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Roger Smith

What Ever Happened to Ann-Margret?

In black tights and thigh-high boots, Ann-Margret kicks a leg over her lavender Harley-Davidson Sportster and lets loose a she-devil growl. The Rolling Stones, blasting on the boom box, have gotten her motor running, and she'd love nothing more than to cruise on up to Mulholland Drive, high above Los Angeles, letting the wind whip through her hair, still flaming red.

For today, though, the actress will have to be satisfied with being photographed on her favorite ride in the driveway of Hedgerow Farm, the Beverly Hills home she shares with her husband, Roger Smith. "I'm reckless," she admits. "If I haven't changed by now, I never will."

At 65, the Kitten With a Whip moves too fast to slow down. She recently starred as Jennifer Aniston's mom in The Break-Up, and for the holidays she will be seen onscreen as Santa's mother-in-law in The Santa Clause 3, with Tim Allen. She keeps on making hit records, including a recent Grammy-nominated gospel CD. And 46 years after she first stepped onto a Las Vegas stage as George Burns's hip-swiveling protégée, she and her dancers will play the Strip in November, something she does several times a year. "Yeah, I'm still hoofing," she says. "I just feel really good. As long as I feel this energy and this passion, I'm gonna do it."

Hedgerow Farm, the former estate of Bogie and Bacall, sounds more glamorous than it is: the rambling house has a decidedly lived-in feel, with four cats who jump up on the kitchen counters and little stone bunnies on the lawn. Smith is never far from his wife's side, quietly puttering in the background today, and the couple's frequent eye contact says volumes about their closeness. "Do you know that Roger and I have been together for 42 years?" Ann-Margret asks, sending an affectionate glance his way. "And we've been married for 39." Having managed her career since she was an ingénue, Smith stuck by his wife through her descent into and recovery from alcohol abuse; an overdose of painkillers; a near-fatal 22-foot fall from a stage in Lake Tahoe; and more than one motorcycle crackup (in one wipeout she broke a shoulder and four ribs). The steadfastness has been reciprocal: she helped raise his three children from his first marriage (she and Smith have no children together) and has supported his long battle against the debilitating neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis. The key to their marital endurance? "You have to both want it to work," she says. "And we laugh—we still laugh."

'You come in as an ingénue, then you play the romantic leading lady, then the mother. Then you do the grandmother—if you stay in the industry.'
In America, show business sex symbols aren't supposed to be this resilient. A sheltered child whose family immigrated from Sweden when she was young, Ann-Margret was a star at 22, when she burst onto the scene, all hot pants and flying hair, as the love-struck teen in Bye Bye Birdie. The following year she met her match when she sidled up to Elvis in Viva Las Vegas. "Music ignited a fiery pent-up passion inside Elvis and inside me," she wrote in her autobiography, My Story (Putnam, 1994). "We looked at each other move and saw virtual mirror images. When Elvis thrust his pelvis, mine slammed forward too." They were briefly sweethearts, riding their motorcycles together all around Los Angeles, unrecognized, and stayed friends until he died.

Typecast as a camp goddess à la Marilyn Monroe, Ann-Margret made a slew of forgettable and sometimes cheesy films. Then came her Oscar-nominated role in Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge (1971), which one critic compared to "watching Minnie Mouse play Ophelia—brilliantly." Since then she has done everything from portraying Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire to slithering through baked beans in a dress slit up to there in Ken Russell's musical Tommy, which earned her a second Oscar nomination. She has a horror thriller, mem-(o)-re, expected out in 2007, in which she plays a—well, she won't tell, but she's bad, really bad. "I'll tell you, I was scared to go to work!" she says.

Says her mem-(o)-re costar Dennis Hopper, "It was a very difficult role, and she did really fine work with some heavy drama."

