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Ann-Margret: Still cracking that whip

LAKE GENEVA, WI -- There is just no keeping up with all the new Ann-Margrets. Last year's new Ann-Margret abandoned her image, as the press releases say, to play a committed graduate student in "R.P.M." Her quandary: Should she still shack up with Anthony Quinn after he stops being a radical professor and becomes a moderate administrator? That's a dicey quandary, believe me, because Ann-Margret was playing a liberated woman even if she didn't have her own motorcycle and had to ride on the back of Anthony Quinn's.

That lack was remedied in "C. C. and Company," in which a slightly newer but still not entirely new Ann-Margret played a fashion photographer who rescued Joe Namath from a motorcycle gang, put an end to his days as a male chauvinist pig and got her own bike. A Yamaha, I think. While these two movies didn't exactly put Ann-Margret in the lead for the Jane Fonda Cup, they nevertheless were a departure for the old new Ann-Margret of "Kitten with a Whip," "The Swinger," "Bus Riley's Back in Town," et al.

Still, still...graduate students and bike freaks weren't quite what we expected from Ann-Margret, our gal from Wilmette, star of "Bye Bye Birdie" and overnight sensation after her "Bachelor in Paradise" dance number on the 1962 Oscarcast (the memory of which is one of the few good reasons for having entered adolescence before 1962). She went on from there: "State Fair," romance with Elvis, "Viva Las Vegas," 1964 Star of the Year of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, co-hostess of President Johnson's Inaugural Ball. In 1965, she made Walter Scott's Personality Parade:

Q. Is it true that Ann-Margret has gone Hollywood?

A. True.

And now what was this? Dirty sweatshirts? Hell's Angels? Somehow, as Ann-Margret reached 30 this year, you wondered whether it wasn't time for her to abandon all her images, including the image she got last year by abandoning the others.

Maybe -- who could say? -- it was even time for Ann-Margret to take on a serious dramatic role. In the language of Hollywood press agents, a "serious dramatic role" is any role for which an actress must appear unclothed or put on (or take off) 25 or more pounds. The role of Bobbie in Mike Nichols' "Carnal Knowledge" looked right.

The movie, as everybody knows by now, is about two college roommates and their hang-ups about women down through the years. One roommate is played by Jack Nicholson, and his thing is girls with big breasts. The bigger the better. Bobbie (who is about, I would judge, a 38-D) is the answer to his dreams. But she is not the answer to anything else, alas, because he is too immature to relate to the whole woman, body and soul.

The role was made for Ann-Margret in the same sense that Anita Ekberg was born to play the sex goddess in "La Dolce Vita" and Victor Mature to play a muscle-bound, has-been movie star in "After the Fox." During a decade of mostly bad movies, which tunneled into our subconscious on the Late Show, Ann-Margret has become a part of our national symbol collection. It is possible to use the phrase "an Ann-Margret" and have people more or less know what you mean. And if it's true, as Pauline Kael unkindly wrote, that Ann-Margret can say anything and make it sound dirty, maybe that was because her sensuality was unsuited to the inane virgins she always played.

Bobbie, the character in "Carnal Knowledge," has been around, been used and abused, and although she's not very bright, she has an instinctive intelligence about men. (In this respect, she's something like Karen Black's waitress in "Five Easy Pieces" who tells Nicholson, "You ain't never gonna find another woman who'll love you and take care of you the way I do." Because he knows that is true, he flees from her.) All of the things about Ann-Margret that made her wrong for so many roles made her right for this one. She really does project carnal knowledge; the years in Hollywood have made her wiser, tougher, more of a woman and less of the girl they wanted her to play for so long. And when, in "Carnal Knowledge," Jack Nicholson asks her, "You know what you can do for me?" and she changes the subject and the entire context of the moment by replying, "No baby...what do you want me to do for you?" there is an echo, somehow, back to a line like Lauren Bacall's "If you want anything, whistle." An adult sexuality had at last replaced Ann-Margret's endlessly protracted girlhood.

The question on her mind, though, and on the minds of her husband and her manager, was whether she could play Bobbie with the depth that Nichols would require without doing injury to her own personality. Bobbie was a character who could lacerate an actress, especially one made vulnerable by her image like Ann-Margret. Could she pull it off? Could she survive if she did?

