Happy Birthday, Ann-Margret!
My favorite redhead was born on April 28 in 1941 and yesterday she celebrated her 66th birthday. To celebrate I thought I’d post an overview of some of the best films Ann-Margret made during the sixties and seventies as well as share some thoughts about her life and her work.
Ann-Margret got her start in showbiz when she was 19-years-old after being discovered by the legendary George Burns while auditioning for his annual holiday show in Las Vegas. Following her success in Vegas, Ann-Margret’s career took off and within a few months, she had signed a record deal with RCA and a movie contract with 20th Century Fox.
Ann-Margret was a real triple threat when she began her career in the sixties. She could sing, she could dance and she could act. She was also incredibly beautiful, funny and smart. Unfortunately, I’ve always thought that movie studios in the sixties and seventies never really knew what to do with Ann-Margret. She ended up in a lot of lackluster films and had a hard time being taken seriously as an actress. If she had been born 20 years earlier she would have probably had an amazing career in musicals, but musicals were becoming unpopular with film audiences and critics just as Ann-Margret was starting her movie career.
Ann-Margaret’s first movie role was in the Oscar-nominated Frank Capra film Pocketful of Miracles (1961), where she played the daughter of Bette Davis. Following that she made State Fair (1962) with Pat Boone and Bobby Darin. She then got her real breakthrough role as the beautiful and spunky Kim McAfee in George Sidney’s musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie (1963).
Following her terrific performance in Bye Bye Birdie she made a memorable appearance as an animated character named Ann-Margrock in the fourth season of The Flintstones (1963) cartoon series before starring alongside Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas (1964).
Viva Las Vegas is one of Elvis’ best movies from the sixties and Ann-Margret was arguably his best female co-star. The two had an incredible on-screen chemistry that’s plain electric and fun to watch. The musical numbers are great and the movie gave both stars a chance to really show off their comedic skills along with their dance moves.
The meeting between Ann-Margret and Elvis on the set of Viva Las Vegas was the start of a great friendship between the two talented stars. It would also mark the beginning of what might be one of Hollywood’s most tragic and unfulfilled love stories. When the pair met in 1963 they began a passionate affair. At the time that Elvis met the gorgeous redhead, he was already in a relationship with Priscilla Beaulieu (a.k.a. Priscilla Presley) and was committed to marrying her. After information about their affair made the celebrity gossip magazines many people think Elvis was encouraged to end his relationship with Ann-Margret by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, as well as Priscilla’s parents who were threatening to take legal action against Elvis if he didn’t marry their daughter due to their age differences (Priscilla was just 14-years-old when she began her relationship with Elvis). At the time, Elvis’ career had also hit some speed bumps following his time away from the public’s eye during his stint in the army so any bad publicity along with a court trial could have derailed his career.
Elvis and Ann-Margret’s romantic affair came to an end but the two remained close until Elvis’ untimely death. Elvis’ lifelong nickname for Ann-Margret was “Rusty”, which was the name of her character in Viva Las Vegas and up until the day he died he would send a bouquet of flowers to her every time she performed live. Lots of people who were close to Elvis and knew about his complicated relationship with Ann-Margret have said that she was the real “love of his life” and she has called Elvis her “soulmate.” It’s hard not to wonder how Elvis’ life may have been different if he and Ann-Margret had followed their hearts in 1964. In Ann-Margret’s own words she had this to say about their relationship:
“His wish was that we could stay together. But of course, we both knew that was impossible, and that’s what was so very difficult about our relationship. Elvis and I knew he had commitments, promises to keep, and he vowed to keep his word. Both of us knew that no matter how much we loved each other, no matter how strong our bond, we weren’t going to last.” – From Ann Margret: My Story.
After Viva Las Vegas Ann-Margret played a sassy bad girl in the entertaining thriller Kitten with a Whip (1964). Kitten with a Whip is one of my favorite exploitation movies about rebellious teens made in the early sixties and Ann-Margret is terrific as a naughty juvenile delinquent named Jody. The role solidified her reputation as a cinema sex kitten but like most of Ann-Margret’s movies, critics were not very impressed with it.
Jean Negulesco’s The Pleasure Seekers (1964) was her next cinematic outing and it’s an enjoyable film. Ann-Margret plays Fran Hobson in this updated remake of the director’s earlier picture Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), which itself was a remake of his film How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). The musical numbers and fashions are the best part of this cute comedy which has a somewhat outdated approach to romance for its time but Ann-Margret and André Lawrence (who plays her love interest in the film) seem to have worked well together and it’s fun watching them drive around Spain on a scooter.