On this afternoon visit, Ann-Margret displays the marvelous juxtaposition of smoldering sensuality and girl-next-door sweetness that defines her as an entertainer. A radiantly healthy grandma of five, she works out with her trainer in her home gym, her hips churning to pounding rock music. But as soon as the music stops, her demeanor reverts to demure, her voice soft. Her graciousness is legendary; she has apparently never forgotten a name or gone on record with a mean word about anyone. In her old-fashioned parlance, male colleagues are gentlemen, as in "I was working with these wonderful gentlemen," referring to her seriously rowdy Santa Clause 3 costars, including—in addition to Allen—Martin Short, Alan Arkin, and Peter Boyle.

"We all acted like fools," says Allen of the Ann-Margret effect while making the movie. "We stared at her like it was high school. For a male of a certain age—those of us between 40 and 60—she's such an iconic sex symbol, and we were carrying so much of that excitement. She let us tell bawdy jokes, although she's really quite innocent. She's like the sexiest girl in high school, who doesn't know it."

Although Ann-Margret's deportment may be impeccable, she's a good sport. "Oh, I had a great time," she says of the Santa Clause 3 shoot. "They teased the heck out of me."

How does she feel when she hears youngsters such as Lindsay Lohan say they worship her as a role model? "I'm always very happy that I can give them some sort of inspiration," Ann-Margret says. "I want to be a good example, no matter what age I am." Rather than rail against the unfairness of the entertainment industry's rejection of older women, she says she's grateful for the opportunities she does have. "I never expected any of this," she says. "Age is just a natural progression. You come in as an ingénue, then you play the romantic leading lady, then the mother. Then you do the grandmother—that's only if you stay in the industry."

She credits her parents, Gustav and Anna Olsson, and extended family of aunts and uncles who immigrated to Fox Lake, Illinois, with passing on their robust genes and a positive attitude. "I was raised very well. There was love all around me, and discipline. I had a mother and a father who were so energetic. Daddy and Mother were skiing into their 70s. They loved sports, and they loved life. And where I came from, if someone said they were going to do something, they did it."

The Smiths spend as much time as they can with their children and grandchildren, who were raised with a dose of Swedish discipline: "I'm the Wicked Stepmother of the West, and Roger is the softy." When they are not on the road, they are homebodies, rarely venturing out to Hollywood parties or restaurants, preferring to screen a movie for family and friends or watch a football game. ("We're huge Raiders fans," Ann-Margret says.) She has no hobbies, doesn't garden, can't sew on a button, and has to ask someone how to steam broccoli when Roger isn't around to prepare meals. "I don't cook, and I don't care," she says.

She holds close those who knew her when. "I stay in touch with friends I've had since sixth grade. Sharon Lauver from Cincinnati, Ohio; Joanie Strummell from Chicago, Illinois..." She recites her list of pals with perfect recall. Because she cherishes her privacy, Ann-Margret limits her public appearances to causes she cares deeply about. She is chairperson of the Muscular Dystrophy Association's Myasthenia Gravis Division, for example, and gladly attends its fundraisers.

Meanwhile, her zest for performing remains undimmed. "Since I was four years old I wanted to be an entertainer, and that's how I contribute." She mists up when she describes how she has included a song for the families of soldiers in her current stage repertoire: "I'm doing 'You'll Never Know,'" an old standard, she says, then starts to sing: "'You'll never know just how much I miss you....' Because I feel so strongly for our vets, for the military. I went to Vietnam twice, in '66 and '68, and our troops mean so much to me. I want them to know that I admire and respect them and they have my loyalty."

In the '60s Ann-Margret was an antifeminist symbol. But in the fullness of time, it is clear she actually embodies feminine strength. After all her career and personal ups and downs, she has rewritten her own script, choosing reinvention and renewal rather than the kind of tragic end that befell so many of her contemporaries. Today she wistfully recalls one of those departed friends, "E.P." (Elvis, who else?), along with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, her costars from the Grumpy Old Men movies. "They are all in here," she says, putting her hand over her chest, "in my heart."

Show business gypsies, the Smiths will be leaving soon on another tour, taking along their favorite cat, Harley, to make their hotel rooms feel more like home. Does Smith think his wife will ever retire? "She once said something about quitting at 39," he recalls with a smile. "And that was it. She never mentioned it again."

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by Nancy Griffin

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