Films & TV
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Pulling out of a career potholed by stereotype, this former bike-queen is again riding high - as an actress-singer-dancer on both the movie and nightclub circuits!
The sun is beating down on the Santa Monica Mountains. Lying beside a very blue swimming pool on a lounge chair is Ann-Margret in a figure-fitting black jumpsuit. Her green eys are closed, her yellow-blonde hair loose. Beads of perspiration are visible on her tanned chest. She has a strong jawline and broad brow and her face wears a slight frown, two small vertical lines between her eys. Beside her on another lounge chair is her step-daughter, Tracy, a pretty fifteen-year-old with braces on her teeth but a precociously developed figure displayed in a blue bikini.
At the other end of the pool, a young man in faded blue denim is busy with a poolside telephone, trying to line up a blind date for Tracy to see Alice cooper at the Hollywood Bowl. "Oh, I just know he's going to get me some goon", moans Tracy. "Do you know what this guy's name is? Morley Feinstein. Boy, what a name." Tracy sits up. There is a note of supplication in her manner as she bends over and whispers something in Ann-Margret's ear. "No", says Ann-Margret without opening her eys. "Twentyone is too old."
Tracy withdraws gloomily and slouches toward the far end of the pool. Just a few weeks before, she had taken the decision to leave her real mother and come live with her father, Roger Smith, and his second wife, Ann-Margret, and now she sighs, as if reconciled to giving up her twenty-one-year-old prospective date. "Oh, well, it's better than the old life", she says. "Ann-Margret's a little strict, but she's never mean. You know, she's never said a mean word to me in my life? Ever?" Tracy nods solemnly. "It makes you feel you should be as good as you can. You know, for Ann-Margret."
There is a buzzing inside the white Cape Cod-style house, the sound of someone ringing at the electronically controlled gate down a winding private road. Roger appears at the door, tall, lean, in white bell-bottom trousers with blue embroidery down the seams. He is wearing amber sunglasses, his sandy hair longer than when he played the lead in television's '77 Sunset Strip'. "It's Lenny!" he calls. "You go on ahead with him and I'll come over later on the bike". Ann-Margret comes to life, mumbling, "Oh, I love the sun. All Swedes love the sun." She then bounds to her feet, looking about, her face animated. "Where's my expensive purse?" she cries and dashes into the house, returning in a few seconds with a large handbag. A green Volvo is winding up the hill, driven by a amiable, plump white man with an Afro haircut, Lenny Stack, Ann-Margret's conductor. They are both bound for a first prerehearsal of the new night-club show Ann-Margret is preparing for Las Vegas, and she piles into the car.
"Oh, I'm so excited!", she confesses, her eyes bright, as the automobile makes its way down the private road. The metal grill slides back in ghostly obedience and the Volvo sets off through Benedict Canyon, turning and banking, green hills on either side, then swings east on Sunset Boulevard with its sumptuos landscaping and palm trees. Ann-Margret's musical arranger had called the night before to play over the phone the piece she had selected for her opening number, 'After Midnight', and she is singing it now, riding in the front seat of the car, starting already to use, in miniature, her performance delivery, the head bobbing, shoulders hunching rhythmically. 'Uh, Uh, Uh. Ah, Ah, Ah, Uh, Uh, Ah, Ah, After Midnight! We're going to let it all hang out!!' I love that Bo Diddley beat. One, one, one, one-two. Her face filled with innocent enthusiasm, she says, "People don't understand how I feel about Vegas. You can wake up any time of the day or night and feel all the action around you!" Her hands shimmer electrically through the air. "You can get a cheeseburger and a chocolate malt at any hour. I know I've lived a lot in hotel rooms, but the feeling is so terrific! You can feel the energy! And I just love the shows. I'm such a clothes freak that I really appreciate all the costume and everything".
