The iconic star danced with Elvis, kissed Jack and sang sold-out venues in Vegas. Here, film critic Richard Crouse examines the enigmatic performer’s raison d’être.
Ann-Margret shook and shimmied her way into public consciousness, bookending her star-turning role in 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie with some of the fiercest dancing ever committed to film. She was the kitten with a whip, a fresh-faced sex symbol who filled the gap between Marilyn Monroe and Rachel Welch only to be shunted aside by a changing America in the tumultuous ’60s, resurrected as B movie queen, then Oscar nominee.
This month, 56 years after her film debut, the 75-year-old Ann-Margret stars opposite Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin and Michael Caine in Going in Style, a comedy about retirees who knock off the bank that made off with their pension fund. As Annie, a feisty grocery store clerk who seduces Arkin, she is luminous, a reminder that, as Betty Friedan said, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”
And Ann-Margret knows about strength. While Elvis Presley affectionately called her Rusty, her Going in Style co-star Alan Arkin says she is “an absolute joy,” but Ann-Margret’s closest friends have a different way of describing the legendary star.
“They call me Slugger,” she laughs. “One of my friends gave me the name because I’ve been knocked down so many times. I have had accidents in my life but I keep getting up. A friend gave me this gold pin, a gold pair of boxing gloves. I deserve that. I earned it.”
That resilience was put to the test in 1972 when a near fatal fall almost put an end to her career. Performing at the Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe, she fell from an elevated platform to the ground, breaking her left arm, cheekbone and jawbone.
“There was a dinner performance and a midnight,” she says. “That particular night, we did the dinner and we were just going into the midnight. I arrived via a platform 22 feet up in the air. They hadn’t told us that if it leaned over more than six inches, it would flip and I would be thrown. There was one man doing one of the ropes in front and one man doing the other one. I guess one man did it too fast. I don’t know. It just wasn’t the same. There was a bar in front of me. I couldn’t get out. It flipped and I flipped. That’s what they told me. I woke up and I couldn’t move because they had put my teeth together. They didn’t show me a mirror. I knew something must be really wrong if they won’t show me a mirror.”
Despite worries she may never perform again, the all-round entertainer fought and, with the help of neuro-, plastic and orthopedic surgeons, was on stage in just 10 weeks. “I can’t believe I’m still here,” she says. “That I’m alive after all the things that have happened.”
On that first night in America, Gustav took Anna and Ann-Margret to a temple of entertainment, a place that shaped the rest of his daughter’s life. It sounds like a Hollywood biopic cliché but the show biz bug bit the youngster when she first laid eyes on Radio City Music Hall. The lavish lobby, the Art Deco auditorium that could fit the entire population of Valsjöbyn 37 times over, the orchestra and, of course, the high-kicking Rockettes were unlike anything she had ever seen. “I can’t imagine what my face must have looked like.”
Dancing with the Rockettes would have to wait until she acclimatized to her new country. The three settled near relatives in Fox Lake, Ill., a small town 45 minutes northwest of Chicago. Surrounded by aunts and uncles who taught them to speak English, the youngster soaked it all in. “I hit the ground running. I didn’t want to be called different.
Classes at the Marjorie Young School of Dance nurtured her desire to perform. “I remember taking dance lessons and I had no idea what the teacher was saying. I just looked at what she was doing.”
Dance training led to recitals in costumes her mother sewed, which led to high school shows, which led to spots on TV shows like Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour.
The teen basked in the spotlight. Slipping into a different persona under the glare of stage lights freed her. “The hardest part when I do my live show, when I start, is when I sit down and say, ‘Hello, everybody, good evening,’ that is me. But the numbers I do is somebody else. It is so hard to explain, but I know a lot of entertainers are that way. I guess it is protection.”
By the time she majored in speech at Northwestern University, she was moonlighting, playing at Chicago area clubs like The Mist with her jazz combo, the Suttletones (“Because we weren’t very subtle,” she joked to the Saturday Evening Post).
“I was about to go to Las Vegas when I took my last name off. Ann-Margret is my first name. I don’t have a middle name. I explained to Mommy and Daddy that I did not want them to be hurt by anything other people might say about me. I never wanted to make them sad, make them embarrassed.
“They understood but they were so scared. But since I was four years old, I sang with Mother and we did duets. We would sing at wedding receptions. They’d always say, ‘You get up there and sing something for us.'”
A false start landed the Suttletones in Los Angeles.
“We thought we had a job in Las Vegas so we went there with piano, bass and drums, and they said, ‘We’re so sorry. We like the band we have here and we’re keeping them.’ So we had driven all the way and then we drove to Los Angeles and, after going to every place, we found a job there.”
Bye Bye Birdie‘s movie première at Radio City Music Hall, 16 years after she first laid eyes on the place, was the highest first-week grossing film to date at the venue. It was the tipping point, the moment Ann-Margret became a sex symbol, albeit a wholesome one.
The Swedish All-American Girl. She was red hot, even voicing Ann-Margrock, an animated version of herself on The Flintstones.
The little girl who once marvelled at the Rockettes was now a grown-up star who would soon develop a conflicted relationship with fame and her sex kitten persona. When asked if she was comfortable with her glamour girl image, she is emphatic. “No. Never, never, never.”
“I don’t know who that person is. I don’t know who that is.” She doesn’t even watch her own work. “I get really uncomfortable and I am my own worse critic. I did it and I did it to the best of my ability. I don’t know how people can do it.”
Despite misgivings, she persevered, morphing from ingenue to full-blown movie star. She held her own with Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid, stole some of Elvis Presley’s thunder (and apparently a little piece of his heart) in Viva Las Vegas and gave Dean Martin a run for his money in the spy spoof Murderers’ Row. As the 1960s wore on, however, Ann-Margret became an anachronism. Once a beacon of hip, young Hollywood, a few short years later her glamorous image didn’t jive with the Age of Aquarius.
Efforts to reinvent her for the youth market reached a nadir with the release of sexploitation flicks like Mr. Kinky, which wasn’t even released in America until eight years after it had been shot, and C.C. and Company, a 1970 biker film that sees her act opposite football star Joe Namath. In both, she plays a riff on her well-polished sex kitten image, a routine that would soon give way to an adult sexuality that revitalized her career.
All of Hollywood was puzzled when Mike Nichols cast her as Bobbie, Carnal Knowledge‘s woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Ann-Margret’s reputation had been damaged by a string of bad decisions, and she seemed destined to make B-movies forever. In retrospect, it was inspired casting. As an actress who gives up her career to be with the emotionally abusive Jonathan (played by Jack Nicholson), she upped her game, handing in a performance brimming with desperation, aggressiveness and vulnerability. An Academy Award nomination meant she wouldn’t be working opposite Joe Namath again any time soon.
Playing Bobbie opened up a while new world of roles: adult parts with real juice. Her best work, the Oscar-nominated Nora Walker in the rock opera Tommy and Grumpy Old Men‘s high-spirited widow Ariel Truax, were birthed when she had the guts to shed the be-bopping teen sexuality that had made her a star.