In 1965 Ann-Margret made Once a Thief with the talented French actor Alain Delon. She arguably does her first really good dramatic acting in Once a Thief but she’s predictably over the top as Delon’s troubled wife and her emotional performance stands out in stark contrast to Delon’s understated style of acting. Even though the two seem like an odd pair they’re both incredibly beautiful and generate a lot of heat when they’re on screen together. Once a Thief is an interesting crime thriller with a great cast that film noir fans should appreciate.
After Once a Thief, Ann-Margret got the opportunity to work with another sixties icon in Norman Jewison’s film The Cincinnati Kid (1965). The Cincinnati Kid stars Steve McQueen as a young poker player and Ann-Margret plays the sexually vivacious and unhappy wife of Karl Malden. She wrestles with Tuesday Weld for McQueen’s affection and does some of her best acting in the film. Ann-Margret and Steve McQueen clearly have on-screen chemistry together so you can’t help but wonder why his character in the film ends up with the cute, sensitive and thoughtful, but much less interesting character Tuesday Weld is playing. According to Ann-Margret, she developed a close friendship with McQueen on the set since they both shared an interest in sports cars and motorcycles.
In 1966 Ann-Margret teamed up with director George Sidney again for the campy sex comedy The Swinger. In The Swinger, she plays a journalist named Kelly who poses as a “swinger” to impress the editor of a men’s magazine. The editor is played by Tony Franciosa who she also worked with in The Pleasure Seekers. The Swinger is an entertaining comedy that takes a humorous look at the swinging sixties and Ann-Margret gets to perform some great songs in the film. She also gets to ride a Triumph motorcycle and after making the movie she was featured in Triumph Motorcycle’s official advertisements.
Following The Swinger, she appeared in the entertaining Matt Helm spy spoof Murderers Row (1966) with her pal Dean Martin. This Matt Helm film features Dean Martin as the hard-drinking, womanizing and often bumbling spy. As usual, Ann-Margret’s performance and numerous colorful costume changes are one of the most entertaining things about the film and Murderer’s Row is one of the best movies in the Matt Helm series. As usual, Ann-Margret seems to be having a good time with her Vegas costar and the Matt Helm films are well worth a look if you enjoy stylish sixties spy farces.
Ann-Margret spent the next few years making movies in Italy including Dino Risi’s Il Tigre (a.k.a. The Tiger & The Pussycat, 1967) and Il Profeta (a.k.a. Prophet, 1968). These sexy comedies with co-star Vittorio Gassman were popular in Europe but they didn’t have much success in the US. In the late sixties, film critics were starting to dismiss Ann-Margaret and her talents, which is a shame. She worked well with Vittorio Gassman and I think the two low-budget movies they made together are enjoyable films and make great use of their scenic locations.
During this period Ann-Margret married the handsome actor Roger Smith who’s best known for his role as Jeff Spencer in the popular television series 77 Sunset Strip. Coincidentally, the two were married exactly a week after Elvis Presley married Priscilla. Roger Smith had been trying to convince Ann-Margret to marry him for awhile but she finally accepted his proposal on May 8, 1967 and afterward they were married in a quick ceremony in Vegas. It’s worth noting that Elvis Presley married Priscilla on May 1st just a few days earlier. It’s impossible to know if these events were in any way connected but Ann-Margret’s marriage fell apart right after she exchanged vows with Roger Smith. She left him after their first night together and went home to her parents but they eventually managed to work things out. During the course of their 40-year marriage, the couple has been through a lot but they’ve managed to stick together through it all.
In 1969 Ann-Margret joined forces with another one of my favorite actors, Laurence Harvey, to make the interesting crime thriller Rebus. Unfortunately, the film was not warmly welcomed by the critics but I think it’s an entertaining romp and Ann-Margret performs some nice musical numbers in it that were written for her by the great composer Luis Enríquez Bacalov. Laurence Harvey and Ann-Margret are both over the top performers with a similar acting style who often “play to the back row” so I thought they worked well together in Rebus. They also both look amazing and manage to keep the film watchable even during the script’s rough spots.