These questions were on my mind one weekend when I drove up to the Playboy Hotel at Lake Geneva to see Ann-Margret's nightclub act and do an article on the new Ann-Margret. Personally, I felt as if I'd been doing articles on the new Ann-Margret almost as a hobby; my last one was only 10 months ago. But after "Carnal Knowledge," Ann-Margret was really new. She was even being mentioned for an Academy Award, especially by Allan Carr, her manager. Asked recently whether she might get a nomination, Carr thought for a moment and replied: "It is a foregone conclusion."

Ann-Margret married the actor Roger Smith in 1967, and since then Smith and Carr (as "Rogallen Productions") have largely shaped her career. They produced the successful TV specials, they launched her spectacular Las Vegas show, they guided her into "R. P. M." and they busted a gut (one imagines) at the opportunity to get her into a Mike Nichols film. One imagines; but, in fact, Mike Nichols got the idea all by himself.

The week at the Playboy Hotel represented a scaled-down version of her Las Vegas revue for a smaller stage. Scaled-down only somewhat: There still were 24 musicians, for example.

My room at the resort was a spacious one with tan corduroy wallpaper, not one but two king-sized beds, a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of Scotch from the hotel manager, and another bottle of bourbon and another bottle of Scotch from the assistant manager. No basket of fruit, but why cavil? I telephoned Allan Carr's room and braced myself. He is so filled with plans, projects, opportunities, commitments and enthusiasms that you hope he always carries a paper bag to breathe from in case of hyperventilation. I mentioned something about an interview with Ann-Margret.

"Doctor's orders!" Allan said. "Ann-Margret goes to bed right after the show and doesn't get out of bed again until the next show! Then back to bed! Complete rest Utter exhaustion! She's saving everything for the stage!"

He paused, wondering perhaps if he had painted too bleak and desperate a picture. He qualified his gloom slightly: "She's tired," he said, "but it's a nice kind of tired."

She's certainly been busy, I said.

"After all the things that have been happening!" Allan said. "She's on the cover of Life this week. Newsweek wants her, Time wants her, they sent six people from Life to follow her for three weeks, she's been on one-night stands for a month, they want to know what color her hair was in 'Stagecoach.' I tried to explain to them about Deluxe color, Metrocolor, Technicolor, they aren't even listening..."

I almost didn't recognize Allan in person when he turned up in the Penthouse Room shortly before Ann-Margret's opening. He looked slimmer than when last I saw him, and he was. He'd lost 115 pounds after having one of those intestinal bypass operations and planned to get down to 165 before being hooked up again. He was dressed, as always, in immaculately tailored grays and blacks and reds, and he was gloating over the business they were doing.

"A house record!" he said. "It will kill Sammy Davis when he finds out!

We have seats in the aisles, people can't get in, we just sold standing room in the entranceway!"

He ticked off some of Ann-Margret's plans "just for the immediate future." There would be five days of taping for "Dames at Sea" to be shown Nov. 15 on NBC. ("She looks about 15 with short curly hair like Ruby Keeler.") She would probably do "Little Mary Sunshine" somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. ("A spoof of 'Rosemarie,' she plays Jeanette MacDonald.") She was interested in a Women's Lib script, "Stand Up and be Counted." She might do something for Mike Frankovich at Columbia. She was being considered for "After the Fall" as the Marilyn Monroe character with George C. Scott to direct and star, maybe. She might do the second girl lead in "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." They were working on the final script for "Radioland." She had four weeks coming up at the International in Las Vegas. She had a Columbia commitment. Two commitments at United Artists. One of them with Tom Jones - maybe. ("That's a scoop! You won't print it in New York, will you?")

Carr stopped, not even breathing hard.

Uh, what was that about "Radioland?" I asked, trying to get everything down.

"It's a female "Five Easy Pieces, Carr said. "It's about this girl driving through the South in a Studebaker convertible, one of those that looked like it was going in both directions at the same time. This is all in the 1950s. It's the first time the whole era has been done. Patti Page and the whole era. The girl meets a boy who listens all the time to the Chicago radio stations, which are clear channel and you can get them all over the South. The boy's one ambition in life is to be Howard Miller. Remember? Howard Miller and June Valli were the Burton and the Taylor of the 1950s. We're considering Art Garfunkel as the guy. The script is being written by Bronte Myron Woodard."

Who? I said.

"Bronte Myron Woodard."

Ann-Margret entered the big show lounge through the front entrance wearing a sequined Oscar de la Renta gown that sparkled in the spotlight. She had a portable mike, she was singing "Show Me a Man Who Has a Good Woman" and on her way to the stage she patted a bald head and said, "Hi, Sig!"