Half an hour later, Ann-Margret is sitting in a modern apartment on La Cienega Boulevard, the home of her musical arranger, surrounded by half a dozen men in their twenties and thirties: arranger, conductor, manager, choreographer-director, husband-co-manager - for Roger has now arrived. The men, for most part, are dressed California style, bell-bottoms, bright-colored shirts and T-shirts. In the company of her step-daughter, Tracy, there was a bit of the respectable old lady about Ann-Margret, but now with her professional teammates she seems like a wide-eyed freshman asked to sing with the college musical group. Roger has said, "Sometimes, I have to remind myself we pay these guys money. When you see them, you'd think they were a bunch of kids doing it for fun". At the far end of the living room is arranger Marvin Hamlisch's upright piano, but for the moment the group is gathered around his dining table, where he has set out a cold lunch: smoked sturgeon, cream cheese, roast beef. A gangly, dark-haired young man with eyeglasses, Marvin is the only one present dressed in conservative shirt and slacks and whose hair is short enough to leave hios ears clearly visible. "Close your eys", he says, savoring some pale-orange sturgeon, "and you'll think you're in New York." And then, "Walter, look at the way you're eating the bagel! You can tell you're a goy?" It is a typical show-business gathering and perhaps half the people present are Jewish, and a rustle of disbelief goes around the table. "A goy", says Marvin professorially, "is anyone who isn't a Jew." "But doesn't that cover an awful lot of people?" Ann-Margret protests, and everyone laughs.
While Ann-Margret has been working, making a movie weekdays, this group has put together the essential elements of her new night-club show, giving it its general shape, working out times - six minutes, three minutes, four and a half minutes. "She needs a line here." "Give her three minutes to change, give her a break". "In Bozo' she had one minute fifty-five!" All Ann-Margret has to do is make some detailed selections. "How do you like 'Shake', honey" askes Roger, still wearing his amber sunglasses, a touch of the Southwest in his voice. "What song do you want to dance to in the 'Hell's Angels' number? You'll have to sing a chorus, too. You're going to look like a vanilla Tina Turner in this part. After that you've got five minutes of dialogue." Ann-Margret is horrified. "Five minutes of talking?" Roger pleads, "Remember the last time, you didn't want to go into the audience?" Ann-Margret recalls in a tone of amazement, "Yuh, I was just like a little kid in the beginning." She assumes a baby voice and stamps her foot like an obstinate child. "But I don't want to talk to the audience! I just want to sing and dance!" Roger says, "And by the end of the run you were lying all over the tables."
Allan Carr, Ann-Margret's manager, now sets out the general strategy of the show for the assembled team. He is more than plump, dressed in madras bermudas and a white polo shirt, a black enamled "R" hanging from a gold chain around his neck. Since an operation to remove a sizeable section of his intestine, Carr is down from 300 pounds to under 200, but has none of the lethargy of overweight people and is bright and quicksilvery. "You know what they love in Vegas?" he says, swinging his hand to and fro, his voice in cadence. "Dressing and undressing, matching and mixing, trashy and classy. So we give them a trashy-classy act!" To Ann-Margret, his speech rhythms staccato: "In the 'Hell's Angels' section you become the old Ann-Margret again. Because, secretely, they want to see Ann-Margret do something dirty! So you give them what they want. Not glamour - animal! And then you sing a concert of all-time classics! Torchy - Arlen, Cole Porter. Ann-Margret at Carnegie Hall!" Carr's voice conveys excitement. "At the opening you're suddenly standing there. Drop-dead chic. Wearing every diamond you've got! And the music says this is something important. Like a full-page ad for a movie. And they think (he drops his voice), Okay, she's out there now. She's going to really sock it to us. It's goose-pimple time!"
Ann-Margret has been laughing girlishly, as if they are talking about someone else's show, but there are some points that trouble her. Her face clouds over when she brings out, "I can't just say, 'I've played opposite Jack Nicholson and John Wayne.' How about all the other people I've worked with". A look goes around the table, as if they expected trouble on this. "But, Ann-Margret, you can't have twenty names," Roger says kindly. Ann-Margret still looks unhappy. "And in The Train Robbers thing," she says with a hurt expression, "we can't just show John Wayne and me. How about Ben Johnson and Rod Taylor and Chris George and Bobby Vinton?" Regretfully, Roger says, "But if we leave them all in, they'll just be snippets." Ann-Margret seems to shrink within herself, her eyes down, and says, "I'd be very embarrassed if they came to see the show in Vegas and they weren't in the picture."
