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Somehow she made it through Vegas, Elvis, and her own Marilyn-like brush with mortality. This month, thirty years after she seduced Hollywood overnight, the ever sultry star is making her debut at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Paul Rosenfield meets the last of the red-hot glamour girls.
You have to understand one fundamental thing about Ann-Margret: They wrote her off . Twice. Before she was thirty-five. They said it was over in the sixties, when she did one terrible movie too many, usually playing a tramp.
They said it again in 1972, when she fell twenty-two feet off a platform at the Sahara Tahoe during a nightclub gig. They said she was drunk. The hotel, nervous about a lawsuit, hired private eyes to follow her for six months. They discovered what everyone in Hollywood already knew-that Ann-Margret hardly ever went out in public, except to Raiders games. Then the mob rumors started-how one of the Nevada crime families wanted a cut of her $150,000 a week in Vegas. How the manager-husband said no. Him. The Svengali. Roger Smith, the former actor, Mr. Heartthrob of 1959. The gossips said that he made a fatal mistake letting A-M do that awful John Wayne picture, 'The Train Robbers'. after her triumph in Mike Nichols's 'Carnal Knowledge'. That her career would never recover . To let her go from Mike Nichols to John Wayne!
But John Wayne didn't feel that way. He felt the same way as Lucille Ball, who called her "Junior." The Duke saw A-M as a show-business throwback, a personality-star, just like him. Three weeks before he died, Wayne sat propped up in his bed at his home near Los Angeles and said, "When I die, I want Ann-Margret to dance on my coffin. If you don 't see me in five minutes, you'll know I'm dead for sure."
Ann-Margret winks when you tell her this story, and crosses her cocktail-party legs. Right up close she's still the cheerleader she once was; the daily five-mile walks over the canyon to her mother's house in the Valley and the workouts Roger has devised for those dancer's legs keep her in shape. In Aspen, where the Smiths have a house, she out skis people half her age.
We're sitting in the living room of her Benedict Canyon home, which belonged to Bogart and Bacall during their honeymoon period. It's small, but on ten acres, and it has the drama of a movie-star lair-the ebony pool next to the entrance, the ivory picket fence that follows the long, winding driveway, the "media room," with the framed posters from her forty films. It's noon, and she's wearing pink hot pants, a silk turban, and a fourteen-carat marquise diamond Peggy Fleming could have skated on.
"Duke was always so protective of me," she says softly. This former coed from Northwestern knows about icons; she's been one for thirty years. Two months after George Burns discovered her, in 1960, singing in a lounge in Vegas, the nineteen-year-old Ann-Margret was on the cover of Life being dissected by Shana Alexander. She broke through in films as Kim MacAfee in 'Bye Bye Birdie' within twelve months, she was committed to sixteen pictures at five studios. When she shimmied compulsively on the 1962 Academy Awards, she made Hedda, Louella, and Winchell the morning after; Louella crowned her the next authentic star. She discussed marriage with Elvis Presley, and when J.F.K. turned forty-six she sang at his birthday, just as M.M. had a year earlier. She was even immortalized on The Flintstones as "Ann Margrock."
All of which made Ann-Margret, with her "twitchpout-snarl and bump routine," as Michael Herr called it, a favorite media plaything of the New Frontier sixties. Until her 1972 Oscar nomination for 'Carnal Knowledge', she was called a female Troy Donahue and a vanilla Raquel Welch, "a lewd mechanical doll," as Pauline Kael put it. Following the fall in Tahoe, a lot of people thought she had disappeared, although she never really did. She was always working, mostly onstage "taking her lavish revue around the world.
