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Roger Smith

Cold Lunch With
Hollywood's Hottest Property

Our man interviews Ann-Margret and discovers she's an exciting gal who wants to go places - in a hurry.

It is the seventh take of a smouldering love scene from "Bus Rile's Back In Town" and director Harvey Hart, perhaps because he is fresh from Toronto and this is his first Hollywood movie, still has not broken for lunch. Ann-Margret's cheeseburger on dark rye has been growing cold in her dressing room for almost an hour.

I ordered chicken on white - plain - and I am prepared to swap with her if she likes although I hate cheeseburgers, even when they are hot. Indigestion is a small price to pay for the pleasure of a comely and sizzling woman with long hair the color of melted copper. Ann-Margret is making love on the set in the deserted cocktail bar of a small Midwest town. We can hear her voice, which is soft and well modulated, but we cannot watch her during the takes. There is a "No Line of Sight" order on the sound stage today, which means visitors cannot stand where the performers can see them - too distracting. I am a few feet away, standing in the cold gloom behind the sets explaining to publicist Gail Gifford why the Quebec separatists want to separate, which she as a Californian finds hard to understand.

In the stillness after the bell has shrilled, I slip my notes silently out of my pocket and wonder again what to ask Ann-Margret when we meet. Young stars are sometimes the hardest to interview. Less has happened to them, they are often less articulate and sometimes downright beautiful, dull and unquotable.

I have seen Ann-margret only once before and that was the celebrated night she first set Hollywood on its ear; the night of the 1962 Academy Awards in the Santa Monica civic auditorium when this unknown with the red hair came on to sing one of the songs nominated for an Oscar and so electrified the audience with her high-voltage version of "Bachelor in Paradise" that Bob Hope's best ad lib was barbecued.

Ann-Margret, I knew, was still the hottest property in town, a song-and-dance girl who was skyrocketing toward the kind of stardom that jades everywhere have said was gone forever. Agreement is unusually positive in this city of knives. Everyone I spoke to said the same thing: "This girl is going to be very, very big!" Hedda thought she was "positively sensational"; Louella called her the "next authentic star" and director George Sidney made so bold as to say she was "the greatest potential musical star this business will ever have".

I knew she had been dubbed "the female Elvis Presley" because of her dance abandon and the way she comes on with a song; and if this was no particular recommendation, I had seen her commit cinematic grand larceny when she stole scene after scene in the 1963 musical, "Bye Bye Birdie", that spritely spoof of a rock'n'roll star's triumphal tour.

I knew she was 22, going on 23; born in Sweden and educated in Winnetka, Ill. I also knew she had been a cheerleader at New Trier High School and a fill-in vocalist at 16 in the Terrace Grill of the Hotel Muehlbach in Kansas City, Mo. And I knew that Universal Studios' color photographs of her revealed a startling resemblance to Rita Hayworth in her zesty heyday, 20 years ago.

But what she was really like, I had no idea.

Some motion picture stars are "on" all the time and consider a magazine interview as much a performance as any scene before the cameras. Some are cellophane-wrapped in press agentry to keep the illusion untarnished. It is a matter of some detection then, to separate the real woman from the image.

They break for lunch at last and the star without a surname (it is impossible to be formal with her because you can't call her Miss anything, even if you want to) walks back to her small dressing room on the set in the cerulean blue swimsuit and short white terry-cloth robe she wears informally in the love scene at the bar.

She is not "on", happily. You can almost see her switch off. There is no tension along the firm and excellent line of her jaw. No desperate E for effort to be scintillating, or seductive or anything else, is discernible. The green eyes are warm and level. She apologizes simply for the long delay, although it is she who has been working so hard. racking her way through an emotional scene seven times over at the end of a six-hour morning.

She slips on a red kimono, sits down and decides to stay with the lukewarm cheeseburger. Her siamese kitten climbs on her lap and the small bells on her collar tinkle.

"Her name is Lillan, which is Swedish for Little One", Ann-Margret explains. "She is a lilac point Siamese. You can see the lilac color just inside each ear. She was given me by the director on my last picture 'Kitten With a Whip'".

"Kitten With a Whip" is a tense drama of a girl who escapes from reformatory, hides in a deserted house and discovers a fellow tenant, a man. "Bus Riley's Back In Town" is no musical either. It is straight drama; an original film scenario by playwright William Inge. Like others of his plays, "Bus Stop", "Picnic", "A Loss Of Roses", it concerns the emotions stirred in ordinary people in small Midwest towns by visitors, drifters or, in this instance, a sailor returning home.

"After this is finished, I'm going to have to do a musical", Ann-Margret says with conviction. "I couldn't take it emotionally if I had to do another drama right away. It drains me completely. I go home every night pooped".

