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Playing Pammy

Ann-Margret takes on the late,
great courtesan/diplomat, Pamela Harriman, in a new TV-movie

Ann-Margret is perched on a floral sofa in the hidden Benedict Canyon house where she lives - with her husband, three cats and an aging Maltese terrier - as a bit of a recluse. At 57, she is reminiscing about the extraordinary variety of characters she has played over the past 40 years when she whispers in a fragile, mock-neurotic voice, "Who am I today?"

The famously shy and sensitive Ann-Margret, it turns out, takes her characters home with her.

"That's why I'm so messed up", making a strangling noise like the victim in a horror movie. She segues into a vocal rendition of the theme music from "The Twilight Zone", then repeats herself: "I'm so-o-o messed up".

There was the all-American teenager in "Bye Bye Birdie" that turned her into a Hollywood sensation. There was the 1960s sex bombs of "Viva Las Vegas" and "The Pleasure Seekers", followed by prestigous roles in "Stegecoach" and "The Cincinnatti Kid". am + bikeLater, after a career slump caused by overexposure, there were the turns in the rock opera "Tommy" and as Jack Nicholson's pathetic, betrayed girlfriend in "Carnal Knowledge". Both roles won her Oscar nominations and Golden Globe awards. Then, in her 50s, came the surprise hit "Grumpy Old Men" and its equally succesful sequel. All in all, a fabulous career - albeit with some dramatic ups and downs.

The same could be said of Pamela Harriman, the latest character to invade Ann-Margret's consciousness. In "Life of the Party", a dishy movie premiering October 12 on Lifetime, she plays the late U.S. ambassador to France, a woman of legendary charm who became notorious for her affairs with wealthy married men. When the thrice-married Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman died in 1997 at the age of 77, her funeral was attended by the rich and powerful - yet she remained estranged from the children of her second husband, Leland Hayward, and at odds with the family of her third, Averell Harriman. The Harriman heirs, in fact, had sued her, accusing her of squandering more than $20 million of the family trust.

"I kept saying, how did she do so many things with her life and have so many men? It was like five lifetimes", says Ann-Margret, who's been married for 31 years to the same man, former actor Roger Smith.

Although Ann-Margret was the first choice of producer Francine LeFrak for the role and looks uncannily like Harriman in the movie, it's difficult to think of two women less alike than the courtesan-cum-diplomat and the actress. True, both were immigrants who re-created themselves in America. But Ann-Margret arrived as a tiny Swedish girl who fell in love at the age of five with the Rockettes, while English aristocrat Harriman came as an adult who had worn out her welcome in Europe. "The Brits have always had this escape clause into the New World", LeFrak points out, "from Fergie to Princess Diana".

Even as a teenager, the predatory Harriman evoked jealousy from her peers, while the public warmed instantly to Ann-Margret. In real life the actress was demure and polite, but as a performer she was a hip-swiveling dynamo so charismatic that she was labeled the first female Elvis.

Elvis Presley, in fact, was one of Ann-Margret's loves before her marriage. Although she doesn't, even today, admit they consummated their relationship, he did buy her a round bed. They also shared a passion for motorcycles, and he stayed a devoted friend until his death.

Still, her handful of youthful affairs aside, she spent most of her life being a good little girl who did what others wanted her to. "Oh, doesn't that rear its head?" says Ann-Margret. "Gadzooks. I got tired of being a good girl".

Which may be why she found herself sympathetic to Harriman's plight as a smart woman with no income from a family that educated its sons and not its daughters. "Yes, she was manipulative and calculating", Ann-Margret says. "But she never wanted to go back to that place where she was penniless when Randolph left her with the child".

Randolph was Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill's son, upon whom Pamela Digby set her sights in war-torn London. According to the Christopher Ogden bestseller on which "Life of the Party" is based, Pamela, only 19 when she married Randolph, saw the long-term benefits of the Churchill name. Almost immediatly she became pregnant with young Winston, who suffered a chilly, distant childhood.

While his father dabbled in war, Pamela was dabbling in affairs, most notably with the married and much older Averell Harriman, a go-between for FDR and Winston Churchill. Pamela acted as boudoir ambassador, passing classified information between her father-in-law and the American diplomat.

"She made herself indespensable to every man she was with", says Ann-Margret.

