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A great many people in Hollywood were taken by surprise last summer when Mike Nichols, the director, signed Ann-Margret as a lead in his new movie, "Carnal Knowledge". One only applauds what Nichols decides. So the moment he thrust his imprimatur upon her, all those who had marked her down as perhaps a less-than-distinguished actress - a sexpot. an addle-headed teeny-bopper, a Kitten with a Whip (the title of one of her pictures) - all happily acknowledged how wrong they must have been. "He knows something the rest of us don't know", is the way Sue Mengers, Ann-Margret's agent, triumphantly sums up the popular attitude. "She has a new panache because Mike Nichols had the foresight to make it chic to hire her".
Since then, everything has been going her way. She's had to turn down three major movie roles because she was too busy. Vogue graciously bestowed its endorsement, assigning Bert Stern, one of America's most stylish photographers, to take pictures of her. In New York, she acquired a circle of new friends, according to her husband, Roger Smith, once the star of TV's "77 Sunset Strip". Among others, it includes Charlotte Ford, the heiress. Smith and Allan Carr, who jointly manage Ann-Margret, discussed with David Merrick, the producer, the possibility of converting "Some Like it Hot", the Marilyn Monroe Hollywood success, into a Broadway musical for Ann-Margret. Japanese television asked her to record a commercial. An NBC-TV spectacular was in the works for the 1971-72 season. And best of all, her million-dollar nightclub show, "AM/PM", was a virtual sellout for four weeks last March at the International Hotel in Las Vegas and will return there for four weeks more in the autumn. A smaller version broke a house record at the Fountainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach at Easter.
"It's her day in the sun", says Carr, a gleeful former 300-pounder-plus, who is cutting his weight in half in his campaign to put her there. "If it hadn't been for her dumb (previous) managers, she'd have been there five years ago".
The center of all this excitement is a simple, sensual Swedish girl - gentle, affectionate and worried to death that people don't love her. It's probably true that not everybody does. Apart from "The Cincinnatti Kid", "Bye Bye Birdie" and "R.P.M.", reviews of her pictures have tended to be more snide than enthusiastic. People seem to laugh at sex symbols rather than love them, and Ann-Margret hears them laughing. Once, a woman marched up to her and demanded, "Are you Ann-Margret?" The answer was a blithe, teen-age yes. "Well, you're a little bitch", the woman said. Now, she says, "I stay home rather than get hurt".
Ann-Margret still blushes in the presence of four-letter words. If somebody talks about Women's Lib, she will express her disapproval with a phrase like "bull feathers", and she uses the word "seat" to describe what she shakes when she turns her back to the audience. She may bring out the animal in the male, but no one questions her morals offstage. As a performer, she can be a tigress, a female Elvis Presley. In private, she is just the opposite and, like him, withdrawn. Incidentally, Presley, who was once her boyfriend, brought her a four-foot flower arrangement in the form of a guitar on her most recent opening night in Las Vegas.
Though the two might have had little in common, she identifies with Marilyn Monroe, and in her movies, she even uses Evelyn Moriarty, Marilyn's stand-in. (Jack Nicholson, a co-star in "Carnal Knowledge", finds her in "the same glow of tragedy" that Marilyn had). In "AM/PM", she sings a number about Marilyn called "Does anybody here love Me?", and it always ends in such a flood of sobs that people think it's just an act. "I can't explain it", says Roger Smith. "Maybe she doesn't love herself any more. Maybe she feels she's a bad person. I'm not a psychologist, but I know it's deeper than Marilyn Monroe".
