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Roger Smith

Twisted sister

Ann-Margret explores new depths of evil in a chilling miniseries about manipulation and murder.

She sweeps into the ornate living room of her hill-top aerie like an old-fashioned movie star: Ann-Margret, 54, is a vision wrapped all in purple - purple turban, polo-neck sweater, a multi-colored shawl draped around her slender shoulders. She is granting an interview to discuss her latest project, a creepy four-hour miniseries called "Seduced by madness: The Diane Borchardt Story", airing this week. It is based on a real-life sociopath and teacher who manipulated three high-school students into murdering her husband (played by the hard-working Peter Coyote).

"I read it, but I didn't want to do it - absolutely not, she says in a whispery voice." This interviewer is held spellbound.

Part of the joy of visiting Ann-Margret is peeking into her private world - it's the way the golden stars of yesteryear once lived. The sign off the Beverly Hills Canyon road says Hedgerow Farm. The black electric gates slide noiselessly open and you crawl up an ever-winding driveway past sign that warn, "Cats crossing". The cats, of course, are Ann-Margret's house pets. (She used to have nine, but now she has just three. We don't ask.) The one-storey home itself reeks of history - it used to belong to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Now it houses the one-time Swedish sex-kitten and her husband of 31 years, retired actor Roger Smith. Red hair spilling from under her turban, she carefully plants herself on a long flowered print settee in a sweeping cream-and-pink living room full of huge oil paintings and a coffee table laden with glass cats and bowls of jellybeans. Just off to her right is the den, walls thick with framed magazine covers of the Ann-Margret of yesteryear.

The inteview is turning into a one-woman performance. I ask a question and she answers, in the whispery voice, in her own sweet time. "I read three drafts of the story and kept saying, 'I can't identify with this at all', and Roger said to me, "Ann-Margret, do you always want to play heroines?" She giggles, pauses and continues: "Yes I do, I do because I want to uplift and inspire with goodness and light. I mean Ariel (the character she plays opposite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in "Grumpy old men" and its current sequel, "Grumpier old men") talks to flowers."

There is a long pause. "Dada-dada...", she hums ominously. It's the theme from the old "Twilight Zone" series. How did she get into the skin of this disturbed woman? "This character was driving me crazy - so I went to a couple of shrinks for research. And I took a lot of notes because this is not a documentary but an American tragedy." On cue, she produces three crumpled yellow legal pages, slips on her granny reading glasses. "Very narcissistic, a control freak... two distinct personalities in public and private... dada-dada..." She continues reading: "Wonderful, seductive and charming... crying for sympathy... then raging." And Ann-Margret knows how to rage.

"I'm an emotional actress and there's so much adrenalin going on whenever I'm doing a scene." She rolls up her sweater to display a large, ugly bruise. "I was beating up on Peter Coyote. I don't know how many times my character beats him up and then I discovered this. It became very scary." We'll say.

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By Ivor Smith

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Review by Eric Kohanik

She was one nasty piece of work, that Diane Borchardt. And as portrayed by actress Ann-Margret, you can just feel the ice coursing through her veins.

"Seduced by madness: The Diane Borchardt Story" recounts the chilling true story of a Wisconsin high-school teacher who convinced a student named Doug Vest (played with endearing naivité by Christian Campbell) and his friends to murder her pitiable husband, Ruben (Peter Coyote, in a performance that is sympathetic and subtle).

The miniseries is slow in drawing the viewer into its grasp. You try hard to resist, in fact, but its seductive power is every bit as cagey as Diane herself. In part, the credit belongs to Ann-Margret, who gives her ice-queen just a breath of glamour.

More arresting though, is the powerful imagery presented by director John Patterson. It is most effective in sequences presented as parallel occurences: The gut-wrenching scene of Ruben's murder, for instance, is played out against a the placid backdrop of an Easter sunrise service. Such screen artistry helps make this gripping TV journey even more jolting.

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