A while later, she asks with a modest smile, "Can I sing 'Stand By Your Man'? It's my song." Roger looks doubtful about the choice, shakes his head. "It's a little out of character here, Ann-Margret. It's country-western. It doesn',t go with the torch songs. Arlen, Porter, then you throw in 'Stand By Your Man'. . . unless you want to do a whole country-western concert." "How's your voice, Ann-Margret? Warmed up?" asks Marvin, heading for the piano. "We got to try out some of these songs." The group gathers in a rough semicircle around the upright piano at the far end of the room, Ann-Margret is sitting demurely beside Marvin on the bench. Marvin clears his throat and says, "My God, I got Vegas voice." He strikes a chord and says, "D flat. When in doubt, what do I always give your' Eyes intent on the music, he starts to play "How Long Has This Been Going On," and Ann-Margret sings, her voice warm and silky, but her eyes, like Marvin's, on the music. After a few bars, as the song seems to grow on her, her dramatic strength begins to come through, slight shadings in color and emphasis, subtle but powerful. . . her eyes closed now in ,the emotional passages. She goes on to "Time after Time," "I'll Get By," "More Than You'll Ever Know." then "Our Love Is Here to Stay" is set out on the rack, she says, "I don't like it." "Try it anyway," says Roger. Obediently, Ann-Margret sings two bars bult suddenly breaks off, lowering her head, her face closed over. "I can't do it," she says in a small voice. "Okay," says Roger, acceding swiftly. "That's what this is all about. What's the next oner' Marvin and Ann-Margret work their way through more torch songs. "Someone to Watch Over Me," "That Old Feeling," "You'll Never Know." Ann-Margret goes on a raid of Marvin's icebox and comes back with a dish of English toffee ice cream, which she sits spooning in peacefully between songs. When she doesn't like a number, she often says it is "too operetta" or "too musical comedy" or "like a Jeannette MacDonald imitation." When Marvin starts to play a song too fast for her taste, she cries, "In that tempo?" To which Marvin answers, "I do everything for you! Can't you do something for me? Didn't I give you lox?"
After the torch songs they try some rock numbers, and Ann-Margret rises and dances as she sings, "Choo choo choo, voom voom, ru tu tu," her splendid body nimble as a snake doing dazzling body twists and snaps, her hair flying. "That's the one!" cries Marvin. "I can tell because my closet moved two feet to the left!" Although Ann-Margret's renditions of the torch songs were beautiful and moving, she seems to enjoy the gayer, hard-beat numbers more, and is now laughing so much between pieces that she cries, "Gee, I'm getting hysterical!" They do a chorus of" After Midnight," and Ann-Margret is so electric, and the number has such drive, that as it ends the semicircle gathered around the piano seems to leap a foot into the air in a spontaneous burst of enthusiasm.
As the rehearsal is breaking up, a well-knit man in a salmon-colored T-shirt, Waiter Painter, the show's choreographer and director, informs Ann-Margret, "Tomorrow night we have the dance tryouts." Pulling on a jacket, Roger asks, "Waiter, you think we're going to find enough guys who can sing and dance and ride motorcycles?" "Sure," calls Marvin, still straightening up piles of sheet music at the piano. "I studied that in college. Motorcycle singing and dancing." Ann-Margret has become her offstage self again and says, as if acknowledging a weakness, "Oh, I can't bear to go to tryouts." "She never comes," explains Roger. "She's too soft-hearted." Ann-Margret extends her arms emotionally, as if to embrace all the world's abused and unfortunate. "I'd take them all!" she cries. "It breaks my heart, the ones who go away at the end after being turned down." There is pain in her eyes. She is really moved.
Mike Nichols sits sampling fresh peach and Turkish-coffee ice cream in an ice-cream parlor in Westwood. He is tanned, eyebrows and short hair touched with gold from the sun. "The emotion is very near the surface," he says of Ann-Margret. "You tell her a cat got run over and she's in tears." He smiles affectionately.
