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Roger Smith

Ann-Margret, Suddenly Blooming

A tough road led from "Sex Kitten" to big breakthrough "I'm frisky and spunky tonight", Ann-Margret exclaims, "but tomorrow morning I'll be amouse".

The 30-year-old entertainer is in the best of spirits. Seated in the back of a limousine on a late-night expedition to a Manhattan delicatessen, she mugs and jokes and does bits of songs and looks benignly as an aide uses the butt of a cigarette to singe off some runs in her stockings, which had been heavy duty on a concert stage in Montreal five hours earlier. Things have been going well for Ann-Margret Olsson lately and she hasn't been burnt.

At the delicatessen, while Ann-Margret attacks a pancake-caviar combo, a fan approaches. But this is no mere enthusiast, no autograph hunter. An intelligent man who has seen an intelligent film, he is brief and to the point.

"I wanted to tell you that you were the best thing going in 'Carnal Knowledge' ", he says. "I'm not putting down Jack Nicholson or Art Garfunkel either. You were in some heavy company. But I thought you were the best. Keep working."

"Thanks", she answers. "You've made my day." She means it. More than a day, a career has pivoted around Ann-Margret's surprising portrayal of Bobbie Templeton, an overripe actress-model in the new Mike Nichols film. While her exhuberant singing and spirited body English have made her a night club act a top attraction in places like Las Vegas, her record in films has ranged, until now, from mixed, to awful. But her performance as the melancholic Bobbie has helped make "Carnal Knowledge" a hit and herself a star.

Ten years ago, Ann-Margret Olsson was Pat Boone's sweetheart in "State Fair". In "Bye Bye Birdie" she was America's sweetheart, the nice girl with the great body. She could sing and dance and act a little and people called her "promising". But in a few busy years - during which she turned her hair 28 different colors - the promise was scattered and lost in a numbing series of terrible roles. She had a knack of turning up in the wrong film at the wrong time.

Perhaps 1966 was the worst year. There she was in "The Swinger", and her appearence in this otherwise forgotten opus is remembered (with regret) only becuse of a gaudy, widely ballyhooed sequence which saw Ann-Margret's body painted from head to toe. A critic more interested in acting than body-painting called her "a pale faced creature with streaming red hair and over-inflated mammary glands who emits strange sounds through her nose". An ill-advised remake of "Stagecoach" fared no better, and her performance in "Murderers Row" earned her a reputation for "octopus cuteness". At year's end, a critic included on a list of New Year's wishes the hope that "Ann-Margret would stop acting like Everyman's Erotica, blow her nose and get back to being a girl".

"They had it big and they lost it", says Allan Carr, the manager who entered Ann-Margret's career after this trio of disasters. "Instead of the Jane Fonda role in "Cat Ballou", she did "Kitten with a whip". She had a chance at "Bonnie and Clyde" but never read the scripts. She had one bad role after another, and they stopped taking her seriously in Hollywood".

Ann-Margret doesn't want to talk about those years. "No one deliberately tries to make a bad movie", she says. "I made some bad movies and some good ones. I couldn't tell you which was which. I've never seen any of them more than once".

Soon this tone, deliberately detached and nonchalant, fails her and the hurt shows. She looks across the aisles of a plane, fidgets with an empty mini wine bottle and confides: "I've been rapped so many times. I stopped reading my reviews long ago. The critics had an image of me, and they wouldn't accept any other. To them I was an exploited object, someone with no feelings, no emotions, no depth. I was a cartoon character. A joke".

She pauses for a moment as if debating: Why go through this? Then the green eyes rivet on something that is distant, but permanent. "Those", she says quietly, "are wounds that may not heal".

Though she no longer needs to look aggressively sexy in every situation, as she did in the days when she was known as the sex kitten, Ann-Margret has not forgotten the advantages of posing langourosly on a long living room couch. Beyond that, she really like cats.

Ann-Margret, Suddenly Blooming cont.