"Gosh, it's good to be back," she said, "and I am back, in a way, because I remember closing the Black Orchid years ago, and Hugh Hefner was there on closing night, and now here I am working for Hef. Isn't that great?"

The audience munched lettuce and wiped Green Goddess from its lips. It clearly was waiting to see whether Ann-Margret was going to be worth the cover and the dinner tab, and had no intention of applauding Hefner in the interim.

"Of course," Ann-Margret said, "I'm from right here in the neighborhood. Wilmette."

Now there was applause.

"Oh, is someone here from Wilmette?"

Someone sure was.

"And I was born in...Sweden."

Applause from Swedes.

"And I went to Northwestern."

And from Wildcats.

"Oh my," she said, "I feel right at home."

She sang mostly standards: "The Trolley Song," "Baby Face," a Burt Bacharach medley. There were several costume changes, covered by film clips of Ann-Margret in Sweden and Ann-Margret on Joe Namath's motorcycle. And the two male dancers in the show got a chance to do a duet during her last costume change. They sang and danced "Polk Salad," about a soul food delicacy highly prized, if I remember correctly, down the bayou.

Between shows, Ann-Margret and Roger Smith went to their suite, and Ann-Margret studied her script again. She had failed to introduce the dancers by name during the first show and wanted to be sure she didn't forget the second time. Roger Smith was worried about the quality of sound in the Penthouse Room.

"We had two sound engineers come in from Chicago to look at the system," he said. "Do you know that until yesterday, the people in the top tier were hearing through the Muzak speakers?"

Smith concerns himself almost exclusively with Ann-Margret's career these days. Despite his success on "77 Sunset Strip," he has no desire to act again. He got into acting in the first place, he says, because he wanted recognition. "Then, when I got it, I didn't like it. Having people recognize you in restaurants and that whole trip. I just didn't dig the publicity." Now it's a good day for him when no one asks for an autograph. He wears jeans, cowboy boots and a denim jacket over a black T-shirt, and recently he grew a beard.

His involvement with Ann-Margret's professional activities covers everything from producing and writing (the "C. C. and Company" screenplay is his) to smaller details he doesn't like to trust others with (he personally acted as sound engineer for the Playboy engagement). There would possibly be no new Ann-Margret at all without Smith and Carr; her choice of projects in the pre-Rogallen period ranged from disastrous to only fair.

"Honey," Smith said at last, "we got to go."

It was time for the second show, and when Smith and Ann-Margret left their suite to walk to the Penthouse, there were a dozen autograph-seekers camped outside. Although she was concerned about remembering her script, Ann-Margret signed autographs for all of them; she hadn't been a Universal starlet for nothing.

The Penthouse had been completely bought out for the second show by a Negro fraternity that was having its alumni convention. It was a better audience than the first, more responsive, more relaxed, and Ann-Margret was more relaxed, too.

Roger Smith, operating the sound board at the back of the room, nodded when Ann-Margret threw in some adlibs. "She's comfortable now," he said. But he winced later in the show when the dancers went into the "Polk Salad" number. Would the black audience be offended? Not at all; they took it as a put-on and liked it.

Ann-Margret has always had a reputation as a good singer and dancer, but until you see her in person, you don't realize how good she really is. It is possible that she came to Hollywood during the wrong decade; movie musicals never were more anemic than in the 1960s, and "Viva Las Vegas," for example, didn't demand (and possibly couldn't use) the full range of her talents. Ann-Margret unleashed would have put poor Elvis in dismal contrast.

Her voice is full and strong, and when she lets go with an all-out song like "The Trolley Song," she has more energy, more raw moxie than most of her contemporaries. Sometimes it worries Roger Smith when she pulls out the stops. "She knows how to control her voice, do her breathing," he says. "She has a trained voice, and she does her exercises every day. But then when she gets on a stage, there's something that makes her want to really flatten out an audience, and she just lets loose with everything. It's not good for her."

But the audience was loving it, and Ann-Margret let go and forgot about the breathing exercises. Her stage style probably was formed at New Trier and in Northwestern's Waa-Mu Show anyway, long before voice coaches, and the people who saw her then think her original show biz nickname, the "sex kitten," was right on.

After the second show, half a dozen friends gathered in Ann-Margret's suite, and Roger Smith filled their wineglasses. Ann-Margret appeared after a few minutes in a slinky gown and reclined on the sofa. The pose resembled the center spread in that week's Life, which had her full-length, low-cut and petting a sleepy white cat, shades of Mae West.

