ANN-MARGRET: SURVIVOR SUPREME
By Paul Freeman [from 1986 article]
Ingenue. Sex kitten. Mature artist. Ann-Margret has scored a rare hat trick, achieving stardom in those three distinct phases of her career.
Born Ann-Margret Olsson in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 28, 1941, she moved to the United States at the age of six. The vibrant performer’s energetic musical skills and dazzling smile carried her from clubs to television to such wholesome fare as 1963’s “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Her sweet and innocent image melted into that of a fiery sex symbol in the mid-60s. She posed, garbed in leather, draped over a motorcycle. Her flaming hair, fantastic figure and flashing eyes were wildly alluring. Ann-Margret’s films of that era included the sordid “Kitten With A Whip,” “The Pleasure Seekers” and “The Swinger.” Her most worthwhile movie of the period was “The Cincinnati Kid.”
Ann-Margret’s star faded rapidly in the late ‘60s. She was doing more bombing than Richard Nixon. She hit bottom with a pair of laughable losers, “R.P.M.” and “C.C. and Company,” in which she co-starred with that fumbling actor, Joe Namath.
Just when it seemed that Ann-Margret was destined for summer stock and “Love Boat” guest shots, she stunned the industry and the public with a poignant performance opposite Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichols’ 1971 film, “Carnal Knowledge.” Her portrayal of the sex object, just past her prime, desperately seeking domestic bliss, earned unprecedented plaudits and an Oscar nomination.
Many of her subsequent films, including “Joseph Andrews,” “Villain” and “The Last Remake of Beau Geste,” were major disappointments, but her talent as an actress was no longer in question. She earned another Academy Award nomination for “Tommy.”
The thriller “Magic,” with Anthony Hopkins, was successful. But moviegoers ignored her more important efforts, such as “Return of the Soldier” and “Twice in a Lifetime.” Nevertheless, respect for her work continued to grow.
Perhaps it was in TV movies that Ann-Margret’s artistic gifts shone most brilliantly. She gave devastating, unforgettable performances in “Who Will Love My Children?” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
At a retrospective in San Francisco, Ann-Margret electrified the near-capacity crowd as she stepped gingerly onto the stage. Her svelte body was shown off to impressive effect in a satiny, yellow outfit. Her voice was seductively soft.
Though she always seemed supremely self-assured in her nightclub act, she appeared terribly vulnerable and nervous in this setting. Talking about herself clearly made her uncomfortable. But her sincerity and self-deprecating sense of humor quickly endeared her to the audience.
She spoke of her unusual background. “My father and mother were born in Sweden. When Daddy was 18 years old, he went to America. He went to find work as an electrician. When he was 33, he decided to go back home for a visit. He ended up staying five years. He met my mother. They got married. Then I came along.
“When I was one year old, he left for america. This was during the war. It was very dangerous to cross the ocean, so he didn’t want Mother and I to risk it. So we were apart for five years, Mom and I in a Swedish village and Daddy in Chicago.”
Once the family was reunited, at the end of WWII, their troubles weren’t over. “My father had an accident in the ‘50s. He fell off a two-story building. There was no money coming in. My mother was working as a cleaning woman and she had to pay for my singing, dancing and piano lessons.
“Then a couple who owned a mortuary offered us free room and board, if Mother would be their receptionist. I was 10 years old. We lived there for three years. We had a living room, dining room and kitchen. I slept on a sofa bed in the living room. That’s where the mourners assembled. There were about three funerals a week and I’d have to wait in the dining room until they left before I could go to sleep.”
“There were doors from ceiling to floor, with curtains, and right next to that would be the coffin,” Ann-Margret recalled. “That’s where I would practice my piano.
“I was very shy, even before we moved there. I never let most of the kids know where I lived. I told only two or three of my dearest friends. At that age, it would seem so strange.”
Despite her peculiar childhood, Ann-Margret appeared to be the classic girl-next-door when she studied at Northwestern University. During one vacation, she was singing with a local band. George Burns spotted her and made her his personal discovery.
“I was 17. I learned so much from him. He taught me about timing. I love that man. Some performers get angry and go out hostile. They don’t like the audience. This man loves the audience to pieces. You immediately feel the love. He loves rehearsing and so do I. When we work together, we rehearse endlessly.”
From her Las Vegas stints with Burns, Ann-Margret moved on to television, debuting on Jack Benny’s show. Her beauty and vivaciousness turned the heads of movie producers.
“I had always thought I was going to be an entertainer on stage. I’d never even thought of becoming an actress. I’d done a couple of things in high school, but it was always dancing I was working on. I did study later with Jeff Corey [character actor and noted drama coach]. That’s the only training I’ve had.