Then, in 1983, Ann-Margret consented to do a TV movie, 'Who Will Love My Children?' She was nominated for an Emmy, and when Barbara Stanwyck won instead, she told the crowd, "The award really belongs to Ann-Margret. I thank her for my tears." After The 'Two Mrs. Grenvilles', in 1987, A-M became the Queen of the TV Movie. (John Kimble, her Triad agent, says she's "at the top of every network's list.") Off the big screen since Alan Alda's bomb 'A New Life', three years ago, A-M at fifty has just finished a cameo in Disney's upcoming musical, 'Newsies'. And this month she confronts a career-long phobia about playing New York or L.A., when she headlines Radio City Music Hall for a week. It's been a long time since anybody's written her off.
"You'd think I'd be tough by now," says the woman Mike Nichols calls ''the most vulnerable human being" he's ever met. "After forty films, I should be tough. But I'm not. I mean, I know I'm crazy or I wouldn't be an actress," she says, knowing exactly what she is saying. "But I'm not as crazy as people think."
I'd d just told her about a recent incident at Spago, where one of the most vicious women in Los Angeles, the birdbrained wife of a TV producer, was holding court at the best table in the restaurant. She was talking about a Hollywood archetype, namely, the Recluse. Jennifer Jones was the town recluse for years, until she married Norton Simon, and so was Barbara Stanwyck, until she got sick. (Not that getting sick counts for much in Hollywood.)
Ann-Margret is much more than a Hollywood recluse, but the social bees whose hives she ignores like casting her that way. "I hear she went out last week," said the birdbrained wife to her dinner partner. "To a wedding. In the turban. And the directblack aviators." She lifted her lifted forehead. "And that husband. . . he cuts her meat for her."
"Mmm," agreed one of the other peopIe, a quintessential Hollywood wife. "At least Streisand goes to Morton's or the Ivy once in a while. Or Tana's. And Bette Midler is at Farmer's Market every Saturday afternoon, practically unrecognized . . . but I don't think Ann-Margret has been out of the house since Hedda Hopper's funeral. Hedda taught her how to curtsy for when she met the Queen of England."
"Stopit," said someone else at the table. "She's a wonderful actress."
"Darling," said the Hollywood wife. "We know that. I'm the one who told Mike Nichols to use her in 'Carnal Knowledge' for Christ's sake."
"You are not!" said the other woman authoritatively. "Kathleen Tynan told Mike to use her. . . And let's face it: she's the only successor to Barbara Stanwyck. That's how good an actress she is."
When you tell Ann-Margret this story, her face becomes a fist. The most private person in town never goes to restaurants, ever, and she never hears this kind of talk. Neither does she talk this way herself. "When we made 'Cincinnati Kid'," Joan Blondell, who co-starred with A-M, told me several years ago, "I couldn't even get her to say a mean word about Tuesday Weld. She kept so to herself."
But if A-M is reclusive, she isn't Norma Desmond. She entertains beautifully, and often, and her friendships are un-Hollywood, which means they last for decades. She motorcycles guests around Benedict Canyon at two in the morning, but she likes to think it's her business, not yours. Hearing about the evening at Spago makes Ann-Margret icy, and she changes the subject very fast. Sort of. She points to Sugar, her eleven-year-old Yorkie, and winks again.
"What else do they say about me?" she wants to know.
"The usual. An actress told me you are the only movie star who slept with Sinatra and Elvis and J .F.K. A director told me you disguise yourself as a bag lady to go to the theater, so you won't be recognized. A composer told me you are the most loyal person in the community. That you appear when a friend needs you, but it's unbearably painful to go out."
"The last thing is true," says A-M matter-of-factly. "About my going out. But what people don 't understand is that I have to become Ann-Margret."
The words don't come easily; they never come easily to Ann-Margret. She rarely gives interviews, and she's tired already of the questions about her relationship with Elvis and the plastic surgery that saved her face after the fall. Yet this is a woman people care about, a star even the usually brittle Mike Nichols is protective of. "Don't write anything mean about Ann-Margret," he once instructed as if it were a commandment from above. "Everything she does is to please someone else. So she's the kind of person you feel responsible for."