"But God," Ann-Margret said, "how did they choose that cover photograph?"

"They had dozens of good pictures," Roger Smith said. "I saw them. They must have deliberately picked one that made you look bad."

"Well, it sure does," she said. And it sure did. One irreverent friend said it could have been captioned: "Hey, sailor, how about it?"

Ann-Margret picked up her portable microphone, which she'd brought back to the suite.

"It cut out again," she said.

"I can't figure why it does that," Smith said.

"Is it off?" Ann-Margret said.

"Yeah, I turned it off," Smith said.


"Right after the show."

"That's good. Otherwise we're broadcasting right now."

She took a glass of wine from her husband. Allan Carr popped into the room said she'd been fabulous, just fabulous, and that he was talking tomorrow with some people about "Karate is a Thing of the Spirit."

"Sydney Pollack may direct," he said. "They're thinking about Ann-Margret."

What's next? I said, trying to remember Carr's pre-dinner briefing. That Jeanette MacDonald thing in the Pacific Northwest?

"That what thing?" Ann-Margret said.

"'Little Mary Sunshine,'" Allan Carr said.

"I don't remember anything about it," she said.

"It's just something in the works," Carr said.

"A lot of people think Allan and I sort of push Ann-Margret too hard," Roger Smith said. "But it's not true. She wants to work. She loves to work."

"Until the 'Radioland' script came along," Ann-Margret said, "I was thinking of retiring."

"It's a great script," Allan Carr said. "Fabulous script."

"Why don't you retire and have a baby?" a friend asked.

"We're not doing anything not to have a baby," Ann-Margret said.

"She was on The Pill for 'Carnal Knowledge,'" Roger Smith said. "And Mike Nichols told her to eat, eat, eat. And female hormone shots to build up her bust."

"I'm still trying to lose that weight," Ann-Margret said. "I have 15 pounds to go. God, it was awful. It was the hardest movie I've ever had to do. I hated myself. I hated the way I looked. After a day's shooting, I'd go home and slouch around in Roger's bathrobe..."

"How did that rumor ever get started that it wasn't Ann-Margret's own bust?" Smith said. "She was that big in 'The Cincinnati Kid.' Any girl can do it. With The Pill and eating, you swell right up. It was all her."

"The scene where the other girl calls Ann-Margret a tub of lard, that must have hurt," Allan Carr said.

"A lot of actresses wouldn't have stood for that line," Roger Smith said, "But it was important for the characterization. It was necessary. I admire Ann-Margret for withstanding that line."

"Not my bust?" Ann-Margret said. "But you could see that it was me!"

"Now she's on steak and grapefruit," Allan Carr said.

"Eat all you want," Smith said. "You can be Totie Fields, and I will roll you home. Potato pancakes. No more gowns. Tent dresses and lots of laughs."

"I was like a piece of clay in that movie," Ann-Margret said, slowly. "Mike Nichols is a genius, I guess. He just molded me. Because he's an actor himself, he knows how to get everything out of you. He wrings out every bit of emotion. And he has a fantastic knack for casting. I was right for Bobbie. I became that character. You know, in a way, I still am Bobbie. I can't get rid of her. I try to force her out, but she's still there. I get up at 5 a.m. and I'm still Bobbie. I'm adjusting very badly. It's a good thing 'Dames at Sea' is next because if I went from one dramatic role to another, they'd have to put me in the loony bin."

"It was a great performance," Carr said. "Academy Award."

"Don't say that," Ann-Margret said.

"We've got to be careful," Roger Smith said. "She can't go from this back to junk. That's what happened last time. She was great, she was a star, she was on top, and then she was making 'Kitten With a Whip."'

"Honey, pour me some more wine," Ann-Margret said.

"It's all gone," Roger Smith said.

"Then call room service."

"Honey, it's 3 in the morning."

"I don't have to get up."

Roger Smith called room service and ordered another bottle of Ruffino Ducale. Allan Carr said he had to be up early in the morning and be in Chicago on business. Outside on the grounds, a group of guests passed beneath the balcony, seized by uncontrollable laughter. Their laughter grew more distant and then faded away.

"She sure was tragic," Ann-Margret said "She still haunts me, and you know? I can't get rid of her."

Roger Smith sat in a deep leather chair, stretched out his legs and planted his cowboy boots on the carpet.

"Yes," he said, "she sure was." Ann-Margret, who was still reclining on the couch; her gown clinging to her body and then falling in loose folds to the floor, held her wineglass in her hand and turned it around and around, catching the light.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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