"You see I don't know much about acting. I'm an entertainer, or that is how I have always thought of myself in the past. So what I do in a film such as this is to try to react as honestly as I can to what people say to me in each situation. I always have genuine emotions. I really feel all the things the character I play feels. I love the experiences I have. I enjoy feeling all these emotions which I haven't experienced in real life, but it is extremely exhausting this way".

"This is only the fourth day on the set and already it feels like two months. I only have 12 days's shooting on this picture, but practically every scene is a love scene or at least a very emotional one. So it is a very concentrated amount of feelings".

Her co-star who plays the title role is Michael Parks, a recently-discovered actor who is reportedly both tempestous and unpredictable. In the screenplay she has spurned him for a better match and he has gone to sea to forget. When he returns she is married, but otherwise still very interested and patently available.

"It could only happen in the movies", says Ann-Margret, a smile slowly illuminating her face, which in repose is almost grave. "Our very first scene we're in bed together. It felt funny because I had just met him for the first time at the studio two days before.

"My inhibitions all leave me when I start to sing and dance, but the same thing doesn't happen when I act. It is a very different thing then. I feel the way I would if it were really happening to me. I don't know whether this is the way it should be, but it is how it is".

If I give the impression that Ann-Margret does rattle on, I should not. She talks with a quiet candor and often pauses to think before answering a question.

I asked her how it felt to have a career that had taken off with such dramatic dispatch and is even now booming through the upper atmosphere. For Ann-Margret is inked, as they say in the jargon of the business, to a fistfull of contracts that would have been the envy of the great stars in the so-called golden days of Hollywood. No single studio owns and moulds her. The $1 million deal she has with MGM is counter-balanced by a four-year contract with 20th Century Fox, and iit in turn by a three-picture deal at Columbia, and so on and so on, to say nothing of a turntable full of records and a loaded in-basket of offers from Broadway to which her managers reply: "Maybe, mister. But not before 1966!"

How does it feel to have that kind of tiger by the tail? Ann-Margret doesn't know.

"I don't ever want to sit down and think about it. I'm scared to", she readily admits. "I just want to keep on going. I've got nine pictures to do after this one is finished and I simply say to myself: 'That should hold you for two years at least. You'll be busy enough'.

"I love to come to work every day. It's a gas! And if I can go home completely exhausted, I'm happy. Otherwise I'd often be tied up in one great big knot. Speed unwinds me. I don't drink or smoke, so when I'm nervous or tense I go out on my motorbike and ride around for an hour or two. That relaxes me".

Ann-Margret isn't sure which picture she will start next. It may be Irving Berlin's "Say It With Music" at MGM with Robert Goulet, also maybe, as her co-star, but anyway, in between she is going to learn a fast sport she hasn't tried before - surfing. Malibu beach is close at hand, but she isn't going to learn there.

"I'm going to go away and learn to do it properly first", she explains. "I'm going to Hawaii, to a quiet beach where I can concentrate".

Ann-Margret went on a very different journey last winter, home with her parents, Gus and Anna Olsson, to Sweden for the first time since they sailed for America in 1946. Ann-Margret went to Stockholm where she was born and went north, almost to the borders of Lapland, to the place where she lived as a small girl.

"Oh man, it was so exciting", said Ann-Margret. "Expressen, a Swedish newspaper, paid our way and flew us there in a helicopter. We couldn't see it for a long time and then there it was below us, Valsjobyn, little teensy town with only 185 people including cows and horses. As we came closer we could see a clump of people and reindeer nearby. We landed right in the middle of town on three feet of fresh snow. There had been three boys and two girls I'd been very close to when I was a little girl and they were all there.

"I just burst out crying because I didn't relize how deep my roots were until that moment".

It was in Valsjobyn, when she was four, that Ann-Margret sang folk songs while her uncle played the concertina. She determined to become an entertainer. "I've been single-minded about it and I've had to strive to achieve it ever since", Ann-Margret explains. "Thank heavens, my parents understood my desires and my ambitions and never tried to make me into anything else. It was just the opposite; they helped me in every way they could and this wasn't always easy. My father is an electrician and although we were never poor, we didn't have much money to spare for all the singing and dancing lessons I took".

Ann-Margret has not yet married.

"When I find I can't live without somebody, I'll want to marry him. That hasn't happened yet. He's got to dominate the household. He's got to be very strong inside and tell me what to do, because I can't stand making the decisions", says Ann-Margret, who seems anything but indecisive. "And like every woman, I suppose, I want someone who will love me more than anything else in the world".

She did not say so, but I gather she is content to wait. Right now she is busy going somewhere else - at high speed.


By Stephen Franklin


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