A-M is the first person to admit she's all emotion. "I'm one big nerve ending. My nerves are on top of my skin. Can you see them?" she asks. Sitting with her you're aware of how many hours in therapy she's had, how far out of her shell she's climbed. She was so exploited by Hollywood early on that the odds against her recovering were great. The men who dismissed her twentyfive years ago, the managers and studio heads, are no longer in power, but A-M may not know that. In a company town, she's more internal than the company likes. That she knows, but it doesn't particularly bother her .
"Nobody was ever as sexy as Ann-Margret-ever," remembered Maureen Stapleton, who co-starred in 'Bye Bye Birdie'. "Early on, there was an exhibitors' screening of the movie, all men, like two hundred of them, and I remember how they were with her. This poor thing was such a baby. And I crossed the room and told her , 'I'm the only person in this room who doesn't want to fuck you."
This, of course, is not a story A-M herself would tell. "There was always this sexual conflict surrounding Ann-Margret," remembers a director who worked with her. "People want to see her be down and dirty-that's the appeal. But it's also her biggest problem, because she's basically a repressed Swede."
"Well, I am a Swede," A-M replied when I repeated the remark. Then she stood up to stretch, with the body language of a sexy teenager. It's a mix of virgin and vixen which made so much sense in the Camelot years that it's no wonder J.F.K. is said to have made a pass at her on the White House lawn. When she talks about Sweden you swear you're listening to a foreign movie star - Hedy Lamarr, maybe. Tell her that and she doesn't pause.
"Hedy Lamarr built this house," she says in one of her deepest registers. "And I always thought the place was right out of the English countryside. Betty [Bacall] told me two of Bogart's wives lived here, herself and Mayo [Methot, Bogart's third wife]. There's history here.
Ann-Margret's own history is one for the books. She saw her electrician father for the first time at age six, when she got off the Swedish liner Gripsholm in New York with her mother. The first place the late Gus Olsson took his family was Radio City Music Hall. (Seventeen years later A-M would take her father back to see her name on the Radio City marquee for 'Bye Bye Birdie', and this month her mother will be in the Radio City audience for her daughter's New York debut.) A-M's was the kind of poor childhood where the father drives all night in the rain to get his daughter from suburban Chicago to a twenty-dollar-a-night singing gig in Kansas City. And he does it night after night. In the fifties A-M's mother worked for her room and board as a domestic and a receptionist at a funeral parlor. Her daughter slept in the mourning room, after the mourners had left, and practiced piano while rats crept up from the basement. It's a saga that needs a modern Dickens to do it justice.
The story smooths out when she gets to the fabled New Trier High School in Winnetka, llIinois-alumni include Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, and Bruce Dernand becomes something of a legend. (She played the campus-queen role so well in real life that years later William Goldman admitted that he had based Peggy Ann Snow, the faded cheerleader in his novel 'Magic', on A-M. She played the part in the movie, opposite Anthony Hopkins.)
In her teens she auditioned for Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Club in Chicago. Producer Allan Carr , who was working for Playboy at the time, remembers Hefner saying, "This is such a fresh, innocent girl. She'll marry a dentist and move to Wheeling." Instead, at nineteen, she went to HoIIywood, driving cross-country with two male classmates, calling themselves the Suttletones. They were discovered - or , rather, she was, by George Burns-within months of arriving. The same year, Shana Alexander was already following the unknown Ann-Margret Olsson from audition to audition for a Life-magazine story on making it in the movies. When Ann-Margret, sans Olsson, got the cover, just before her twentieth birthday, the mythology had begun. A crossover star-part sexpot, part tragedienne-was born.
