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Roger Smith

Ann-Margret produces yet another surprise

One of the highest compliments that can be paid to a performer who's been around awhile is that he or she is still capable of eliciting surprise. Ann-Margret, the initially brassy, belting, singing-dancing actress who made her film debut in 1961 at the age of 20, has been more or less surprising us with regularity since 1971, when she won her first Oscar nomination for her work in the bitterly funny Mike Nichols-Jules Feiffer comedy, ''Carnal Knowledge.''

After ''Carnal Knowledge,'' surprise has become so built into her career that we almost take it for granted. There were her extraordinary physical recovery and return to nightclubs just three months after a near-fatal fall backstage at Las Vegas in 1972, and then her second Oscar nomination for ''Tommy'' in 1975. In the following years there have been wonderfully adroit, comic performances - as Flavia, the dangerously young wife to an ancient Trevor Howard in Marty Feldman's ''Last Remake of Beau Geste,'' and as the lascivious Lady Booby in Tony Richardson's vastly underrated film adaptation of ''Joseph Andrews'' - and equally serious performances, the most spectacular being her work as Blanche Dubois in last year's television adaptation of ''A Streetcar Named Desire.''

What might she do for encores? She seemed to have touched all the possible bases but, as it turns out, not quite.
Ten days ago, sitting in a screening room watching a preview of ''The Return of the Soldier,'' an English screen adaptation of Rebecca West's first novel, starring Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates, I found myself studying, with increasing interest, a beautiful, elegant, seemingly ageless actress whose role in the film is that of a kind of mysterious pivot around which everything revolves.

I hadn't read the production notes before the film started, and hadn't paid attention to the opening credits, which are shown against some quite dense dream imagery. Then, after about 20 minutes I suddenly realized that the slightly familiar looking English actress I was admiring was none other than our own, Swedish-born, Illinois-bred Ann-Margret, the star of ''Kitten with a Whip'' (1964), in a performance of the sort of cool wit and grace of feeling one might associate with the late Margaret Leighton. Ann-Margret? It seemed incredible.

This isn't to say that she walks off with the film all by herself. The point is that she not only holds her own in the formidable company of Miss Christie and Miss Jackson, both of whom are splendid, but that she also fits into their company, and into the film itself, with an ease that eventually becomes one of the film's most important assets.
This isn't the kind of bravura work that Blanche Dubois requires, nor is the character of Jenny in ''The Return of the Soldier'' the kind of drab, frumpy role that beautiful women like to play to show they can ''act.''

I've always suspected that Grace Kelly's Oscar for her work in ''The Country Girl'' should have gone to her tweed skirts and sensible shoes - she was far better in Hitchcock's ''Rear Window,'' but beautiful women, wearing couture clothes, in performances of such stylish high comedy seldom win awards in Hollywood. Ann-Margret has also played - ''acted'' - her share of self-effacing frumps to no particular acclaim when the material was awful, most recently in the drab screen version of Neil Simon's ''I Ought to Be in Pictures.''

What she delivers in ''The Return of the Soldier'' is another kind of performance, the sort that's usually expected only of an actress who's had extensive training for the stage, where ensemble work is required. Ann-Margret's professional stage experience has been limited to night clubs, which is, I think it's safe to say, something else.
I've no idea what life was like on the set of ''The Return of the Soldier,'' shot by director Alan Bridges entirely on English locations. For all I know, the four stars loathed each other and saw each other only when they had to, but the performances in the finished film have the seamless quality only achieved by people of the same measure.

''The Return of the Soldier,'' adapted for the screen by Hugh Whitemore, best known here as a playwright (''Stevie,'' ''Pack of Lies''), is a curious work, which, having been published in 1918, was obviously written by Dame Rebecca while the Great War was still being fought.
As Mr. Whitemore has shaped it, it's the story of the tug-of-war for the possession of a shell-shocked, middle- aged, English army officer, Chris (Mr. Bates), who returns home from the front having no memory of the last 20 years of his life. Wiped entirely from his mind is his apparently happy marriage to the imperious, aggressive Kitty (Miss Christie), who runs their great country house with efficiency and demand for order, and with the curious complicity of Jenny (Ann-Margret), Chris's cousin and childhood first love. Jenny has stayed on in the house, seemingly not only to pick up the crumbs of affection from both Kitty and Chris but, when necessary, to protect each from the other.
The fight for control of Chris is not between Kitty and Jenny but between Kitty and Margaret (Miss Jackson), now the dowdy, middle-aged wife of a schoolteacher but who, 20-odd years before, had been Chris's first adult romance. Caste being what it was in England in those days - and may still be - they had broken off mostly because Margaret knew she couldn't aspire above her station.

When Chris, just back from France, is recuperating in a London hospital, it's Margaret whom he contacts and Margaret who brings the news of Chris's return to his family. Kitty, who had never known of Margaret's existence, is as furious at Chris's poor taste in having loved an innkeeper's daughter as she is with the knowledge he might ever have loved anyone else at all.

In the weeks that follow Chris's return to his grand house, and to the wife whom he politely doesn't remember, he demands only to be able to see and to spend time with the sympathetic Margaret, whom Kitty allows to visit only on doctor's orders. During this rehabilitation period, a sort of crazy time out of time, it is Ann-Margret's Jenny who somehow keeps order. It's just possible, one realizes, that Jenny might wish that Chris's traumatic experiences at the front had wiped out more than 20 years - say 30 - to have returned him to the childhood he shared with her.

''The Return of the Soldier'' is an unexpectedly affecting romantic movie, employing a plot device - amnesia - that I wouldn't have thought anyone would dare use anymore. In the years between World Wars I and II, amnesia, at least in literature, was as prevalent as the common cold. It turned up in novels, plays, movies, radio soap operas and was even the stuff of two-reel comedies, in which someone who'd been bopped on the head would forget everything, for supposedly comic effect, until an accidental second bop restored his memory.

That ''The Return of the Soldier'' manages to avoid sudsiness is a surprise - and evidence of the talents of Mr. Bridges, Mr. Whitemore and the members of the English cast - but the sweetest surprise remains Ann- Margret. She's always had a special feeling for the nuances of show-biz, including a sure instinct when one should give the audience exactly what it expects and when one should catch it off guard, to change tempo. In one of her Las Vegas shows, she might follow a Swedish lullaby with a frenzied production number that does everything but cause a meltdown in the adjoining casino.

As she understands the importance of pacing within a single nightclub show, she understands it within her continuing career. Her work in ''The Return of the Soldier,'' which was made in 1982 but has only now reached New York, doesn't top that career. Rather, she hits a new, different, completely unanticipated note, with a sureness and truth that are as invigorating as anything she's ever done.

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By Vincent Canby

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