Friday, April 29, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Happy Birthday To Ann-Margret!

by Liz Smith

Happy Birthday, To You, Ann-Margret!

"WHAT DO my eyes tell you?" asked 22-year-old Ann-Margret to music heartthrob Bobby Rydell in 1963's movie musical "Bye Bye Birdie."

A-M's eyes were supposed to indicate her undying devotion to Rydell — despite her swooning and carrying on for visiting rock n' roll star Conrad Birdie. (She was playing a small-town high-schooler.)
What did her sleepy, sexy eyes say? That no matter what the script indicated, her character of Kim McAfee was one wild, hot number! A-M's director, George Sidney, clearly obsessed with the rising goddess, had subverted the screen adaptation of the Broadway hit, into a vehicle for Annie, overshadowing gorgeous veteran Janet Leigh — who thought it was her movie — and another newcomer, Dick Van Dyke.
Janet Leigh and Dick Van Dyke — "It's our movie!"
Across America, when that big Technicolor screen opened on A-M, running toward the camera, against a vivid blue background, singing the title song, millions of men went "WOW!" The wow was even more pronounced when the director closed the movie with the same set-up. Only this time, Annie's thin beige dress was tighter, lower cut and she put the song across like a sex-machine. Her stardom, as the heir to the recently deceased Marilyn Monroe, or as America's Bardot, seemed inevitable.
YESTERDAY, Ann-Margret turned 75. She's still a knockout. (Maybe she'll appear again in the new season of "Ray Donovan?" Her character was intriguing.)

A-M never became Monroe or Bardot, which in both cases (certainly Monroe) was all to the best. I recall being aware of her for the first time when she appeared on the Oscar telecast in 1962 and sang a nominated song from the movie "Bachelor In Paradise." She had a good voice, but this girl also sang with her hips, her lips, and her continually tossed mane of tawny hair. She had already developed all the little mannerisms and gestures that would become indelible to her image. That night, Hollywood sat up and took notice. In fact, they stood up, and gave her a standing ovation! Onscreen she'd been Bette Davis' sweet daughter in "Pocketful of Miracles."
With Bette Davis in "Pocketful of Miracles."
Then she displayed her first major sizzle — and impressive acting chops — in the remake of "State Fair." After "Birdie" she was one of Hollywood's hottest properties. (In '63 she was called upon to warble "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home" to President John F. Kennedy at a private birthday party at the Waldorf Astoria. The year before, of course, it had been Monroe's "Happy Birthday" serenade. JFK was nothing if not consistent.)
Ann-Margret singing Isn't It Kinda Fun in "State Fair."
Unfortunately — but not really, as things turned out — Hollywood was going through a great transition and nobody knew just what to do with Ann-Margret. To exploit her sex appeal was the primary goal, without much thought to corralling that appeal. She and her blatant sensuality was thrown into movie after movie, some good, some bad, some so bad they were good. (The immortal "Kitten With a Whip.") She easily stole "Viva Las Vegas" right from Elvis, incurring the wrath of Presley's manager Col. Tom Parker. ("Viva" was another George Sidney production and his camera was ever more adoring and invasive.)
A-M, with a penchant for too many wigs, too many pairs of eyelashes, too much overstated oomph, was getting lost under her publicity and her Pan-Stick. She could be — she was — a sensitive actress, but her own and Hollywood's tendency to rely on her most negotiable assets began to wear thin. It all seemed to culminate with George Sidney's third and final movie with A-M, "The Swinger" in 1966. It seemed to be a horny, perhaps frustrated homage to the wild image of his star, despite the fact she played a good girl who just happened to fall into naughty adventures. There was a dance/body painting sequence that bordered on lurid. It was a long way from "Bye, Bye Birdie."
Ann Margret as good girl gone naughty in "The Swinger."
Ann-Margret as mother Nora in "Tommy."
The following year, with her career apparently plummeting and her style increasingly over-the-top, A-M made the best decision of her life — and career. She married actor Roger Smith, who became her manager and slowly rehabilitated her career. Vegas and TV specials seemed just right.
Ann-Margret with husband/manager Roger Smith.
There were some forgettable European entries ("Rebus") and unsuccessful attempts to alter her image, or spoof it ("R.P.M", "C.C. & Company.") Finally, in 1971, she snared the role of Bobbie, the voluptuous, insecure model, opposite Jack Nicholson in "Carnal Knowledge." Although she'd been just as good in other films ("Carnal" director Mike Nichols thought she was a superb actress) Hollywood was in one of its odd "let's give so and so a break" moods. She received rave reviews and an Oscar nomination. She was "back" but she — and Roger Smith — knew that her time to become another Monroe or Bardot had passed. From now on, her career would be carefully and very successfully steered between films, the stage and TV.
In her Oscar-nominated role as Bobbie in "Carnal Knowledge."
IN 1972, Ann-Margret fell from a 22-foot platform while performing in Nevada. Her beautiful face was crushed. Fans and the media were riveted — would she ever work again, would she ever look the same? Yes, and yes, on both counts, and better than ever. This near tragedy and her amazing comeback ten weeks later, in front of a screaming, dazzled audience and the world's press, imbued her with the proper stellar mythology. Shortly after, she was given her star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

In the years since there has been so much fine work — "Magic" ... "The Return of the Soldier" ... "Tommy" (another Oscar nod) ... "I Ought to Be in Pictures" ... "Joseph Andrews" (brilliant!) ... "The Cheap Detective" (insanely funny as Jezebel Dezire "accent on Dezire") ... and the great TV movies — "Who Will Love My Children?" ... "A Streetcar Named Desire" and — to me, her glorious apogee — "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles."
Ann-Margret as Ann Arden Grenville.
I'VE interviewed Ann-Margret many times, and have found her, not surprisingly, to be the total opposite of the image we carry and the one she loves to play with, publicly. (Let's face it, in real life, had she been even a little bit like her character in, say "Bus Riley's Back in Town" the woman would be in a jar, in a lab someplace.) She is modest, soft-spoken and invariably kind. She would die, I think literally, before uttering one unflattering remark. Her normalcy is actually mesmerizing! She is still married to Roger Smith and they are totally devoted to one another. They live quietly.
The last time I saw A-M is when she attended the 2007 Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards. She was there to accept the Star of Texas Award for her movie "State Fair."

But perhaps my favorite memory is going backstage to visit her in Philadelphia when she was on the road with "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." She was so totally adorable and welcoming in her dressing room, showing me her costumes like an excited child, raving about her co-stars, and getting misty-eyed talking about Elvis. I joked around a bit about "Kitten With a Whip" and even threw out a couple of her most over-the-top lines. She was laughing hysterically when Roger Smith walked in, "Roger, Roger! Listen to this!" A bit embarrassed, I did the lines again and he also laughed heartily, giving his wife a huge hug. Their mutual love and respect was touchingly obvious.
After I'd bid Annie goodbye, Roger stopped me before I left the theater. He said: "I just want to thank you for always being so good to my wife. She appreciates it so much. I do too."

All I can say is, how can you NOT be nice to Ann-Margret? In fact I did say this to him, and he replied simply: "She is a wonderful girl."

Happy slightly belated birthday, honey. And many more!

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.