Ann-Margret can be coaxed occasionally to uncover a few jarring experiences that help illuminate her past. Her family brought her to this country from Sweden when she was five. Not long after that, her father, an electrician, had a bad accident and couldn't work. So her mother took a job as a receptionist in a funeral parlour in Wilmette, Ill., and as part of the compensation, the family moved in. During the operating hours of the establishment, Ann-Margret's bedroom was the "family room", accesible only by double doors from the viewing room. She could get into her bed - a couch during the day - only after the mourners had departed, often as late as 1 am. To make matters more Gothic, rats, which spent the day in an adjoining bowling alley, would frequently turn up at night in her room. In constantly recurring dreams about this period of her life, she has fantasies of pits crawling with disgusting animals.
Vietnam, where she has been twice, also turns up in her dreams. Someone asked her how she liked "MASH", the prizewinning film about Korea. "I hated it", she says. "I knew the boys in those hospitals". Another emotional setback was the Sour Apple Award, which the Hollywood Women's Press Club twice handed her as the year's least-cooperative actress. "The dumb managers", says Carr, "taught her never to talk to the press. What did they expect?"
The circumstances of her wedding in may, 1967, to Roger Smith, are also high on the list of experiences she wishes she could forget - but can't. It was to have been an elopement, no family, not even best friends. Roger telephoned the Riviera Hotel in Las vegas to make the arrangements, and thought he had sworn everybody to secrecy. So they were astonished, on arrival, to be greeted by signs in the hotel lobby that read: "Welcome Roger and Ann-Margret". Even more surprising was a corps of 30 shirt-sleeved, cigar-smoking newsmen (as she remembers them) complete with flash and television equipment, who dogged them straight through the ceremony. In tears the entire time, Ann-Margret wanted to walk out on her "television wedding", but Roger, the hotel manager and the gambling-pit boss who doubled as best man, persuaded her to go through with it. When the frozen wedding cake was wheeled in, Roger and Ann-Margret bolted, "Keep it", she told them.
A month and a half later, she was back again, singing at the Riviera, all smiles. "She forgives easily" says Roger. Someone noted that the experience, however painful, may have been worth $1 million in publicity. Besides, though they never gamble, Las Vegas is the Smiths' favourite town. This puzzles their friends, because during a month's engagement, Ann-Margret may emerge from the hotel only once or twice. "My first responsibility is to the audience", she explains, "they're paying $15 a piece to see me, and I want to exhilarate them, get into their guts - even those who don't like me". Her radar, she says, often picks up hostile whispers, remarks like: "She's put on a lot of weight". (Actually, her 110 pounds is not fat.)
When they're not in Las Vegas or elsewhere on the road, Roger and Ann-Margret live in Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills, in a cheerful Cape Cod house thatonce belonged to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. am + bikeIt's a former ranch, down to seven acres from 300, with quantities of deer, rattlesnakes and owls. It is also bursting with the Smiths' treasures, which include an entire bedroom filled with Ann-Margret's dresses and a closet each for her shoes and sweaters. Roger is presently installing mirrors and erotic art in the bedroom and pinball and bowling machines in the playroom. They keep seven motorcycles (three for Roger's children by an earlier marriage), three cars, including a Cadillac Eldorado with a sliding roof, a six-wheel amphibian, a bulldozer ("a status symbol in Benedict Canyon") and a 14 karat gold-leaf golf cart engraved with her signature. Her affection for material things is divided between the $3,500 motorcycle Roger gave her for Christmas (a BSA front end, Triumph engine, Harley wheels, custom frame, reworked dual carborators) and her furs, one of which, a sable coat, she took on a trip up the Amazon. She brought seven fur coats to Las vegas, including the sable, several foxes and "my floor-length chinchilla", plus a ten-foot mink stole, and she left "about six more at home".
All her ambitions seem to melt away once she is aboard her new motorcycle, "the definitive woman's chopper". She is so turned on, she says, "that I feel like screaming". Though she hesitates to open up about them, she sympathizes with the Hell's Angels - "most people don't understand them". Roger decided it was a bad idea for her to wander around on her chopper, so he had this one made without a self-starter, and she isn't powerful enough to turn the motor over herself.
