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Playing a tormented woman
Ann-Margret was almost driven to the edge herself when she portrayed Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire"
The buildings are seedy, peeling, with faded shutters and wrought-iron balconies. Water drips everywhere, making the air steamy and almost fetid, but the scent of nameless blossoms is too intoxicating to allow for decay. This is Tennessee Williams' version of heavily perfumed, hot-house New Orleans, made real within a California sound stage for the filming of his remarkable "A Streetcar Named Desire".
Inside a corner building, Ann-Margret, gaunt, haunted, distracted, huddles as Blanche DuBois in a large armchair. She is oblivious as Sydney Guilaroff, the man who did Garbo's hair, fusses with hers. She runs over her lines continually, until they take control, submerging her into the role. She goes to an off-stage room and over and over again she screams.
It is time to shoot Scene 9, where Mitch, played by Randy Quaid, confronts Blanche about whether her past is as virtous and pristine as she'd led him to believe. "I don't want realism, I want magic", she pleads before Mitch grabs her face in a huge paw and shoves it under a bare light bulb. It is a moment of frenzy and intensity and self-exposure, and Ann-Margret is so unguarded in it, so full of the awful fragility of a butterfly about to be crushed, that it is painful to watch her at all.
Forget the 20-carat diamond the size of a plum tomato she casually wears on her right hand. Forget the 10-acre estate she lives in, the former Bogart and Bacall homestead near the top of one of Los Angeles's toniest canyons. Forget the 38 film roles, the pair of Oscar nominations, the recent Golden Globe award for the ABC TV-movie "Who will love my children?" even the magazine covers almost without number. What sets Ann-Margret apart is the quality of her emotions. They are fearsomely strong, openly expressed, and always, always perilously close to the surface.
"Emotional? I don't know why you say that", Ann-Margret says a while later with feined unconcern before widening her eyes and shoving her fist in her mouth in an amusing caricature of panic. It is barely two weeks since "Streetcar" wrapped, and though she tries to joke about it - "This may be Disneyland", she says, gesturing around her airy livingroom, then tapping her forehead and adding, "but it's the 'The Snake Pit' in here" - clearly the role Ann-Margret calls Blanche DuBonkers, "the best part I've ever had", has had an enormous impact on her.
"This is a film I've not been able to leave at the studio; I've brought it home with me", she explains, looking very businesslike in black pin-striped jacket-and-skirt ensamble, her hair hidden under an equally subdued kerchief. "I'm very sensitive, extremely vulnarable, emotional, and when you put that together and then play Blanche DuBois, it affected me like the earthquake did San Francisco".
And this is not just idle talk. At the merest provocation, or no provocation at all, Ann-Margret slips back into Blanche's persona and relives the character's conflicts - the strain of a past spent in decaying grandeur of the family plantation, Belle Reve, as well as a present dominated by brutish brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Treat Williams) - with a tearful intensity that is unnerving. "When I think of the play, I bring up all that pain", she says in a whisper. "Do you realize that Mitch is Blanche's last hope, that she's thinking finally someone will take her away, be good to her, hold her hand, all those things, and Stanley Kowalski ruins everything". Here she almost sobs, puts her hands on her temples and then looks up imploringly. "The terrible cruelty. And what did she ever do to deserve it?" Her face and body clench and unclench at the memories. "This play", she whispers again, smudging a tear, "really did me in".
Not that Ann-Margret didn't have an inkling how demanding it would be to find what Randy Quaid calls "the dark placeswhere these characters reside", "When I read the play, I knew to what depths I had to get myself", she says quietly but with an effort. "I have to dredge up all the things that pertain to whatvere role I'm doing. But this was the first time I've played someone who has had such a desparate mental/emotional problem. I didn't realize what it would do to my head, my mind. It was very frightening, it still is. I talk to John Erman ("Streetcar"s director) on the phone and I say, 'Are you well yet?' and he says 'Are you?' and we both say 'No'".
