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Roger Smith

Ann-Margret: A Girl You Can't Forget

Ann-Margret acts! And the moviegoing public has not been so astonished since Garbo talked.

After 10 untriumphant years of simpering and cooing and purring through a bushel of Pat Boone songfests, Elvis Presley twistathlons and Joe Namath motorcycle myths, the torrid teeny-bopper with the hyphen in her name and the slither in her walk has finally made it as a superstar. The movie that has skyrocketed Ann-Margret into that long-elusive galaxy is "Carnal Knowledge", Mike Nichols' bleak blockbuster about the American way of sex. She plays Bobbie, a busty blonde whom men persist in loving only for her body, and her performance is so captivating that there is already chatter about Oscar.

Ann-Margret - calling her Ann seems almost as silly as calling her Miss Margret - is in town to promote her movie and to star in a TV version of "Dames At Sea", the Off-Broadway spoof of the thirties musicals. When she drifts out of her hotel bedroom, where two hairdressers have been toiling over her marmalade-colored locks, there are telltale signs of a long day's dancing. She looks tired, but terrific. Kitten-green eyes, pale lips, long legs and the awesome contours that made her perfect for the part of Bobbie. She's wearing a white turtle-neck sweater, pink hot pants, and she's a bit brokenhearted because she just got a run in her stocking.

Her husband, Roger Smith, a former actor who devotes a good deal of his time to masterminding Ann-Margret's career, beams at his wife and pours her a glass of red wine. He is bearded and long haired, and he wears dark glasses and clothes that are meticulously casual. After assuring Ann-Margret that the run in her stocking can be "touched-up" in photographs, that she is especially beautiful tonight, and that he is most eager to sit in on the next day's rehearsals of "Dames at Sea", Roger retires to read a script and watch television.

The 30-year-old actress sits down, takes a baby-sized sip of her wine, crosses her legs, and begins to give her views on Bobbie, the boozy sex object, and Jonathan, the boozy sex verb played by Jack Nicholson in "Carnal Knowledge". "Bobbie is such a tragic, tragic figure", she says in a weary, childlike voice. "She always chooses the wrong man. I feel sorry for Jonathan, too. I don't like what he does to his women, but I understand why he does it. Our whole society is so preoccupied with sex. When a boy is 11 or 12, his mother keeps saying, 'You've got to be popular with the girls, you've got to be on the football team, you've got to be virile'. Push, push, push! How could Jonathan have ended up with any other attitude when, from the very beginning, these feelings were instilled in him? But to see him turn into a real psychtic... that's frightening. The scene I remember so very well is the one where Jonathan and Sandy are with the two girls in the apartment and Jonathan says, 'Hey, how about swapping?'"

Ann-Margret's soft features harden into a frown. "I'm sure that many men will leave the theatre staggering, because they will identify with Jonathan. They won't want to, but they will. Jonathan will linger with them. I hope that the ladies and gentlemen who go to see this movie will learn from it, that their lives will be illuminated by it. There are a lot of women like Bobbie, and I hope they'll learn from my portrayal that they must get rid of their Jonathans."

Now that Ann-Margret is finally being given her due as an actress, will she get rid of her pin-up girl image? Will she turn a cold shoulder to Hollywood the next time it tries to market her body beautiful? "I'm very flattered when someone says I'm sexy. I think every woman - wheather she's a nurse, a waitress, a secretary, or an actress - wants to be considered sexy. And if a woman tells a man he's sexy, I think he's kind of thrilled about it. Isn't that what it's really all about? If people were honest, they'd stop beating around the bush. I'm pleased when someone says I'm sexy".

Ann-Margret is so sweetly sexy that she reminds some people of Marilyn Monroe. She doesn't mind the comparison; in fact, the highlight of her night club act is a melancholy ballad about Miss Monroe called "Does Anybody Out There Love Me?" And she is mulling offers to do the Monroe part of "Some Like It Hot", as well as the Monroe part in the film of Arthur Miller's "After The Fall".

"I always admired Marilyn Monroe, and I was terribly disturbed that the critics never gave her credit for being a great comedienne. What good is it to get accolades posthumously? Why couldn't they have been nice to her when she was alive and desperatly needed their encouragement? She was trying so hard."

Ann-Margret pauses and toys with the queen-sized diamond ring whih her husband personally designed for her. "There's another thing about Marilyn: a lot of women in show business are shells of women, more like soft men. But that lady was so feminine. So vulnerable. I just don't believe in shields - tha armor those other women wear. I wouldn't even call them women. You know the ones I mean, the ones who take all the power away from their men and become the dominant ones in the relationship. I don't understand that, and I never will".

"Oh, I believe a lady should have the same salary as a gentleman, if she has the proper qualifications. But a woman is quite different from a man emotionally, and I just wonder what happens if a woman becomes the president of a huge organization, for example, and has to make important decisions every day. Do her emotions get in her way? If she does get that job, she'd better have a very strong man to come home to. Or else she's going to become a man".

The man Ann-Margret comes home to is so strong that some uncharitable gossips have accused him of callously manipulating both her private and her public life, going so far as to prevent her from having the baby she so desperately wants, for fear that it would damage her career.

"Roger has been misquoted!" she says urgently. "We've been married four years, and usually when people have been married that long, they have a baby. We'll have a baby when the time is right, God willing. Now we're traveling constantly, and I refuse to let anybody bring up my child for me. I know the way I was raised".

