of it consciously. She just acts true to the situation. Her instincts never cease to amaze me."

Each of the two Mrs. Grenvilles has a distinctly different approach to acting. Ann-Margret becomes the character, so focused that she Will rarely have a conversation that doesn't relate to the scene she's doing. An interview with her, in fact, is not unlike a ship-to-shore phone call. The delays between question and answer could make you crazy. One day, she is on the set of the Grenville town house in Manhattan (it is actually a manor in Hertfordshire, a London suburb). This is to be Ann Arden's first meeting with the Grenville family.She edges up to the drawingroom door, paces, then looks at her outfit in the mirror. "I look like a drum majorette," she says, adjusting the veil on her hat, while Guilaroff pounces with his comb. "Ann smokes," she adds. "Yesterday I set fire to the veil." She laughs a throaty Ann Arden laugh, pointing to her ankle bracelet. "It's mine, and Nolan Miller thought I should wear it in this scene. It's the sort of thing that would horrify the Grenvilles." She is more like Ann Arden talking about herself than Ann-Margret discussing a fictional creation.

Colbert, who gets up at 5 A.M. every workday and does her own makeup and hair, as she has done throughout her career, is equally serious, though much less intense, about the business of acting. Initially, she is held in awe by every member of the company, a phenomenon she quickly dispels (in one breath she says she is going to the U.S. Embassy party for "my darling friend Nancy Reagan"; in the next, when asked how she's going to make time to attend the Royal wedding, she says, "I'd have to be invited first!"). Outside the same drawing room she stands next to Stephen Collins, waiting to make an entrance. Just before she goes on-camera, she looks up at her TV son with the eloquent Colbert eyes,-reflecting 83 years of wisdom. Raising a warning finger, she says, "This is a little motherly intuition: She's gonna bump you off, kid!" Without ever losing the severe expression of Alice Grenville, she winks, then walks imperiously into the drawing room. indeed.


By Lawrence Eisenberg


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