"What she is," her first manager, Pierre Cossette, told a reporter from Cosmopolitan thirty years ago, "is every little girl who closes her bedroom door, and looks into her full-length mirror and becomes somebody great." Before she became somebody great, though, A-M became something hot. She was Hollywood's Bachelor Girl of 1962 getting two Sour Apples from the Hollywood Women's Press Club for not talking about her love life - and she did it with the kind of innocence Madonna wouldn't understand. A-M tiptoed around the boundaries, but never over them. She and lane Fonda' s 'Barbarella' were probably the most prominent post-Monroe sex symbols of the swinging sixties. But if A-M did the Watusi on a motorcycle in 'Viva Las Vegas', that's all she did. Offscreen she and Elvis were as private as Gable and Lombard in their early days. "I was with a lot of men early on, for a reason," A-M told me. "I wanted, when I married, to marry once. I saw how women in this town turn into soft men when they don't have a man of their own."
Like Madonna? One afternoon I asked A-M what she thought of the Madonna-informed period of sexuality in this culture . "I'm from the old school," she demurred. "The animal side of yourself is something you only show to your husband. The Ann-Margret you compare to Madonna isn't me - it's a character. People want to see me be glamorous. It's my image. . . When I came in in '61, you had to be dressed to the teeth, so I learned how."
And Madonna? "I never met Madonna. I've seen Dick Tracy, so I've seen her perform. But there's a lot of difference to what people do on stage and what they are like offstage."
The utter calculation of Madonna is completely missing in Ann-Margret, on- or offstage. If Madonna is painted as a puppeteer of the people around her, A-M has often been painted as a gentle puppet, a woman not controlling but controlled. High-concept lines emerged from various mouths when I told people I was writing about A-M. "The last good soul in Hollywood," one producer said. Or: "The best untold story in town. ' , But the image of her as a beautiful toy driven by others is no longer true.
"I'll never think of you as frail again," I told her one morning while we hiked around Benedict Canyon and she pointed out the sites of her one-, two-, three-hour daily walks through the woods. (She also swims sixty laps a day when she's "in training," and she walks endlessly up and down the 186 steps her husband built for her outside the house.) "I'm not frail that way," she said simply. "But it's the image that came around. I never really understood that I had a choice about saying yes or no. We all have trees in our brains, in various areas and in various amounts. I have trees in the areas of singing and dancing and acting, but not in business or cooking. . . . I know what people say-but nobody was there with a whip."
When I asked her about "the Svengali thing," she didn't flinch. "I was working my whole life," she said plaintively. "For thirteen years I never took a vacation. Then, in '73, I was very shaky and totally burnt out after 'Carnal Knowledge' and the death of my father. I was not in a good state of mind, and I wanted Roger to do everything. Now. . .if I really don't want to do something, I don 't do it. And I can make the calls myself to explain why. You learn to say no, if you don't want to unravel."
It was the TV movie of Tennessee Williams's 'A Streetcar Named Desire' in 1984 that almost unraveled Ann-Margret. "I never played anyone who lost her mind, and I thought I was losing my mind," she whispered one afternoon in her dining room in Aspen. Her extraordinary Victorian house, next door to Jack Nicholson 's, is an unlikely setting to be talking about Blanche du Bois, but A-M is never far from her characters." It was loony-tunes time on that one. I lost ten pounds." She looked as though she remembered it well. "Mr. Williams wanted me to do Blanche, but he died three days after I was signed. By the last three days of shooting I couldn 't quite . . . grasp onto anything. That had never happened before. [Director] John Erman came to the trailer, and looked right into my eyes, and he said, , Ann-Margret, this is just a movie. Ann-Margret, this is just a movie. Ann-Margret, this is just a movie. . . "
"I think her Blanche is better than Vivien Leigh's," said legendary MGM star hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff, who not only did both Streetcars but also has done-and befriended-everyone from Garbo to Dietrich in a career spanning 'Camille', 'Cleopatra', 'Ben-Hur', and 'The Two Mrs. Grenvilles'. These days, the elegant Mr. Guilaroff comes out of retirement only for Ann-Margret. Recently he received me in his living room in Beverly Hills. "Katharine Hepburn told me she thought Ann-Margret was the best Blanche she ever saw, and she saw every important Blanche," he said. "With Vivien, there was too much focus on her beauty. She was rather too lit, and she overacted in places. ' , Guilaroff, who has known A-M since he did her and Elvis for 'Viva Las Vegas' in 1964, thinks she's changed "not at all. She's grown simpler is all. As an actress, nobody can touch her, and everybody knows it. . . . She has that thing real stars have. " It's a kind of motto, Guilaroff suggests. " "Don't think you 're so great-let others think it." Ann-Margret has that, and she also understands everybody's daily sadness."