“But in January of 1961, 20th Century Fox asked me to do a screen test. They did it in two parts. They were testing me for ‘State Fair.’ I did a dramatic scene - that was the Jeanne Craine part. In the second part, I was singing and dancing, ‘Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?’ - that was the Vivian Blaine part. They bleached my hair orange.
“Although I had never thought about being an actress, I knew when I first did that screen test and then started working on the part that I loved it. I loved to submerge myself. I loved how I didn’t have to be myself. As somebody else, I could be very open and free. I love it desperately.”
Ann-Margret won the Blaine role in the “State Fair” remake, but her motion picture debut came in 1961’s “Pocketful of Miracles.”
“The first film I ever did was with Frank Capra. What a great way to start! There were all these veteran actors in the cast - Arthur O’Connell, Edward Everett Horton, Glenn Ford, Peter Falk - eight million people who had all done a lot of work. It was my first film and I was petrified. I didn’t know the difference between long shots, medium shots and close shots. I just wanted to remember my lines.
“Bette Davis played my mother. She said our relationship reminded her of herself and her own mother. We got along great. She was wonderful to me. I was doing a scene with her, just trying to get through my lines, and she screamed, ‘Stop! Stop the cameras! Cut it! Get the hairdresser and make-up artists. Ann’s hair looks lousy. Fix her up!’
“Then she said to me, ‘They’re going to shoot your big close-up. You’ve got to look your best.’ After they did their touching up, she said, ‘Okay, now you can go on!’ She was incredible.”
By 1962, Ann-Margret was already poking fun at her image. She did the voice for a cartoon version of herself on “The Flintstones.”
“That was really fun... Ann Margrock... That was the first time I had done anything like that. They showed me the little caricature and I thought it was so funny. To this day, little kids will call me Ann Margrock.”
Meanwhile, the press was calling her far less appealing names. “I won the Sour Apple Awards two years in a row - ‘62 and ‘63. I still have the awards. They gave them to me, because I wouldn’t talk about my personal life. At that time, I was dating a lot of different men. I was trying to find the right one. the press didn’t think I was serious. They thought I was frivolous and risqué. I knew what I was doing; they didn’t know. I was searching. I wanted something that would last. I didn’t want to have eight marriages.
“I knew I would find the right man someday. With Roger [Roger Smith of “77 Sunset Strip” fame], I knew on the third date.
“My mother didn’t speak to Roger for the first couple of years. She’s a very wise woman and she was extremely worried. I was an only child. I’d never been around children and Roger was divorced with three little children. She saw trouble. But we’ve been really happy. Now I think my mother likes my husband more than me. They’re soul mates.”
What has enabled Ann-Margret’s marriage with Smith to endure for decades, while other Hollywood relationships crumble all around them?
“We’re really nice to each other,” Ann-Margret said. “We laugh a lot. We never take each other for granted. After 22 years together, we know what buttons to press to hurt each other. I never push those buttons and neither does Roger. We thrive on being together 24 hours a day. Many couples wouldn’t like that, but we do.
“When Roger was still an actor and he’d be working in Japan and I’d be working in Europe, it was very difficult. You can’t keep a relationship going by talking on the phone. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder.
“Roger never liked being an actor. He doesn’t like being told what to say or where to stand or what to wear. He likes doing the telling. I like being in front of the camera. He likes being behind it. So it works out great.”
In the mid-’60s, many of her film projects were not working out great. “I don’t regret any of them. I learned what to do and what not to do. I read some of the scripts and didn’t think they were very good, but I thought the people who were handling my career at the time knew what they were doing. I found out that they really didn’t, in a couple of instances.”
Ann-Margret was undeniably a star, but was she an actress? She had hoped that “Bus Riley’s Back In Town” would be a substantial showcase for her talents.
“It was written by William Inge. It was really brutally honest. That was a different era. The powers that be, at the studio, thought that particular role, the way I played it, was too much for the young following I had at the time. A year after completion, they wanted me to redo six scenes. But that would have changed the entire film. I balked. But I wasn’t the type to go to court, so, finally, I agreed to redo three. Inge took his name off the project. They had mutilated his work.”
Ann-Margret’s impact as a sex symbol drew comparisons to Marilyn Monroe. “When I was a member of The Subtle Tones, we were performing in a club and Montgomery Clift and the producers of ‘The Misfits’ came in two or three nights and asked if I wanted to visit the set. I met Gable. I saw Marilyn.
“As it turns out, her stand-in has been my stand-in since 1964. I didn’t plan it that way. That’s just the way it happened.
“I thought it was so horrible that Marilyn Monroe didn’t receive, when she was alive, the respect that she so deeply needed. She got it posthumously. That was a tragedy. Now they call her a great comedienne. She needed that respect to feel proud of herself. It was so awful that people were so unkind when she was alive.”
Roger Smith and Allan Carr began managing Ann-Margret’s career in 1968. After a couple of rocky years, they helped her win the respect she needed.