Following Rebus Ann-Margret made the biker movie C.C. and Company (1970), which was written and produced by her husband Roger Smith. The movie is mainly worth watching for Ann-Margret’s campy performance and she looks terrific on a motorcycle. Unfortunately, her co-star and love interest in the movie is the dreadfully dull football player, Joe Namath. The rest of the cast is pretty good and biker movie regular William Smith just about steals the show. With another actor in Namath’s role, I think the film could have been a much more entertaining affair.
Much to everyone’s surprise (particularly film critics) Ann-Margret managed to land a role in Mike Nichols’ critically acclaimed adult drama Carnal Knowledge (1971) next. The film offered her the best dramatic role of her career as the beautiful and troubled Bobbie who becomes the target of Jack Nicholson’s rage. The emotional scenes between the two in Carnal Knowledge feature some of the decade’s most powerful and raw acting. For the first time in a long time, Ann-Margret got rave reviews for her performance and received her first Oscar nomination for her role as the boozy and brooding Bobbie.
Following Carnal Knowledge she began shooting The Train Robbers with John Wayne. Ann-Margret has said that she enjoyed working with Wayne and I think you can see that during their on-screen exchanges. The Train Robbers was not released until 1973 and received mixed reviews. At a time when directors like Sergio Leone and Sam Pekinpah were exploring new directions with western films, The Train Robbers seems rather outdated and old fashioned but the movie does have it’s charm and I think it’s one of the more interesting and unique films that Wayne made late in his life.
Unfortunately just as Ann-Margret’s film career seemed to be blossoming a horrible accident in 1972 derailed her. While performing live at the Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe she suffered a terrible fall from the stage, which literally destroyed her face and sent her into a coma. The accident was so severe that her face reportedly collapsed due to massive bone breakage. Her arm was also broken in the fall and one of her knees was seriously damaged. She lingered between life and death for days and her family and friends wondered if she would survive much less ever be able to perform again. With the help of a team of doctors that included a neurosurgeon, a plastic surgeon and an orthopedic surgeon, Ann-Margret managed to recover and after just ten weeks she was back in Vegas performing again.
After her near-death experience, Ann-Margret returned to acting in Ken Russell’s ambitious rock opera Tommy (1975). Russell’s frenzied directing style meshes perfectly with Ann-Margret’s over the top acting in the film and the combination makes Tommy one of the most entertaining musicals of the seventies. Ann-Margret was only a few years older than The Who’s Roger Daltry at the time that Tommy was made but the accident had matured her and she does a wonderful job as Tommy’s glamorous mom. Her frantic performance in Tommy, which peaks with her infamous “nervous breakdown” scene involving lots of gooey foods, is reminiscent of her colorful paint scene from the 1966 film The Swinger. Her performance managed to snag her a second Oscar nomination.
Ann-Margret made a few more films in the seventies including Richard Attenborough’s excellent creepy thriller Magic (1978) where she starred opposite Anthony Hopkins, which is well worth seeking out if you’re a horror fan. But many of the best films Ann-Margret made during the sixties and seventies are not easily available on VHS or DVD. Thankfully Ann-Margret fans can look forward to a new DVD release of her one and only western, The Train Robbers, on May 22.
Ann-Margret has had an impressive career in cinema that was often met with a critical backlash but I think she’s one of Hollywood’s most interesting and beautiful actresses. Her filmography features some of the best musicals made in the past 40 years. She’s a stunning woman and her vivacious personality seems to ignite when she’s on screen.
Living in the California Bay Area and working as a music journalist for a brief time has given me the opportunity to meet a lot of celebrities. It’s not uncommon to bump into George Lucas or Sean Penn when I’m out shopping, so I’ve become rather jaded but meeting Ann-Margret was one of the few times in my life where I was truly starstruck.
I got the chance to pay my respects to the actress in 1994 after her biography Ann Margret: My Story was released. The actress & singer was on a book signing tour and she kindly signed a copy of her book for me. She was very nice and easy to talk to but I became totally tongue-tied around her. She was still incredibly beautiful at age 53 and while I was shaking her hand I couldn’t help thinking to myself that I was touching a hand that had touched so many of my favorite performers including Alain Delon, Steve McQueen, Laurence Harvey, Oliver Reed and Elvis.
Needless to say, I was a little overwhelmed and could barely get out a word in her presence. Thankfully I managed to pull myself together enough to tell her how much I had enjoyed her movies and she seemed genuinely touched by my nervous compliments. I still own my copy of her book and its’ one of my most treasured items simply because it reminds me of the time I got to meet one of my favorite actresses and on-screen personalities. Happy birthday, Ann-Margret!