"Some people thought I was crazy to think that she' d be right for 'Who Will Love My Children?'" says John Erman, who's directed four of A-M's TV movies. "I insisted she give up her vanity. 'This is a dying farm woman-no makeup at all,' I told her. 'You can't bring your image with you." She looked at me, and she looked at Roger, and she said, 'Would you let me curl my eyelashes?' I took it seriously. When she's working she has no armor."
If A-M missed the first tier of movie stardom, she's lasted longer than many who made it, and she knows it. Yet there were a lot of almosts in A-M's life. She almost auditioned for the role of Maria in 'West Side Story'. She was considered for 'Bonnie and Clyde', but her managers didn't let her read the script. Instead she made mistakes like 'Kitten with a Whip'. She almost played 'Cat Ballou', but instead took a Dean Martin bore, 'Murderers' Row'. She came this close to playing the neurotic midwestern mother in Robert Redford's 'Ordinary People'. (Redford wanted A-M, but Paramount said she couldn 't play' 'unsympathetic," and Mary Tyler Moore could.)
If A-M's dream role was to play Frances Farmer, her dream career move finally materialized in 1970, when she became Mike Nichols's best piece of casting ever: Bobbie Templeton in 'Carnal Knowledge'. The director had already rejected Dyan Cannon, Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, and Raquel Welch. After Kathleen Tynan told Nichols to think about A-M, her agent, Sue Mengers, immediately set up a dinner for her to meet the director. And-big surprise A-M almost didn't make it, fainting an hour before cocktails were to begin. "It was before panic attacks were chic," remembers somebody who was at the dinner, "but I'm sure Ann-Margret had a panic attack. "
Nichols went for her anyway. Playing the bumt-out barmaid-milkmaid to Jack Nicholson' s ravenous little boy got to her. On some level she may never have got ten over it; out takes of the couple's scenes are beyond erotic and are much sought-after on Hollywood's private-screening circuit. It was then that people started comparing A-M to Monroe, and really worrying about her. The husband drives her so hard she has to take pills, people said. Those people didn't know Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
Legend has it that when A-M met her therapist, Dr. Lu Katzman, in 1974, she told her over and over, "Just don't let me turn into Marilyn Monroe." I asked her about it. "I never worshiped anybody, I never had idols. Isn't that interesting? Not even Marilyn Monroe. But I was singing in Elko, Nevada, when she was filming 'The Misfits'. And Mr. Clift [Montgomery Clift) heard us sing one night at the club. And he kept coming back every night. And one day I went to the set with him. Mr. Clift wanted me to meet Miss Monroe. But I never did. I just waited, like everybody else."
But the A-M comparisons to M.M. began to seem inevitable after a while, especially when A-M employed Evelyn Moriarity, Monroe's stand-in, as her stand-in. Then there was the fact that A-M began using George Masters, the hair wizard who made Monroe a white-blonde, and Sydney Guilaroff, who also did Monroe. But does A-M have what Jack Nicholson called' 'the same glow of tragedy as Monroe"? Guilaroff thinks not. "Marilyn tuned in to a different thing - she's a much different soul than Ann-Margret. Ann-Margret remembers where she came from. And men didn't use her the way they did Marilyn. Which is interesting, considering Ann-Margret's sexuality. In 'Mrs. Grenvilles', when she undressed down to that corset, I thought corsets would come back in style. You could hear gapes on the set. "
A friend says that A-M ' , had some of the same traumas about childbirth, and the same need for a child, that Marilyn had. Nobody ever was as determined as AnnMargret to have a child. She did state-ofthe-art pregnancy tests. She wore a syringe attached to her stomach for a week at a time that I couldn 't tolerate for an hour. But her therapy changed her life."