"The enormity of this character's emotional life was somewhat terrifying to her", Erman confirms. "There were a lot of things in Blanche's temperament she didn't want to get in touch with. Toward the end, as Blanche gets closer t the edge and Ann-Margret allowed herself to submerge into thet character, I began to really fear for her. I'd go into her trailer in the morning and she'd be sitting there crying, her hands would be shaking, she was really in a state of hysteria. I finally had to say, 'Now listen, the reality of this is we are here on a stage making a film'. She cared so much about it".
Given this kind of commitment, as well as a level of achievement that caused Randy Quaid to flatly call her "as good as any actor I've ever worked with", how is it that Ann-Margret's talent is a lesson we have to learn over and over again; that John Erman, who feels "there is no role she can't play", had to fight "great reservations from network people" before he could cast her as Lucile Fray - a woman with terminal cancer determined to find good homes for her 10 offspring before she dies - in last year's "Who will save my children?"
Part of the reason is that Ann-Margret contains multiple contradictions. Instead of repining in properly decorous lassitude after the Blanche DuBonkers ordeal, she went immediately into 10-hour-aday rehearsals for a multicity nightclub tour that began a scant week after the last 6 AM-ending shooting day of "Streetcar". You won't find Meryl Streep doing that, nor are serious actresses supposed to take visible pride, as Ann-Margret does, in saying, "We were the first show to introduce lasers to Tahoe and Vegas". All those terrible films she made - "There are five I've never seen myself", she says tartly, "and I don't think I will see them" - are still to be reckoned with, as is the film industry's great reluctance to unpigeonhole a personality. What randy Quaid calls "that sexpot kind of stigma that's followed her throughout her career" continues to be very much a factor.
Ann-Margret answers backbiting the way she feels most comfortable: with her work. "She seems to only ask that she can be given the opportunity to earn your respect", says actress Beverly D'Angelo, who plays Blanche's sister Stella in "Streetcar". "That sets her apart from a lot of stars who seem to get wild if they don't have a carte blanche". And, ironically, it was an offshoot of her nightclub work - the near-fatal 22-foot fall she took in Lake Tahoe in 1972 - that made her concentrate more and more on serious acting. "Once you've gotten through something like that, either you go for it or not, either you live in fear for the rest of your life or you take chances", she explains. "If a director thinks I can do a role, I'm not frightened, I tackle it, no holds barred".
When John Erman first considered her for "Who will love my children?" he admits to a flash of initial "Oh, Ann-Margret, 'Bus Riley's back in town, Kitten with a whip'" hesitation. Then a friend told him about a British film called "The return of the soldier" (released in Los Angeles last December) where Ann-Margret was cast with Alan Bates, Julie Christie and Glenda Jackson. "I said 'it's like Henry James, right? She plays the naive'. No, I was told, she plays an Englishwoman. I said, 'You're kidding, they're not going to put her against these people who are incredibly British and incredibly great'. Well, I saw the film and I was floored. her accent is flawless. Every review in England said she was amazing. This woman has limitless possibilities".
What has impressed most after two films with Ann-Margret is her inexhaustible capacity for effort. For instance, in "Children", says Erman, "she needed cooking lessons, sewing lessons. When a cake needed to be frosted or potatoes peeled, the prop man would bring them out and she'd do it over and over again until she got it right".
In "Streetcar", the first challenge, especially for an actress without theatrical training or experience, was the memorization of the kind of long soliloquies that leads Erman to call Blanche "the female Hamlet". "I'd never done anything like that before", Ann-Margret says, "so the first weekend of rehearsals I sat in my make-up room for five hours; I didn't leave until I had one of the longest speeches under my belt". Next came the appropriate Southern accent. "She was prepared to fly herself to Germany at her own expense for a dialogue coach she'd used before, but we found her one here and she spent seven or eight hours a day with him for a week", Erman relates. "After he said she was perfect, she went to Montgomery, Alabama, talked to 20 women and taperecorded them".