"Commiseration is ready to flow at a moment's notice for anything from a canary on up." A superb performer himself, Nichols is natural and untheatrical offstage. "Yes, she does that to one. " He gestures sadly. "You feel you're responsible for her. You could never do anything to hurt her." With a dozen people claiming the credit for having produced the New Ann-Margret, bringing about the spectacular turnaround in her career a few years back, Nichols, perhaps most responsible in that he cast and directed her in her tuming-point role in Carnal Knowledge, takes little of that credit. "I knew she could act from Kitten with a Whip," he says matter-of-factly. "Kathleen Tynan suggested her for Bobbie Templeton. I thought she could do it. She did it. And that's it." He shrugs.
"During the picture she got me confused, though, because she reminded me so much of my first wife. Beautiful, placid. Completely dependent on others for fulfillment. She's only a vessel. Everything Ann-Margret does is to please someone else, you know. It's never for herself. And that look she has in her eyes. I've seen it in other stars. It's as if she's thinking, Is this it? Is this all there is?" Nichols is now riding in a car through Beverly Hills traffic on his way to a business meeting about his new film, Day of the Dolphin. "Oh, Ann-Margret's very modest physically," he grants readily. "During Carnal Knowledge the costume girl came to me one day to say Ann-Margret was ready to have her costume inspected for the next scene. She was supposed to wear a bra, but with a full skirt. Just a full skirt and a bra. I didn't start down right away, and in a couple of minutes the costume girl comes back to say that Ann-Margret is waiting to be inspected. I thought, That's not like Ann-Margret, and I went down, and you know where she was? She was so embarrassed at people seeing her in a bra that she was hiding in a closet. Oh, of course, that hussy strut of hers is only a defense." He smiles, marveling. " And you know, she still says 'gentleman' and 'lady'? You know, 'A gentleman came into the room'?" Mike Nichols is now standing on the sidewalk, leaning his hand on the door of the automobile.
Although he has nothing but compliments for Ann-Margret, he has talked about her with a certain gentleness, as if he feels there is something fragile and unhappy about her, as if she is more vulnerable to the buffetings of the world than most of us. He does not say this, however. Instead, as if rising above sadness, he affirms in a hopeful tone, "It's not a bad life for her, though. She's got her furs and motorcycles. That must be fun." He bends to peer into the car window. "God, you're not going to write anything that will hurt Ann-Margret's feelings, are you? Listen, tell her-" He hesitates, seems to look within himself for an instant, and then says solemnly and with real feeling, "Tell her I love her and I'm proud of her."
The sun is setting over Ventura Boulevard, near the Encino line. Gas stations, used-car lots, hamburger stands, a Porsche showroom, Joan Blondell's Stereo/Video Tape Center. In the distance cars are speeding by on the San Diego Freeway. On one side of Ventura Boulevard is a red-brick Catholic church, in front a sign: "Malinow and Silverman, Jewish Funeral Directors." On the other side, trucks with an electrical generator and filmmaking equipment are parked in front of a motel where a French movie crew is making a picture about a French killer on the run in Los Angeles : The Outside Man, with Ann-Margret and French star JeanLouis Trintignant (Z, A Man and a Woman). Heavy electrical cables from one of the trucks run into a court surrounding a swimming pool, then up an outdoor staircase, along a promenade balcony, and into one of the motel bedrooms, ablaze with light, crowded with technicians waiting to shoot one of the movie's key scenes. Trintignant is standing by, as is Roy Scheider of The French Connection. The only one missing is Ann-Margret. Three rooms down along the promenade balcony, another of the motel's bedrooms is serving as Ann-Margret's dressing room. The door is partly open. Wearing a flame-colored minidress, Ann-Margret is sitting on a chair by the dressing table, crying. Standing beside her with his hand on her shoulder is her husband, Roger, slightly bent, the desire to help written in his very stance. George Masters, king of Hollywood's makeup men, comes out of the room with a veiled expression on his face. "Her eyelashes are getting all unstuck," he says bleakly. "You haven't heard? Her father's got generalized cancer. They just told her." Masters goes off to get reserve makeup equipment, returning in a minute. The door shuts. Back in the room in which the scene is to be shot, director, crew, and the other actors are still waiting, hushed. Trintignant and Scheider are both sitting on the bed, hands on their knees. There are uneasy looks. They, too, have heard the bad news. The director offers to postpone the shot, wrap up for the day, but the word comes back that, no, Ann-Margret will do the scene. Ten minutes later the white door opens. Ann-Margret's flame-colored dress glows under the brilliant movie lights. Her face is clear, her smile very bright. When she sees everyone staring at her, a shadow crosses the back of her eyes, but then is wiped away, as if she is too proud to let others see her feelings. Ann-Margret is not much over five-feet-four, but she stands tall.
