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Roger Smith

Fair lady
No looking back at roles for Ann-Margret

It was in "State Fair" that Ann-Margret unleashed her indelible sex-kitten persona on the world - a hair-lashing, air-clawing, hip-quaking va-voomosity that even today pops off the screen with the inhibition of napalm. She wriggles and writhes like a proto-Charo, leaving in her wake smoke and cinders.

Filmed in Dallas in 1961, this "State Fair" was the third screen version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It was Ann-Margret's first movie, though it was released after her second movie, Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles," in which she played Bette Davis' daughter.

Directed by mostly actor Jose Ferrer, the carefully updated rendition relocates the story of teenage hormonal awakening at a State Fair from Iowa to Texas. Pat Boone plays Wayne Frake, farm-boy suitor of a precocious Ann-Margret, and Bobby Darin plays Jerry Dundee, who couples with actress Pamela Tiffin. Alice Faye and Wally Cox also star.

Ann-Margret was 18 years old when she made "State Fair." Her memories of it are fond if hazy, yet they animate a conversation we had by phone this week. Talking from her Los Angeles home, where she lives with longtime husband Roger Smith, the actress breaks into song. She speaks Swedish. She laughs a lot. And she knows exactly how to charm ("You sound like you're 20 years old!").

She was born Ann-Margaret Olsson in Sweden in 1941, and, at age 5, was brought to the United States, where she promptly plunged into performing. She's starred in scores of films and television series, earning two Oscar nominations, for "Carnal Knowledge" and "Tommy," and winning five Golden Globes.

After accepting the Star of Texas Award on behalf of "State Fair" tonight at the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards, Ann-Margret will get right back to work. She's not even close to finished, she says.

American-Statesman: You've made a few films in Texas, including "State Fair" and "Middle Age Crazy," and you've toured extensively through the state. What do you think of this place?

Ann-Margret: I love Texas. When I made "State Fair" in Dallas, they put me on a promotional tour. I did 13 cities in Texas and I had a great time. I still have some white cowboy boots from either Lubbock or Waco. And they still fit.

What's your favorite number in "State Fair"? The one that stands out is your first one ("Isn't It Kind of Fun"), which explodes like a bomb.

(Belting a tune) "Isn't it kind of fun! Da-da-da-da-de-da . . .!" The choreography was done by Nick Castle, who was a very, very famous choreographer, bless his soul. It was wonderful. In those days we had time to rehearse.

Wasn't that number pretty racy for a cornfed musical?

Yes, yes (laughing). Let me tell you about my screen test for 20th Century Fox for "State Fair." I did a scene, but it was for the good girl, the Margy Frake part. But the second half of the screen test was me, just in a leotard and sweater, doing "Bill Bailey." There I was, with my long dark brown hair going halfway down my back: (belting) "Won't you come hooome, Bill Bailey!" They saw this and they bleached my hair and gave me the part of Emily Porter, the bad girl.

Were you happy about that?

Sure! I love playing bad girls.

Describe Emily. She's hipper than anyone else in the movie. When Pat Boone asks you if you're a bad girl, you respond: "Well, I wouldn't run a Gallup Poll on it."

She was from the wrong side of the tracks. She was certainly different, especially the hair and the clothes.

Even Boone drools over you. His character, a car buff, tells you, "You're custom built!"

In the movie? Oh, how cute. That's great.

What was Boone like? He's earned a reputation as this Victorian prude.

He's incredible. You see him in the film (shirtless) and his body is amazing. I've seen him in black leather. Quite the stunner.

Is he as goody-two-shoes as he seems?

He's not. He's not at all. But he does have strong, strong faith.

Tell me more about your experiences in Texas. What attracts you to the state?

The people. The Texans have always been so gracious to me, so kind. I did "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" all through Texas, as well as my own show. I just have a warm, loving spot in my heart for the state of Texas and the people. I've actually dated a couple of Texans.

Do you know much about the award you'll be receiving?

Yeah, I've been reading about it and the Austin Film Society, which got started in 1985. Now, could you tell me how to pronounce Richard Linklater's name? Is it Linklatter?

I say "Linklater," as in "later." Have you seen his films?

Tell me what they are.

A few are "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "Waking Life," "Before Sunset," "School of Rock."

My goodness! Well, I'm really amazed about Austin. Something like 40 films have been made there and now there's five hangars and 20 acres (at Austin Studios). Wow! That's a wonderful place for independent filmmakers to go. Bravo!

This Texas Hall of Fame honor is probably the 500th award you've been handed.

I feel blessed. When I look around here ��� I'm in my office ��� and I see all these wonderful (honors), I feel so blessed. I wanted to perform since I was 4 years old in Valsj��byn, Sweden, but I never thought I'd be in movies. I always thought I would be on stage, because I love that. But I must say that when I did that screen test for "State Fair" I really felt comfortable. I felt comfortable being another person. It's hard for me.

The first time I was on stage doing my own show, I said four words: "Thank you very much." I was shy and didn't want to speak.

Wait a minute. Ann-Margret, shy?

Yep. You can ask my friends.

So you're able to embody an entirely different person or character and that gives you the strength?

That's exactly right. (Belting, again) "Isn't it kind of fun!" I mean, that's not Ann-Margaret Olsson.

Do you ever watch some of your films, like "Viva Las Vegas," and say "Oh, my gosh, who is that?"

I don't watch my movies. I only watch them in the screening room or if I have to watch it on an opening night. What I like to do is leave after 10 minutes. I have to let the movie and character go. For me, it's over.

It's hard to watch?

Oh, please! My hands get ice-cold because I'm nervous. It's hard for me. I don't know who that person is up there.

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by Chris Garcia

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