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Ann-Margret, Ten Years Later...
Ann-Margret is lucky in that hubby Roger understands her sex appeal, encouriging her to make the most of her endowments.
It's the same face, but grown a little older now. And the same body, but the contours are softer, more voluptous. No more is she the post-teen tempest gamboling like a heady kitten with the likes of Elvis Presley, Bobby Rydell, and Michael Parks. Nor the Hollywood babe who sent shivers up the off-screen shoulders of Burt Sugarman, Eddie Fisher, Elvis, George Hamilton and Lou Adler. Nor the corn-fed little girl whose baby blues and refreshing shyness brought out the protective, fatherly instincts of George Burns, Jack Benny, director George Sidney, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. Nor even yhe Illinois-bred bundle of dynamite who caused folks at home to murmur proudly, "Our own Brigitte Bardot". And those abroad to tsk-tsk sadly, as Fellini did, "She's the most wasted actress in Hollywood."
No, Ann-Margret is none of these things today. She is more, lots more. At 30 she is all-woman, still shy, still courting the Midwestern virtues of modesty and courtesy, but with a becoming worldliness tempered by, well, vulnerability. And now, ten years later, she has finally won her long, silent battle with the Hollywood vultures, vultures who via the love of cold hard cash almost killed Ann-Margret with overexposure before she could emerge from her beach-blanket cocoon. Who almost buried her tousled red hair and electric talents beneath the less-than volcanic ashes of such grade B movies, as 'Viva Las Vegas', 'Kitten With A Whip', 'Bus Rile's Back In Town' and 'Murderers Row'. And Ann-Margret the actress almost went the way of all starlets. Out.
It's not that Annie wasn't working. Or earning huge sums of money. She was. And by playing clubs across the country and doing vapid sex roles in vapid silly pictures, she was keeping herself in furs and jewels fit for a queen. Still, her name was synonymous with camp, with the cult of Fabian flicksthat went out in the early 60s, with net stockings and black leather and pre-psychadelic fetishes. The big movies of the late 60s concentrated on "truth", on heavy drama, on "message" films. And they had no room for Ann-Margret or her image.
Until Mike Nichols, that is. When Mike, who has directed such pictures as 'The Graduate', 'Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?' and 'Catch 22', and is regarded by many as a genius, began looking around for the female lead for his new film, 'Carnal Knowledge', and finally decided to take a chance on Annie, everyone thought he was crazy. Even her agent, Sue Mengers admitted at the ti,e, "He knows something the rest of us don't know. She has a new panache because Mike Nichols had the foresight to make it chic to hire her".
Yet what Nichols was convinced of, everyone else soon found out. That Ann-Margret, who had started out so promisingly in 'State Fair' and 'Bye Bye Birdie' before falling into her near-fatal stereotype, did indeed have awalloping, startling talent. And that her portrayal, in 'Carnal Knowledge', of a marriage-hungry, pathetically vulnerable mistress, was for starters probably the performance of the year. And that an Oscar nomination was jus as probably inevitable. For Ann-Margret had finally proved, ten years after her arrival in Hollywood, that she was an actress to be reckoned with.
And Superstardom, the dream, has finally become a reality. Not only by virtue of her superb performace in the film, but also because her simply amazing one-woman nightclub show which has been playing to SRO in Vegas, New York, Toronto, Detroit - and across the country. In AM/PM, Ann portrays famous women in history, from Evelyn Nesbitt Thaw through Marilyn Monroe. She has 12 sets and lavish costume changes, and the whole show is a stunner. Reported society columnist Suzy, "It's too dazzling to be believed". Echoed usually-staunch poker face, Dave Merrick, "It's the finest nightclub show I've seen".
Yet Ann-Margret refuses to take anything in her stride. About her work, she confesses, "I abuse myself. When I do a show, I give everything I've got. I put myself on the line. You see, my first responsibility is to the audience. They're paying $15 apiece to see me, and I want to ehilerate them, get to their guts - even those who don't like me".
And many people, she feels sure, don't like her. She is shy, quiet and anxious to please off-stage, but accknowledges, "Iget nervous just going outdoors. Frankly, I shake all the time." Though these insecurities have eased somewhat since her 1967 marriage to actor-turned-producer Roger Smith, Annie remains an enigmatic, fragile personality, even to her husband. And she is considerably more complex than her all-American background would seem to indicate.