Onstage she is brash, her breasts round, her body carriage brazen. . . the consummate hussy. In private life she is shy, kind, touching, childlike. She uses no strong language, says "perspire" for "sweat." George Burns, on whose television show she made her first national appearance, is still "Mr. Burns." George Sidney, her director in Bye-Bye Birdie, is still "Mr. Sidney." She has a child's speaking voice, a child's taste in food, a child's insecurities. "I used to think some day I was going to get mature and adult like other people," she says desolately. "Now I know I'm never going to grow up." In addition to her own voice, which itself often becomes quite wee, Ann-Margret has another, called by her friends her "baby voice," which speaks in the persona of a WaIt Disney-style kitten. She uses this surrogateself for jokes and in any other situation where she is afraid a remark of hers might give offense. If she runs out to get coasters to put under drinks and a guest says, "What are those things for?" Ann-Margret answers in her baby voice, "To protect our little table," to take the curse off any implied reproof.
At other times she seems to use the baby voice simply because it is dear to her. So there is Ann-Margret, and there is this other little person. Ann-Margret is not social, goes to Hollywood gatherings extremely rarely. There is a saying in Swedish, "You've got to have skin on your nose" (roughly, "be thick-skinned") . And all Ann-Margret's professional success and obvious personal assets have not sufficed to give her skin on her nose. If, at a party, someone makes a smart crack like, "You've come a long way, haven't you, honey?" Ann-Margret will run upstairs, all shook up. The night she was invited to meet Mike Nichols for the first time, she took fright before dinner was even served and simply fled-ran away.
The family joke at Ann-Margret's is that when she is feeling anxious, even at home, she will sit motionless, ardently hoping that if she doesn't move a muscle or make a sound no one will notice she's there. Ann-Margret is very beautiful, of course, but does not seem to dwell much on the fact. "You should see me close-up in my stage makeup with double rows of eyelashes!" she says gleefully, mimicking the bizarre effect, drawing her mouth down so as to efface the cheeks. "Just two eyes and a mouth!" Although she is quite clearly intelligent, Ann-Margret doesn't appear to think so herself, and when she catches herself saying "uh," blurts out shamefacedly, "Gee, I sound so dumb. Duuuuh." Honest and straightforward, she is generous in praise of others, including other actresses, says bad about no one. She literally puts her hands over her ears so as not to hear malicious gossip.
Unsurprisingly, she is extremely popular with people who have worked with her, from stars down to chorus boys and stuntmen, often inspiring deep devotion and loyalty. Holding unflattering opinions only about herself, she confesses to being intensely nervous, although it is nowhere near as obvious as she appears to think. "I was born nervous," she says despairingly. If the film director is dressing down a sound technician on the set, Ann-Margret will be seen standing to one side with an anxious, thinking-about-something-else look on her face. "I hate it when people fight," she whispers with a wince. "It makes my insides all tense."
Although she is oversensitive in ordinary social situations, extreme circumstances seem to galvanize in Ann-Margret a moral courage that other people might well envy, and when her skin is in danger, she is absolutely fearless. It is as if mere physical danger soothes her, comes as a relief from her anxieties. Riding a motorcycle at a hundred miles per hour would be a terrifying experience for many people; there is no protection. On a motorcycle at this speed, as Ann-Margret knows, the slightest little slip can mean not an accident but the end. It is Ann-Margrers favorite relaxation. "When I'm all tensed up," she says, "it calms my nerves."