“There had been some bad films I had stopped reading my reviews in 1962, because it just hurt too much. I became a recluse. I had really lost completely whatever little confidence I had. But Roger had enough confidence for the both of us. He made me feel more comfortable as a performer.”
Ann-Margret’s performance in “Carnal Knowledge” earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
“When I read the script, I knew right away this was going to be a killer. I knew immediately what depths I had to go to, to portray Bobbi Templeton honestly. I was so happy to have been given the chance to do that.”
She knew she was ready to handle the challenge. “I did a couple of very dramatic things early in my career. In 1964, I did ‘Once A Thief.’ It was extremely dramatic, one of the most demanding roles I’ve ever done. Ralph Nelson was the director. He did ‘Lilies of the Field.’ It also starred Alain Delon, Van Heflin and Jack Palance. But not many people saw that movie. So even though my performance in ‘Carnal Knowledge’ shocked a lot of people, it wasn’t as big a transition as it seemed. I had been working and working at it, getting more confidence as I went along.”
Ann-Margret received a Golden Globe and a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the 1975 rock-opera “Tommy.” She played the title character’s mother. “It was wonderful working with Peter Townshend. That man is brilliant. He really is. I hadn’t seen ‘Tommy’ on stage. I had just listened to the album over and over and over again. I was crazy about it. I went to England and spent many hours with Peter, getting his ideas about the character. I wanted to play her exactly as he had written her.”
Television offered Ann-Margret plum roles. She gave a profoundly moving performance as a dying mother in “Who Will Love My Children?”
“She was a heroine. That was the strongest character I’ve played. I had goose bumps when I met the real family. The oldest daughter, who was 14 when Lucille died, was exactly the way I portrayed her mother - peaceful and serene, with this incredible dignity and strength. I loved it on the set, having all the child actors calling me, ‘Mommy.’ I don’t have any children of my own.”
Remaking a film classic is usually an exercise in futility, but Ann-Margret’s mesmerizing performance as Blanche DuBois, in the TV movie version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” was every bit as memorable as Vivien Leigh’s revered portrayal of the character.
“I never thought of the original. In England, they do ‘Hamlet’ eight million times. Americans don’t do that. If something’s really good, why can’t it be done again? We all have our own interpretations.
“I felt so thrilled to get the part. It was a role I’d wanted to do for years. I wanted to find out what there was in me that was like Blanche and what was unlike her.
“I worked with a coach on the accent. I studied women down there - all walks of life, all age groups. I taped them and listened at home, at work.
“Luckily, we shot everything in sequence. The last four days, after we’d been working for two months, we shot the scene where they’re just about to take me away. It was overpowering. I really thought I was Blanche.
“I was sitting in my trailer. Finally, one of the doctors who had been helping me, came to the set and she explained to me, ‘You really must remember, this is just a film.’ The director came in and said, ‘Remember, this is just a film... but I want you to stay in that state for another 48 hours.’
“It had never been a problem for me before - my retaining myself... except for a little bit in ‘Carnal Knowledge,’ where, six months afterwards, I was still having nightmares about that tragic lady. But with ‘Streetcar,’ those last three or four days, I lost who I was. That had never happened before. It was frightening.”
Ann-Margret has suffered through many frightening ordeals in her life. She’s endured quantities of physical and emotional pain that would have caused less resilient souls to wrap themselves in blankets of self-pity.
Sitting on the huge stage, she looks as fragile as a Lalique vase, but she’s managed to keep smiling bravely through professional and personal setbacks.
She’s never been able to satisfy her yearning to bear a child. In 1972, in Lake Tahoe, a fall during her nightclub act, eerily like the one that had injured her father, shattered Ann-Margret’s face. She was in a coma for three days. Two months later, however, the gritty lady was back on stage in Vegas. She and Roger Smith have had to deal with his nerve disease.
As Smith beamed proudly from the front row, he appeared quite fit. With metal-rimmed glasses, a deep tan, a rich head of grey hair and a dashing mustache, he’s still strikingly handsome.
Ann-Margret cherishes her time with him. But she also looks forward to finding stimulating new acting assignments. Like other top actresses, she isn’t averse to putting together her own productions.
How does she decide what’s right for her? “It’s always the script first. I’m such an emotional person. There has to be a gut reaction immediately.”
She’s especially attracted to heavy dramatic roles. “The emotions can be painful. It’s not easy to dredge them up. But it’s so rewarding.
“I just want to continue doing good work. I love that Marc Chagall quote: ‘Hard work justifies my life.’
“Making films is not a new experience for me. If I’m going to get up at four in the morning and get home at eight at night, I want it to be something I’m really dying to do, a project that really means something.”
Ann-Margret’s screen career has meant a great deal to countless fans. She earned every bit of her success.
“I’m a survivor. And I’ve got the scars to prove it.”