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Roger Smith

Ann-Margret Looks Back
Happy to be taken seriously, yet proud of her sexy past

It was almost inevitable that during the San Francisco International Film Festival's tribute to Ann-Margret Thursday evening she would be asked about Marilyn Monroe. Any actress who has ever been touted as a sex symbol is asked to compare herself to Monroe, especially if she happens to be blonde. Ann-Margret, who currently has red hair but has gone through both a blonde period and a sexpot period, told the hushed audience at the Palace of Fine Arts that she briefly met Monroe in 1960, two years before she killed herself at the age of 36. At the time of their meeting, Ann-Margret was starting her career and Monroe was making what would be her last movie,``The Misfits.''

"The really strange thing is that her stand-in has been my stand-in since 1964. I didn't plan it that way; it just happened,'' said Ann-Margret, her voice choking up. Talking about Marilyn Monroe seems to make people emotional."Could I say just another thing about Marilyn?'' she continued.

"I always thought it was such a tragedy that she didn't receive the respect that she needed to prove to herself that she could act when she was alive. She finally got it posthumously, but people were so unkind to her when she was alive.''

This certainly isn't the case for Ann-Margret, who has been taken seriously as an actress at least since 1971 when she made "Carnal Knowledge.'' Critics no longer express surprise at the quality of her performances. Even in the brief movie clips shown as part of the festival tribute, it was apparent that she could hold her own opposite such powerful actors as Jack Nicholson and Glenda Jackson.

It is a mark of her increasing self-confidence that Ann-Margret no longer trades on her sultry good looks, but has allowed herself to look plain in the TV movie "Who Will Love My Children?'' and the current "Return of the Soldier.''

For her fans who showered her with adulation the other night, though, Ann-Margret looked the part of a Hollywood star. She wore a canary yellow silk brocade suit that her husband, Roger Smith, bought her for the occasion, and 3-inch high heels that accented her shapely dancer's legs.

On a makeshift set created to look like a living room with two easy chairs, plants and flowers, she began by answering questions from radio talk show host Michael Krasny. The constant click-click-click of cameras was just the right accompaniment.

Unlike Marilyn Monroe, for whom her sexuality became finally toomuch of a burden, Ann-Margret told Krasny that at 43 she still likes being thought of as sexy.

"If a man comes up to me and he thinks I'm a very sensuous woman, I'm very flattered. When I started making movies in 1961, the studio decided to exploit the animal part of me. I'm really thankful for that fact. I'm not at all bitter.''

"Are you still an animal?'' Krasny asked.

"Part of me,'' Ann-Margret shot back.But she has toned down this image by staying married to the sameman for 17 years. "I'm amazed, really amazed that it has lasted this long,'' she said, looking past the crowd at Smith, a former actor who now manages her career.

"We never take each other for granted. After all those years, we certainly know which buttons to push to hurt each other, but we don't push those buttons. We thrive on being together 24 hours a day.''

In recent years, Smith has suffered myasthenia gravis, a progressive disorder of the nervous system, and Ann-Margret has arranged her schedule so that she can take care of him when he needs her. She said she hasn't performed live since touring with her Las Vegas-style revue in 1983 because it was too much stress on her husband.

"Instead, we took 10 months off and went to Aspen five times skiing. We've become such jocks, I don't believe it. My friends thought that after two weeks of not working, I'd be climbing the walls. But as it turned out I loved it.''

However, she also loves acting and is known for really getting into her roles. "I love to submerge myself in another character. I can be very open and free as somebody else.''

During the final days of shooting the TV movie "A Streetcar Named Desire,'' she so came to believe she had become the tragic heroine Blanche DuBois that her doctor had to come on the set to remind her it was only a film. "The director also told me it was just a film, but then he said he wanted me to stay in that state for another 48 hours,'' she added, laughing.

Ann-Margret said that she chooses a part based on a "gut-level reaction'' to the script. Her latest film, "Twice in a Lifetime,'' due out this fall, was written by Colin Welland, who did "Chariots of Fire.''

Recently, for the first time in her career, she hired writers to do an original screenplay for her. It is based on the true story of a teacher who became pregnant as a result of being raped, decided to have the baby and was fired from her job for it.

It was partially dissatisfaction with the roles she has been offered that prompted her to have one tailor-made, said Ann-Margret. "I wanted to have more control and do things that I want to do. I figure if I'm going to get up at 4 a.m. and work until 8 p.m., I want it to be for something I'm dying to do.''

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By RUTHE STEIN

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