ANNES, FRANCE - Outside on the beaches of the Mediterranean, there were small riots taking place as the paparazzi stalked the stars, and would-be starlets stalked the paparazzi across the topless sands and into the sea. But here, in the cool of the royal gray room of the expensive gray D'Albion hotel, all was calm and a little subdued, and a Muzak version of "Lazy River" played while Ann-Margret studied her menu.
"I am so hungry," she said, "that I could eat my way right through this."
The headwaiter nodded sympathetically. "Would Madame have a cocktail before dining?"
"I'll have . . . I'll have . . . what will I have?" Ann-Margret asked herself. "I'll have a Shirley Temple."
"A Shirley Temple?" asked the headwaiter, frowning uncertainly. Headwaiters in France are hired on the basis of their ability to admit that they speak English - something no other Frenchman admits to under any circumstance.
"You know," Ann-Margret said. "Juice of the orange and no alcohol?"
"And a slice of pineapple and a cherry with a little flag stuck in it?" I added helpfully.
"Ah," said the headwaiter. "Jus de orange."
"You can hold the flag," Ann-Margret said.
Our table was the only one occupied in the huge hotel dining room, where platoons of busboys stood at attention behind the palm fronds. We were engaged in the Cannes ritual of the luncheon interview with the star. Yesterday, Ann-Margret's new film had played in the festival's official competition. It was a British entry called "Return of the Soldier," starring Alan Bates as an upper-class Englishman who loses 20 years of memories after suffering shellshock in World War I. Julie Christie plays the wife he forgets he had, Ann-Margret is the cousin who has always been hopelessly, secretly in love with him, and Glenda Jackson is the dowdy middle-age woman he loved as a teenager and now, having lost the intervening years to amnesia, loves all over again.
Of all the performances, Ann-Margret's is the most unexpected. The former sex kitten and red-haired star of Las Vegas and "Tommy" is dressed throughout in high-necked gray and beige dresses, and has her hair dyed black and done up in a bun. She's the loyal, painfully shy cousin who lives with Bates and his wife, adores Bates and is patronized by the wife.
"I never wear those gray and beige colors in real life;" Ann-Margret was explaining between bites of thinly sliced smoked salmon. "To keep my spirits up, I arrived at the set every day wearing reds and greens and purples, even. It was so frustrating to play this woman who didn't dare to speak of her love."
How did Ann-Margret get cast in a British movie with Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson, Ian Holm and Frank Finlay in the first place? Because a young woman named Ann Skinner had been the script girl on "Magic," the 1978 movie starring Ann-Margret and Anthony Hopkins. Skinner read the original story of "Return of the Soldier," written decades ago by Rebecca West, and determined to produce it. She bought the rights, enlisted director Alan ("The Hireling") Bridges as the director, and financed it in bits and pieces.
"Halfway through production, we went broke," Ann-Margret said. "The cast and crew kept working without being paid, and finally another British production company came through with some more money. It was a labor of love."
Did Rebecca West have anything to do with the production?
"She saw it a week ago, and wrote Ann, telling her it brought back her whole youth. I personally hadn't even heard of Rebecca West until I saw her as one of the 'witnesses' in Warren Beatty's 'Reds.' She tells such a romantic story. Many people feel they never do recapture the innocence of first love, but sometimes people do, you know. They'll go back and marry someone they knew in grade school, 30 years before. It's as if they can still see the original child in the adult. That was the theory with the Glenda Jackson character. They made her look as dowdy as they could, and dressed her up in smelly yellow rubber raincoats and hideous black hats, but all Alan Bates could see was that girl he had loved."
The waiter appeared with roast chicken and vegetables, and there was a brief, silent period of sincere eating. Then I mentioned that Ann-Margret had been keeping busy lately, with lots of movie roles, such as "Middle-Age Crazy" and "I Ought To Be in Pictures," and stage performances in Vegas and Stockholm, and that she was perhaps the only current headliner in both movies and cabaret.
"I planned it that way," she said. "I've done 36 movies. It's not new for me anymore. I don't take a movie unless it offers me something unusual. Like in this one, going in there with a British cast and trying to speak in a British accent, and playing totally against type. On the first day of shooting, I'll bet the sound man could hear my heart beating." And between the movies, you sing and dance in Vegas, but you hardly ever sing and dance in films anymore?
"I like the fact of doing two totally different kinds of things. It was great for me to appear in Stockholm for the first time, two months ago. I've been back to Sweden many times on vacation - I have a lot of relatives there, of course - but this time we re-opened the old Vaudeville Theater, where Chevalier and Piaf used to play, but which had been closed for 20 years, and we sold out five houses and it was one of the great experiences of my life. Then I met the king and queen . . . She was eight months pregnant. Isn't that curious? I just remembered that when I did the royal command performance of 'Bye Bye Birdie' in London, for Queen Elizabeth, she was pregnant, too. I wonder what that means . . .
In June, she said, she starts rehearsals for her new show at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. I observed that Ann-Margret, Wayne Newton and Liberace are the three top Vegas stars, always sold out every show. The only three . . . And then, of course, there was Sinatra, when he was appearing there, and Elvis, of course. Had she, ah, read the controversial biography Elvis, by Albert Goldman?
"I absolutely refuse to discuss the subject;" she said. "I find that book disgusting."
But Goldman says that "Viva Las Vegas;" Ann-Margret's movie with Presley, is the best of the Elvis films, and that Ann-Margret gave Elvis a high-spirited co-star for one of the few times in his career . . . "I don't have a single thing to say," she said. "Goldman asked to interview me, but I turned him down, because I knew the kinds of things he was going to write about Elvis."
And that was that. Dessert arrived - some kind of chestnut souffle with cream and almonds, and it was hard to say exactly what else, the menu was imperfectly translated - and I broached a safe subject in Cannes, topless beaches.
"Of course, in Sweden, that sort of thing is perfectly natural," Ann-Margret observed. "People go topless all the time in the country. But in front of 5,000 people?"
She shrugged, extravagantly braless beneath a light yellow knit sweater.
"I've always been extremely puritanical. You don't know what I've gone through, playing characters who had to disrobe. For 'Carnal Knowledge,' Mike Nichols knew how uptight I was, and he even put it in the contract that I had to disrobe. It's my upbringing, I think, I made a film once with Michael Parks where we had to be in bed with each other on the very first day of shooting. Now how many professions do you get into bed with a complete stranger?" She paused a moment, and decided not to complete her thought.
I asked how she was cast as Walter Matthau's longtime girl friend in "I Ought To Be In Pictures."
"Herb Ross, the director, said it was because of my quiet strength. Those were his words. I pointed out that he didn't even know me. But perhaps he'd observed my career and the fact that I'm still here, a survivor, after all the accidents and whatever. I survive. The easy thing in Hollywood is to tune out. To drink and use drugs. Look at poor John Belushi. What a tragedy. But the older I get, the more I know that the only thing that can save you is relationships, strong relationships like the one I have with my husband Roger, and with my family, and with my stepchildren, and my friends."
She paused, contemplated her empty dessert plate, sighed, and said she was almost full.
The headwaiter reappeared and suggested an after dinner drink.
"I don't drink," Ann-Margret said. "But I do the hootchie-koo."