Take for instance her strange identification with Marilyn Monroe. It's not merely that Annie has on occasion been heralded as the "new Marilyn", or that they both had beautiful bodies and a very womanly, soft sex appeal which they parleyed into stardom; it's not even that Annie uses Marilyn's stand-in Evelyn Moriarty, or that her co-star in 'Carnal Knowledge', Jack Nicholson, found her "in the same glow of tragedy" that Marilyn had. It's more. In her nightclub act she sings a song about Marilyn called 'Does Anybody Here Love Me?' and dissolves into such flood of tears that it seems part of the act. But it isn't. According to a bewildered Roger, "I can't explain it. 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." Still, the mention of her name moves Ann-Margret to great emotions.
As does the mention of babies. Perhaps because she was an only child, perhaps because now when she wants a child more than anything else in life, and Roger insists that they wait - this is the turning point in her career, he insists. Annie, on the subject of babies, once again dissolves into a barrage of sobs which, to all except her, is both jarring and mystifying. Still, with implicit trust, she accedes to Roger's plans for her. The next, he hopes, will be a Broadway show, perhaps a musical version of the film, 'Some Like It Hot' (which starred Marilyn). "She's got to do a year on Broadway before I let her quit", he explains. "To have that glamour every night, that accolade. A superstar in every medium. It keeps you young. One hit on Broadway, and you'll never have to worry agan".
But Ann-Margret somehow can't help worrying. Before going out to face an audience, she is a mass of nreves, of frozen membranes and hysterical fear. But the moment she's onstage, it's something else. A delight, a joy, a freedom - and a terrific control of her material. "I love dressing up", she says. "When the M.C. calls out, 'Miss Ann-Margret', I want the audience to get the same shivers I get."
Yet she guards her privacy fiercly. On her wedding day, which was supposed to be a secret elopement at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, the press and TV newsmen turned out in such carnival-like force that Annie couldn't stop crying through the ceremony. At its end, when the frozen wedding cake was brought in, she cut it, the grabbed Roger's hand and bolted like a scared rabbit. And it took hours of explanations by Roger before she finally forgave him (he swore the hotel to secrecy) and the hotel (they obviously didn't keep it).
Despite its disappointing beginning, however, Annie's marriage has been a happy one. "I've only been married four years, but I can't think of anything more fulfilling", she says. She is completely in love with and submissive towards her husband. "It's Roger's opinion, not mine that counts", she explains. "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". With a docility, a passivity spookily reminiscent of Marilyn's, she goes on: "Roger makes all our decisions. Oh, I make some little ones. I choose most of his clothes, but when it comes to major decisions, my career, for example, he takes over. I like that. He's always been very protective of me. He knows how open and vulnerable I am and how difficult business was for me. He warns me of people, those who are out to hurt me and those whom I can trust. He's such a man, Roger, the type who takes over a woman's life".
"Everything isn't roses, of course. We have some fights and I know going into them that I am going to lose. I want to see how far I can get, and I'm happy when I lose because it means he is in charge. A girl is always testing a man's strength, but if a man is a real man, he'll put her in her place, and if she's a real woman, she'll love it".
Annie, obviously, thrives on it. She's very old-fshioned about her man, just as she is about her family. Unusually close to her mom and dad, Ann-Margret Olsson, an only child, emigrated from Sweden when she was 5. The family settled in Wilmette, Illinois, and though but two steps from poverty, Mrs. Olsson managed to do cleaning and take on part-time jobs to give her little daughter ballet, piano, and finally singing lessons from the time she could walk and talk. At one point, Ann remembers sadly, they even lived over a funeral parlour. Her bedroom was the mourners' 'family room', and only after the mourners had left at night could she get into bed and prepare for sleep. To make bad enough worse, the place by night was inhabited by rats who spent the day at a nearby bowling ally. To this day, she still has fantasies of pits crawling with hideous, nightmarish animals.
Still, it wasn't an entirely unhappy childhood. She was a good student, and a popular one, though she never had too many really close girl friends. By the time high school rolled around, however, the boys were clamoring at her door, and Annie enjoyed the unparalleled popularity of being a much-in-demand cheerleader three years in a row. More important, though, was her very dear - and totally supportive - relationship with her parents who encouraged her show business career, even when it ment dropping out of Northwestern University after only one year. And the moment Annie was settled in Hollywood with a nice fat movie contract, she sent for them, and they moved west, lock, stock and barrel, to be with their little girl.
To this day, however, she retains the same values that her parents instilled in her. Honesty. Complete faith in marriage, the husband, and the home. And a sense of, well, prudishness which is at odds with her sexy image. Ann-Margret never curses; she uses words like "bull feathers" and "seat" and "darn it" - at her most daring. And before she would appear nude in her first "undressed" film, 'C.C. and Company', hubby Roger, who'd written the movie just for her, had to spend four hours wheedling, cajoling, begging and screaming before she'd consent.