All this however, was fairly ordinary compared to what Ann-Margret went through when she tried to capture Blanche's mental state. "I wanted my performance to be right, so I talked to doctors for several hours to get it straight. One doctor explained to me that Blanche goes in and out of three different stages of psychosis. The first is very, very mellow" - her voice gets oddly calm - "it's your own fantasy world where everything is nice. Then everything seems fine with body movement, but your eys reveal what's going on, your eyes go like this" - she rolls them frantically as she calmly says "I just washed my hair" in perfect character and accent. "The third part is scary; it's the animal trapped, like someone on PCP with the strength of five people" - her voice grows harsh, desparate - "it's fighting for your life". She pauses, shaken. "It's an altered state. I never knew what that term meant before". Another pause, then a comic "Help" followed by a grin and a weary "As you can see, it's certaily still with me".
For as fast as Ann-Margret can sink herself int o a role, she can, momentarily come out of it with equal resilience. She is a genuinely sweet woman who has been known to be so averse to malicious words she will cover her ears rather than hear them. There are about her some of the qualities of a child - the openness, the trust, the willingness to be directed - and that trait inevitably comes up when she is discussed. "She's like a very, very smart child, incredibly smart, if you give her a good idea, you don't have to give it to her twice", says Erman, and D'Angelo notes, "She has almost a childlike desire to share her gifts with you. Her genuineness comes through in all her work". As a consequence, people feel enormously protective of her - Mike Nichols stopped in the middle of an interview several years ago to say, ""God, you're not going to write anything that will hurt Ann-Margret's feelings are you?" - because, despite her consderable success, she is surprisingly unaffected and vulnerable. And those early days of dreadful films and worse reviews - pauline Kael called her "a lewd mechanical doll" - have given her a lot to be vulnerable about.
"Everyone gets criticized", she says easily at first, but when reminded of an early occasion when she'd called critical thrusts "wounds that may never heal", she gets suddenly serious. "Have they healed? I don't know in this shaky state if I can answer that one. But I have learned from these wounds. I am a survivor and I get stronger. It sure pleased me to find out I was stronger than I thought".
That strength has been necessary not just professionally but in part of her life that is most critical to her, her relationship with her husband, Roger Smith. There, too, a lot of public carping of the Svengali-Trilby variety has taken place over the years, a situation that Ann-Margret admits has been "painful. If I said no, it wasn't, I'd be lying. But I'm still here, he's still here, everything's hunky-dory. I've been with Roger for 20 years and I'm very proud of that", so much so that on a recent trip to San Francisco they made a sentimental pilgrimage to the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, where they reenacted before baffled visitors the scene of an early romantic meeting.
The two were married in 1967, and Smith and impressario Allan Carr began reshaping her career. Though the actress in question likes to say, "Every time I turn around the corner, there's another Ann-Margret", this restructuring, centering around TV specials, Las Vegas work and a shrewder selection of roles, resulted in increased respect as well as Oscar nominations for her work in both "Carnal Knowledge" and "Tommy".
Over the years, however, Ann-Margret has gradually become more assertive, and while she says, "I love the fact that he protects me and he's my hero", she adds that "if I still choose to depend on Roger for certain things, it's my choice now. I could stand on my own two feet and do things alone, but I don't choose to".
And since 1980, a new factor has entered their marriage, the discovery that Smith has myasthenia gravis, a debilitating neuromuscular disease that weakens him considerably during its bad spells. The disease has led Ann-Margret to live her life as moment-to-moment as possible, to say, "I'll work as long as Roger feels good; we have to take things a day at a time" when discussing future plans. "Right now it's incurable, but I really believe with all my heart a cure will be found", she adds, her voice shaky. "It's interesting what you're capable of doing when you're put in a situation where you realize you have to be the strong one. You think, 'I can't do this, I can't do that'". She stops literally for that strength "but you either face it or break, retreat". And Ann-Margret, obviously, is not about to give up on anything.