And Pamela never lacked for men. With an abandon that would seem pathological these days, her conquests included tycoons Gianni Agnelli, Stavros Niarchos and Elie de Rothschild, American newsman Edward D. Murrow and possibly even Frank Sinatra. She filched Broadway producer Leland Hayward from his wife, Slim. And then there was Harriman, whom she married decades after their initial affair when she was in her 50s, he in his 70s. After inheriting Averell's wealth and being appointed ambassador by President Clinton, Pamela Harriman died at the top of her game.

Other women were catty behind her back, but they had reason toto be jealous. In one scene, a gleeful Leland Hayward (played by David Dukes) phones Jock Whitney to reveal a sex-trick Pamela has performed on him with an ice cube. Whitney, it turns out, has first-hand knowledge. "Did she tell you she learned it from the Duchess of Windsor?" Hayward asks.

"You can't help feeling she was handed around by the old boys' club", says LeFrak. "One thing I would hold out on: As a wife she was probably very constant, while as a mistress she wasn't". The well-publicized details of her life notwithstanding, Harriman was also a poseur, falsely claiming to have done post-graduate work at the Sorbonne and to have founded London's wartime Churchill Club as well as absurdly suggesting that her girls' school was a college.

In spite of her juicy story, though, the project was turned down - twice - by all the broadcast and cable networks before landing at Lifetime. LeFrak attributes part of the resistance to the fact that Harriman was still alive, but she also says the networks "were more interested in women whose lives ended tragically. She emerged triumphant".

Which is also the case with Ann-Margret. Her career, which began with such promise, seemed doomed in the late 60s to descend into a string of B-movies like "Kitten With a Whip" and "The Swinger", her talent obscured by her sexy image and her money frittered away by bad management. Husband Roger Smith and his friend Allan Carr, the flamboyant producer, took over and propelled her into a succesful nightclub career. (Smith co-executive produced "Life of the Party".) And director Mike Nichols gave her a chance to show her depth with the 1971 "Carnal Knowledge".

But the role of Bobbie Templeton - and Ann-Margret's years of good behaviour - took a toll. She landed in hospital and in the next few years, herself the daughter of an alcoholic, she battled booze and survived a pill overdose, which she denied was a suicide attempt. She also fought back after a horrifying 1972 accident in Lake Tahoe, when stage rigging collapsed, throwing her to the ground and shattering her cheekbone into 50 pices. After taht, her husband was diagnosed with the neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis.

Smith was often seen as a Svengali - a characterization Ann-Margret has disputed. But he certainly took charge when he deemed it necessary. Nolan Miller, who designed the costumes for "Life of the Party", recalls the time Smith put the modest performer in a tiny teddy for her nightclub act. "Every night I dragged her kicking and screaming to the wings and pushed her on stage", Smith told him.

Her husband's illness, Ann-Margret admits, forced her to take a stronger role in both business and life, granting her a new freedom. "If I don't wish to do something, I say no", she says, then tries out the word again like a child just learning it. "No. No. It's a great feeling. It's like being on a motorcycle with the wind in your hair, with the danger and the speed".

That's more than a metaphor. Ann-Margret still loves riding her Harley, and she still has a habit of dressing circa 1972. Today she's wearing white Hot Pants with pantyhose, high-heels, a crocheted sweater and a scarf tied low on her forehead. If she doesn't lika a question, she pulls the turban lower as if she wants to hide beneath it.

"She's very private", says "Life of the Party" director Waris Hussein. "What surprises me is the reserves that come out when she's performing".

Take the sex scenes. LeFrak expected her to be shy and was surprised when, cameras rolling, the actress was anything but. Even so, Miller had to add an insert to a dress to ensure her modesty during a heavy neecking scene.

Shot in 20 days on location in Los Angeles, the movie spans 50 years. (The younger Pamela is played by Nathalie Radford.) By the 1990s, with her Chanel suits, puffy blond society hairdo and Sherell Aston facelift, Harriman managed to look years younger than her true age. "They don't say 'craggy good looks' for women, do they?" Ann-Margret says with a cackle.

The final scene, in which Harriman dies of a strike while swimming in the Ritz pool in Paris, had to be accomplished in one take because of hair and makeup. To make it through the scene, Ann-Margret says she drew on personal experience, remembering the day last December when her own mother suffered a stroke (from which she has since recovered). Ann-Margret was with her. "I'll never forget it", she says, with a sharp intake of breath. "So that's what I thought of before I went under".

Her own history of troubles aside, Ann-Margret insists she dwells on the positive, not the negative. Then she assumes the clipped upper-class English accent of her latest alter-ego. "It's all for the better", she says. "Isn't it?"


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