"Carnal Knowledge" changed all this and it is hard not to believe that the exploitation and waste in her own career didn't contribute to her film portrait of an exploited, wasted woman, the unhappy mistress whom food and work and sex fail to satisfy. Ironically, all the trivial roles - the legs, the breasts the body paint - prepared her for this one bitter tableau.

Ann-Margret figures she caught director Mike Nichol's eye because of her "vulnerability", her penchant for hurt. Her husband and comanager, Roger Smith, adds: "You don't think Faye Dunaway or Dyan Cannon would have stood for a script with all that crap from Jack Nicholson? They'd have told him where to go. But not Ann-Margret. She sat there and took it. She took it for years".

Author Jules Feiffer had seen just one Ann-Margret TV special when Mike Nichols mentioned her for the role of Bobbie Templeton. This gave him some pause, but he was dazzled by her performance. "She did some things that had nothing to do with the script. There's that look in her face when she's making up in the bathroom before her big fight with Jack Nicholson. She has such a look of marital rift, of rage, of anger, of bitterness. Her whole face becomes a fist".

In previous films, "acting" had been fun for Ann-Margret and movie sets were always a ball. This was not the case in Vancouver, where much of "Carnal Knowledge" was filmed. Deliberately, overeating, taking birth control pills for the first time, she grew fat and busty. The further she sank into her role, the more nervous and depressed she became.

"It was very bleak and rainy when we made the film", she says. "I'd go into my dressing room and not speak to anyone. I'd stare at the words in the script and at the walls. At night I'd go home and eat dinner, and for the first time in my life I took sleeping pills". A diet of grapefruit, steak and plenty of water has begun to take off weight. She is at work on a TV special called "Dames at Sea", a frothy musical confection spoofing the Busby Berkeley productions of the '30s. She plays Ruby, a sunshine girl who sings and dances away the Depression and in one night captures both stardom and a husband. She couldn't be farther away from "Carnal Knowledge".

Still, the flirtation with tragedy and failure continues. It is interesting that she uses the same stand-in as did Marilyn Monroe, that she treasures a mirror that once belonged to Marilyn, and that she talks of Marilyn in words that could also apply to Bobbie Templeton or - and she doesn't resist the analogy - to herself: "She was a very healthy girl when she came on the scene, physically and mentally. Years went by, people picked on her. She was terribly abused, for no reason. She became sick - and posthumously they gave her acclaim".

She talks of Monroe. And the pathos and waste of "Carnal Knowledge" still nag at her.

"I can't get that movie out of my system", Ann-Margret says. "I can feel it in here", she says, pointing at her head. "And here", pointing at her heart. "And here", pointing to her insides. She is not naturally inclined to dark words or somber thoughts. If she had her way she'd remain "frisky and spunky" at night and a quiet expressionless mouse in the morning, accepting the mixed baggage of roles and luck that has come her way. "I always have done what I was told, I have always been completely dependent on men, from my father on".

The morning after the delicatessen celebration, on the way to a taping of "Dames at Sea", she becomes steadily more grim and quiet as she gets nearer the studio. Her husband notices this and says: "Ann-Margret's like a little animal attempting to protect itself. She sits in the corner and figures that if she doesn't say anything, we'll all go away and leave her here".

Frisky and spunky at night, a mouse in the morning, Ann-margret doesn't like heavy talk. She communicates with a song, a pout, a grin, a kick or a twist of the body. Born in Sweden, raised in Illinois, she's now a California girl who drives a motorcycle in the Mojave, has a home in a canyon near Los Angeles, and likes to play with kittens. She considers parties "a big put-on", and talks wistfully about having a child.

If she were asked to list her occupation, she would say "entertainer", not actress. If she chose her favorite town, it would be Las Vegas. If she could pick her best act, it would be as a singer-dancer before a live audience.

"It's incredible", Ann-Margret reflects. "After ten years of working my head off, people now say I have talent. All along they've said the only thing I could do was shake my seat".

She still doesn't completely believe in herself. "Do you think you're a star, Ann-Margret?", she is asked.

She pauses and her silence stretches into minutes. "That's a doozie of a question", she says.

More silence. She never really does answer. But she shakes her head from side to side - "no" - beautifully.

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