Dr. Katzman remembers driving to mutual friend Nancy Walker's house to meet a terrified Ann-Margret; they had such instant chemistry that people close to A-M got worried about the doctor's having too much power. "So they told Ann-Margret, who's completely naive about money, how expensive therapy was, "remembers the doctor. And she said, with complete sincerity, that she would sell her diamonds to pay for therapy. Or she'd play some more weeks in Vegas."
"V egas is my favorite town," A-M told me very late one night in 1983, in the Ann-Margret Suite at Caesars Palace. She was wearing a simple green shetland V-neck and jeans, and she was as relaxed as I've ever seen her .
"I was a lounge singer at the Dunes from five to eight," she said, looking out at the Vegas street of dreams and focusing on the Dunes. "Do you know what they do in a lounge from five to eight? They talk, they don 't listen." The melancholy shifted to a better memory . "I wore shiny Capris that cost five dollars when Mr. Bums put me in his show at the Sahara", she remembered somewhat wistfully. "And Mr . Benny [Jack Benny] came every night, and then Mr . Benny asked me to be on his TV show, and-"
And it began - and it began to take its toll. One night in her dressing room at Caesars, I watched her tell her bodyguard, "I want those bottles of bourbon out of here. I want them out now." She looked knowingly at me: seven years earlier, when the tabloids had got ten wind of her attendance at A.A. meetings after the fall in Tahoe and the tail the insurance company put on her, she talked to me, with great trepidation, about alcoholism. Her father, she explained, had the drinking problem, and she'd been to some Al-Anon meetings, for family members of alcoholics. "We're talking about the number-one killer," she said plaintively. When the Los Angeles Times printed her A.A. explanation, the tabloids backed off. The truth is that A-M did, after 'Carnal Knowledge' indulge in diet and sleeping pills. "When you've been dead emotionally as I have" , A-M told me in Vegas, "you reach for anything." But the truth is also that at the time of her accident she' 'hadn 't had any alcohol in me in six months."
"You must understand something about manager-husbands," explained a Hollywood wife. "It only works if the husband has had his own career. Like Mitzi Gaynor's husband, who made his bones in real estate. The man has to have been at least semi-successful."
Roger Smith wasn't boasting when he pointed to a wall of framed TV Guide covers in his office. ' , Between us we' ve had seven covers," said the former star of the television show '77 Sunset Strip'. One friend suggests Smith could now star in "a healthy version of the 1954 'A Star Is Born', as the husband the star comes home to from the studio. She sings and dances in the living room, and he creates the backdrop. Whatever it is, it works. In their case, it took two to make one."
A-M first met Roger Smith at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in 1960, when she was on her way to Los Angeles for her screen test and he was a TV star . Two years later , when they were reintroduced by producer Allan Carr, Smith happened upon an A-M mud slide: $133,000 in debt, she was overcommitted to half-baked projects at rival studios. But Smith stood warned. "This girl you love has career problems," Carr told him. Smith remembers A-M as "a little animal trying to protect herself", so, at her request, he and Carr became her managers.
If A-M and Roger were an instant couple, they were never voted most likely to succeed. A hostess who has known them since the sixties told a reporter that "either she's a masochist or he's got hidden charms." A friend of Smith's claims the problem is that "Roger doesn't make nice. So he offends people in a community where everyone makes nice. He's blunt."
But people who paint Smith as a takeover artist miss the point; Ann-Margret got everything she wanted-including the kind of husband Monroe wanted-by delegating. "I liked to be told where to go, what to do" , she once told me. It was Roger who told A-M to take off her bra for the first time onscreen, in Stanley Kramer's R.P.M. In a kind of only-in-Hollywood reverse logic Smith convinced the actress that if she didn 't she'd be forever consigned to bimbo roles.