Then came 'R.PM.', opposite Anthony Quinn. And again Annie balked at the idea of a nude scene. But Roger laid it on the line - either she'd take off her clothes or she would inevitably have to return to her old teeny-bopper pictures. "I hated the idea", she now admits, "but after it was all over, I knew it was the turning point for me. From then on, I was a dramatic actress". 'Carnal Knowledge' (in which she also appears nude) proves this indisputedly.
Indisputedly too, Ann-Margret is a series of striking contradictions. A modest young actress who refused to appear naked until her husband begged, she adores sexy clothes and her own sexy aura. "Women should wear what their men want them to wear", she says. Also, "There's an animal inside everyone, but most people won't let it come out".
An introverted young woman who is afraid of her fans, she is not above taking one of her bikes out and flying, so turned on "that I feel like screaming". She and Roger have seven motorcycles between them, including the $3,500 custombuilt chopper he gave her for Christmas. "I'll go a hundred miles an hour on my motorbike. I don't take anything for granted", she smiles.
Or the complicated gal from the Midwest who claims, "I don't know what money is. It all goes to my manager. I love cash. If I go on per diem on a movie, I hoard cash to buy hot pants or something". Still, she is not loathe to live in a style Hollywood hasn't seen in years. Besides their seven motorcycles, she and Roger have three cars, a bull-dozer, a 14-karat gold-leaf golf cart, and at least 13 fur coats (hers), not to mention her jewels, all cozily sorted in their Benedict Canyon mansion which once belonged to Humphry Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In addition, Annie has an entire bedroom filled with her clothes; Roger is installing mirrors and erotic art in their bedroom; and the playroom is a riot of pinball and bowling machines. Not bad for the prim and proper cheerleader from New Trier High in Wilmette!
Or the world-acclaimed sex symbol who is constantly fighting off the extra poundage. "I'm always overweight", Annie moans. "I put on twenty pounds after I finished 'Carnal Knowledge'. I eat all the wrong times - late at night - and I eat the wrong things so that my weight goes up and down".
Or the passive, perfect wife who prides herself in her old-fashioned views on marriage, yet is not ashamed that she can't even boil water - or almost. "The only thing I do in the kitchen is open the refrigerator. Roger's the cook - chili, beef stroganoff, lasagna from scratch", she laughs.
Or, even the fragile, scared girl, one who's afraid of crowds and who breaks into tears at the mention of Marilyn Monroe or babies, having enough of deep-down reserve of inner strength to carry her to stardom. No matter how easy it comes, it's always draining and always demands a hard core of determination. And Annie, though she was the toast of the town over a decade ago when she as an unknown she knocked 'em dead singing 'Bachelor in Paradise' at an Oscar telecast, needed that extra grit to last in Hollywood. Despite her considerable and undeniable talents, it could have been just as easy to go to the route of other teen-age starlets of the early 60s. Gals like Shelly Fabaraes, Annette Funicello, Carol Lynley, and Sandra Dee. Gals who have had their heyday.
But Ann-Margret is just beginning hers. Right now she is besieged with her club dates and the possibility of a Broadway play, she doesn't know when she'll be able to accept her next film role. She is - at last - a superstar, the protegé of all the "in people", the talk of Hollywood.
She is, at last, an actress, too. No more Hollywood's favorite sex kitten, no more the pouting, prancing eternal teen vamp, no more at the mercy of grade-B flicks and her own youthful naivete. Ann-Margret has finally earned the dignity, the freedom, and the respect of a full-fledged star.
Yet, that's not her first concern. "I guess I'm old-fashioned", Annie affirms, "but I still believe the world is magic. I'm a woman first and after that comes the rest". Still, the rest, at this point in her life, is quite a lot.
"For the first, glorious time in my life, I have a place I can go back to and two dogs and an orange-and-white cat on the way", she purrs. And of course there's the husband she adores. "I'm completely dependent on my man, and I love it, so I can't see being a woman any other way".
As Mrs. Roger Smith, she is as content as Ann-Margret can be. For the moment. Only one thing grates. For vaguely, amidst the accolades and the work and the love and affection she is basking in, one notices the stirrings of sadness. Sadness that brings her to tears in seconds. And wistfulness. And longing... that someday soon Roger will let her have the child, the family, and the home life that not even the greatest acclaim could make up for in warmth and love and satisfaction.
Then, and possibly only then, will the enigmatic Ann-Margret find peace. Completely.
By Margo Kiss