The way Ann-Margret was raised is enough to cause any child psychologist to raise an eyebrow. Her father, a restless Swedish emigrant called Gustav Olsson, came to America when he was 19. Returning to Sweden for a brief visit, he met and married a fetching young woman who sang in amateur theatricals. They settled down in a tiny village, where Ann-Margret was born, and Olsson's brief visit stretched into years. "Then one day Dad got that old urge to come to America again, but Mom wouldn't come with him. She had never been away from our village - there were only 185 people, including the cows and horses - and she was frightened".

Ann-Margret, who was 3 when her father returned to America, did not see him again until she was 8. "Five years is a long time to be without a father", she says, lowering her long lashes. "But, finally, Mom succumbed - as a woman should - and she and I came to America too. Now we all love it here.

Not that everything suddenly started coming up roses. During her crucial formative years in Wilmette, Illinois, the only roses Ann-Margret saw were in funeral wreaths. Her father became seriously ill, making it impossible for Mrs. Olsson to find work. What she found was a job as a receptionist in a funeral parlor, where her payment included boarding priviliges.

"We lived there for three years. My mom and dad slept on a Murphy bed in the dining room, and I slept in the living room, which was also the mourning room. Before the mourners arrived, I practised my piano in that room. Everything was dark. Just me and the casket and the piano. It was a busy funeral parlor - there were three or funerals a week - so we spent most of our evenings in the dining room. There was a TV there, and I would do my homework at the dining room table. But I could always hear the crying and wailning in the other room. When everyone had gone, my mom would go into the living room and pull out my bed, which had served as a couch for the mourners. Sometimes it was one o'clock before I got to bed, and I had to go to school the next day.

"I wish I could say it didn't get to me, but it did. At first, I didn't see anything wrong with living there. I felt sadness for those people who missed their beloved ones so much, but I thought the person in the casket was at peace. But then, in junior high school, the kids started getting inquisitive and asking me all sorts of questions about the funeral parlor. I was 11, and when you're 11, you're very emotional, very impressionable. I was shy before I went to live in the mortuary; you can imagine how I became afterward. Even today, whenever anyone mentions death to me, I shudder".

Luckily, the Olssons moved out of the funeral parlor and into another part of town, and before Ann-Margret could say teenybopper, she had conquered her shyness and was well on her way to becoming the back-bendingest, leg-splittingest, flag-wavingest cheerleader ever to spur New Trier High School's football team on to victory. After graduation, there came a year of of lightly academic work at Northwestern University, and singing engagements with a group called The Suttletones followed by night club gigs across the country and finally, in 1961, her movie debut as Bette Davis's mealy-mouthed, sugarwater daughter in Frank Capra's syrupy "Pocketful of Miracles".

"It sounds corny", Ann-Margret concedes, "but I do believe that I was born to entertain. If I can make people feel excitement, hope, passion... if I can do anything to ease tension, especially in times when people are walking around with glazed eyes, then I feel that I've accomplished something".

Ann-Margret accomplished something in Vietnam, where, on two occasions, she eased the tension among the troops by squezzing into black tights and a see-through blouse and singing "I Just Want To make Love To You". "I saw some great men over there. Some of those gentlemen volunteered and some were drafted, and I loved each and every one of them". I didn't go becuse of politics; I went because I'm an entertainer. And where do you need more than in Vietnam? I don't know why some actors insist upon confusing politics with entertainment. I think that's a terrible thing to do".

What about her two idols, John Wayne and Bob Hope? Do they ever confuse politics with entertainment?

"I won't discuss that", says Ann-Margret, her green eyes briefly flashing. "As you can see, I don't get involved in politics. I just want to entertain and make people happy".

Happy is what Ann-Margret did not make the members of the Hollywood Women's Press Club, which is why they gave her the Sour Apple - their award for the least cooperative actress - not once, but twice. "That was only because I wouldn't discuss the men I was dating, and I was dating a lot of men in my early days in Hollywood. But I wasn't married to those gentlemen, so I didn't think it proper to talk about them. Where actors and actresses get into deep, crucial trouble is when they begin living in that big fishbowl, where everyone knows what they're doing and what they're thinking. Certain things are sacred; I won't let anyone butt into that. That's what tose ladies resented and that's why they gave me those Sour Apples".

At any rate, Ann-Margret hasn't received a single Sour Apple since she married Roger Smith four years ago. "I waited a long time to get married. Roger and I have been together for eight years".

Living together for eight years?

"I won't answer that", she says, perhaps peeved, "say we've been together eight years".

Their wedding was a simple Las Vegas ceremony. "It was the most dramatic experience in my life. I was told it was going to take place in a small room with just the two of us and the minister and a couple of friends. All of a sudden there were 75 people, plus TV cameras and cigar smoke. I couldn't walk out. The minister was already standing there with his book open. I never did find out who told everyone about the wedding".

It has also been four years since Roger decided to give up acting. "When he was an actor, Roger felt like a puppet. He's the kind of man who has to be a leader, not a follower. He has to have complete autonomy, which is exactly what he has with me. I only get mad and blow up once or twice a year. That's probably why I have an ulcer - I let things fester and fester inside of me, and then I start throwing things around and acting like a lunatic. But I really do enjoy being dominated by a man. Roger does the deciding in our family".

One of the things that Roger has decided Ann-Margret should do is that Ann-Margret should not allow herself to become typed. For every "Carnal Knowledge", there must also be a "Dames At Sea". "I can't just continue doing dramatic movies. I would end up in a looney bin. I'd become a washrag. I get totally involved with what I'm doing. That's why I like doing 'Dames At Sea'. In those thirties movies there was no depression, no tension. And the people gave their all; they believed in the things they were saying and doing. Everyone was so..."

Ann-Margret, erstwhile teenybopper, thinks hard struggling for just the right word. Finally it comes. "Everyone was so sincere".

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By Guy Flately

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