Roger has managed her for three years now, and most of the decisions in her life are his. "It's his opinion, not mine that counts", she says. "He has complete autonomy over me. After all, I enjoy being a girl, having someone take care of me, being told where to go and what to do".
One area in which he told her what to do was nudity on the screen, which had never appealed to her at all. He spent four hours convincing her to strip for a scene on the living room floor in "C.C. and Company", which he wrote for her and Joe Nameth. "He's so smart to have thought of it that way", she says. "If a couple wants to make love, they don't have to go into the bedroom. They do it wherever they happen to be".
The argument came up again in "R.P.M.". Roger gave her a choice: Either she would take off her clothes, or she would go back to her old teeny-bop pictures. "I hated the idea", she says now. "But after it was all over, I knew it was the turning point for me. From then on, I was a dramatic actress". So it was only natural, in "Carnal Knowledge", for her to appear, again, naked.
Because she considers herself so vulnerable - this is the word Mike Nichols thinks describes her best - she gladly lets Roger handle all her finances. The only cash she ever has is what he gives her, and her per diem when she's working out of town. "I don't give a darn about it", she says. "Money doesn't do anything for you". Even if this is true, it doesn't hinder the Smiths from working for it. In the middle '60s, according to Allan Carr, she was taking in $800,000 a year. Despite the entertainment depression, she'll probably do better than that this year. Carr thinks "C.C. and Company", which had its greatest success in the open-airs, should be worth a half-million dollars to her. But normally, she makes as much in ten days at Miami Beach ($75,000) as she can in two months on a movie.
When Mike Nichols offered Ann-Margret $50,000 for her part in "Carnal Knowledge", Sue Mengers, her agent said, "I'd rather take nothing than cut her price". Ann-Margret would happily have done it for nothing, just to work for Nichols, but he finally went to up to the acceptable $75,000. As it turned out, the money was well spent. Everyone who has seen the picture agrees with Nichols that Ann-Margret is "touching and remarkable". She's a real actress", he says, "and that's what's going to surprise people".
She also would take a considerable cut to appear in a movie with John Wayne, who, like Bob Hope, is one of her ideals. And she would drop practically anything to tour Vietnam again. "It's not politics", she says, "it's the boys there. They turn me on".
Everything that has happened so far is considered by Allan Carr and Roger as a buildup for their supreme ambition to lodge Ann-Margret in a Broadway smash. "She's got to do a year on Broadway before I let her quit", Roger says. "Our job", Allan says, "is to put glamour and magic back into show business. Ann-Margret can do it. Why, David merrick told her that "AM/PM" was the finest nightclub show he'd ever seen". They count both Merrick and Harold Prince, two of the most succesful Broadway producers, as good friends and potential business associates. "She's an 'in' person", Carr continues - accepted by the Suzy Knickerbockers ("too dazzling to be believed", wrote the columnist about her), the Oscar de LaRentas (he designs her clothes), the Ali MacGraws (sent a gushing opening-night telegram) and Lauren Bacall (when they met, "they carried on like two old ladies"). It's Miss Bacall who sets the standard that the Smiths really long t achieve. "To have that glamour every night", says Roger, "that accolade. A superstar in every medium. It keeps you young. One hit on Broadway, and you'll never have to worry again".
But others aren't so sure. "Broadway?" Sue Mengers asks. "She's doing great in films and at Las vegas. It's no big deal to get her on Broadway. But why take a chance on a bomb?"
Though she maintains a spunky (her favourite word) front, Ann-Margret is none too confident about the future her managers have planned for her. She wants to have a baby - but Roger says this is the turning point of her career, and she can have the baby later. A year out of her life at this point might spoil everything. She talks about retiring, but Roger says there's no one unhappier than a housewife with time on her hands. So she keeps the show on the road, and everybody's happy.
There's a haunting line in her song about Marilyn Monroe. "Wind me up and turn me on", it goes, "and let me smile for you".--------------------------------------------------------------