With the onset of Smith's myasthenia gravis, in the early eighties, A-M stopped playing Eliza Doolittle at home and started showing real strength in the face of her husband's harrowing illness. She still doesn't cook, and doesn't care, but she no longer thinks she has to sell her diamonds to pay for things. By the mid-seventies, Smith, with business manager Dan Gottlieb, had built a real-estate and stock portfolio with A-M's earnings that made the couple financially independent for life.
It came at a price, though. Cynics have never stopped talking about Smith pushing his wife. Once, when she was exhausted in Vegas, A-M was wheeled to the stage on room-service carts, supervised by Smith. But the husband did get points when he single-handedly piloted a twin-engine jet all night in fog to get to A-M's bedside in Tahoe. He then flew her to Los Angeles while she was still in a semi-coma ("To save her face," the same cynics said). The two of them put her back together, however, despite the gossip that she was finished. "Ten weeks after the fall," A-M remembered, "I was back onstage. Wearing the same dress. We'd gotten the blood out."
"Is this the first musical since 'Mary Poppins'?" Roger Smith asked one day on the set of the Disney musical 'Newsies'. "I mean the first Disney musical?' , Smith now resembles Larry Hagman's J. R. Ewing more than he does the dashing young Patrick Dennis he played opposite Rosalind Russell in 'Auntie Mame', but swears he never really cared about acting anyway. He was sitting in a tall director' s chair next to A-M, who was playing back her lines on her ever present tape recorder. Dressed to the 39s as the ribald Swedish meadow lark Medda Larkson, the star looked a little like Natalie Wood in 'Inside Daisy Clover', all of seventeen. On a soundstage, time stops for Ann-Margret. What she's learned on movie sets could fill volumes.
"Ooli-ooli-coo-coo-coo", she sang, playing with her lyrics as if they were charms on her bracelet. ' 'This one you are going to like, I think," she decided. "Medda is a Swedish meatball who sings and dances. But the minute she comes offstage, she talks in a whole other, tougher voice." A-M's attention to detail is endless. Watching her work, you think maybe Ann-Margret should have had the Disney deal that went to Bette Midler-A-M would have been the perfect golden-age contract star . It was A-M who knew that the 'Newsies' character should be called Medda Larkson and not (as originally intended) Ruthie Diamond; it was A-M who knew how far to take the decolletage. This isn't the same frightened girl who hid in a closet in a bra and slip while waiting for Mike Nichols to do wardrobe tests.
But is Ann-Margret still frightened? Is she still afraid of playing Manhattan? The last time she came close, with Michael Bennett in 1985, ended abruptly the day Bennett stopped taking Roger Smith's calls for no known reason. The musical was Bennett's dream idea, a Broadway version of the Doris Day movie 'Love Me or Leave Me' with A-M as torch singer Ruth Etting. (Bennett told people he wanted "Ten Cents a Dance" in quotes on his tombstone.) If the idea of playing Ruth Etting eight times a week terrified her, the prospect of playing Radio City seems not to.
"Not anymore," she says lightly. "I want to do it while I can still kick." She demonstrates with a kick for all seasons. But her friends worry that if even one adjective in one review is negative, A-M will do an I-told-you-so and never play New York or L.A. again. Why is it such a thing with her?
"I live here," she says plaintively. "I do movies and TV here because it's inside studios. I feel protected here. ' , I tell her my favorite A-M image is of her walking with a hotel bodyguard through endless corridors, very late at night, and she smiles and winks again.
"The band-singer image," she shoots back. Then she seems to go inside herself. I remind her of something she said a hundred years ago: "There were a lot of girl singers when I started out, and you no longer know their names. . . but I plan to be the girl who sustains, year after year ."
She smiles, and owns the line. "I guess I wasn't in it for the short haul," she says knowingly. "I guess I was in it for the long haul."
By Paul Rosenfield