By Alan Hurst
I have been a fan of Ann-Margret’s since my introduction to her one Saturday afternoon watching Bye Bye Birdie (1963) on television. I remember thinking parts of the movie were quite silly, but Ann-Margret’s singing, dancing and overall volcanic presence as a “typical” American teenager were mesmerizing to a 10-year old. Of course, soon after that, I caught her as “Ann-Margrock” on an episode of The Flintstones (1960-66), thrilled that I was able to make the connection between the two – and I remember thinking it was so cool that she could actually be an animated character!
Ann-Margret should have had a much bigger film career than she did. Her rise during the early sixties following her film debut in A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) with Bette Davis was meteoric. She was the best thing in her follow-up film State Fair (1962), where she had a couple of sexy musical numbers and looked terrific. Next was Bye Bye Birdie (1963) where director George Sidney saw her potential and literally pushed her front and centre, allowing her to steal the film from the actual leads – Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh. Then came Viva Las Vegas (1964) with Elvis Presley where he finally had a co-star who was as exciting as he was. At the end of 1964, she found herself at number eight in the top 10 box-office stars for the year and her management had committed her to numerous films over the next few years. A major film career seemed assured. But things started to turn sour very quickly.
A combination of some mediocre to bad films, the fact that she was still learning her craft, and significant overexposure all worked to bring the critics out with a vengeance. She was actually pretty good in some of them, including the excellent The Cincinnati Kid (1965), but no one could have survived a series of films like The Pleasure Seekers (1965), Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965), Made in Paris (1966), The Swinger (1966), a poor remake of Stagecoach (1966), and The Tiger and the Pussycat (1967). One film from that period – Kitten with a Whip (1964) – is consistently cited as the nadir of her film work. There’s no question it’s a trashy film, but the irony is that she’s actually pretty good in it – and her work here led directly to the resurrection of her film career in the early seventies thanks to Mike Nichols’ memory.
By the end of the sixties, her stock in films had fallen far enough that she auditioned for the second female lead in Hello, Dolly! (1969) – and she didn’t get the part. But thankfully her skills as a dancer and singer rescued her as there was still a market for the traditional “do it all” variety star on television and in Las Vegas. Within a few years, she was the biggest female attraction on the Vegas strip and a string of successful television specials – with guests like Lucille Ball, Tina Turner, George Burns – showed a wider audience that she was indeed talented and the attention she received during the first few years of her career wasn’t a fluke.
And then along came director Mike Nichols, who was having trouble casting one of the four principals in Carnal Knowledge (1971), a funny and lacerating look at male sexuality. He had considered Jane Fonda, Dyan Cannon, and Raquel Welch and then he remembered Ann-Margret in Kitten with a Whip. After auditioning numerous times, Ann-Margret was cast as the voluptuous but ultimately depressed girlfriend of Jack Nicholson’s character. It wasn’t a big part, but she delivered. A reviewer at the time said it was “like watching Minnie Mouse play Ophelia – brilliantly”. And it’s true. Ann-Margret shocked a lot of people with the depth and commitment she showed here.
Her film career was back on track and, although she never again reached the frenzy of popularity of the early sixties, she has delivered consistently good and sometimes exceptional work in a series of theatrical and television films. In fact, Ann-Margret got her best opportunities as an actress on the small screen during the eighties and nineties, highlighting again that she delivered superb work given half a chance.
Below are some thoughts on what I feel are 10 essential Ann-Margret performances:
Bye Bye Birdie (1963)
This isn’t a very good adaptation of the Broadway musical. The script crams too much silliness into the plot, not trusting that the stage material was actually pretty solid. But director George Sidney knew he had something special in Ann-Margret and her part was built up, so much so that she really is the focal point of the film. Ann-Margret is very pretty and sincere as the all-American girl selected to bestow a kiss on rock and roll star Conrad Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show before he heads off to the army. Forget Jesse Pearson as Birdie, it’s Ann-Margret you’re watching. In all of her musical numbers, she’s on fire – particularly in “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” where she’s dressed in tight pink slacks and a frilly pink top – she’s impossible to ignore. Sidney even bookends the film with her belting out the title tune – she’s in a flattering gold dress against a blue backdrop, positioned on a treadmill and walking seductively towards the camera, with a wind machine blowing her red hair. Within seconds, you’re seeing a star being born.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
This is a supporting role – the focus here is firmly on Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson as poker players competing in a high stakes match. Ann-Margret plays Melba, the wife of Karl Malden, who is putting the poker game together. The character she plays is someone who cheats at everything – and she makes it very clear she’s willing to cheat on her husband with McQueen. Working with a good director (Norman Jewison), Ann-Margret has some really nice moments as the beautiful but amoral character. This role really showed that she was an actress capable of interesting work. My favorite scene in the film is when Melba is working on a puzzle and one of the pieces won’t fit, so she uses a pair of scissors to make sure it does. In a few moments, you learn everything about that character. Also doing good work in the film are Tuesday Weld and Joan Blondell.
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
This is the film that turned it around for Ann-Margret. It’s a small role, but she’s excellent. It’s almost tough to watch some of her scenes as the emotionally bruised Bobbie. You can feel the character’s need to be taken care of and how tired she is of only being valued – if at all – because of her looks and her build. The character has no direction or sense of self beyond how she’s viewed by the men in her life. Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson are both very raw and honest in their scenes – his anger and her depression are palpable. Her performance won her a Golden Globe and she received her first nomination for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. It was a very competitive year, but I think Ann-Margret should have been the winner. It really is one of the best performances of the decade.
One of the wildest films of the seventies, director Ken Russell’s Tommy is an all-star adaptation of The Who’s 1969 rock opera. The story is about a boy who becomes deaf, mute and blind after seeing his stepfather murder his father during a fight about his mother (Ann-Margret). The boy becomes famous as a pinball player, with fame and a huge cult following. Bizarre to say the least, but the film is a heady, visual knockout and one of the most interesting musicals of the decade. The cast includes Roger Daltry as Tommy as well as Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, and Elton John, but it’s Ann-Margret who dominates. Without a line of dialogue (it’s all sung), she’s an intense, beautiful and frenetic presence as the mother. She’s both beautiful and tough as she throws everything she has into every scene – it’s a brave and fully committed performance that won her a Golden Globe and a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Joseph Andrews (1977)
This is a relatively unsung comedy from the seventies, but it’s a very funny adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel about the romantic adventures a young footman (Peter Firth) after he spurns the advances of the wealthy Lady Booby (Ann-Margret). It was directed by Tony Richardson, who had scored a major success with his 1963 adaptation of Fielding’s Tom Jones, which told a similar tale. That film won Oscars for Best Picture and for Richardson as Best Director. Joseph Andrews tells a more straightforward tale, but it’s still quite funny as Firth runs from any number of aggressive females, trying to save himself for his true love. There is a great cast of wonderful English character actors, but again it’s Ann-Margret who stands out as Lady Booby (I love the obviousness of that name). She manages a very persuasive English accent, she looks wonderful in the period clothes, and she’s wryly amusing as the predatory older woman after the young Joseph.
Richard Attenborough’s adaptation of the creepy William Goldman novel is another unsung gem of the seventies. Anthony Hopkins is a magician who never quite made it. Now he’s a ventriloquist with a vulgar mouthed dummy named Fats – and he’s suddenly finding success. But the dummy seems to be developing a mind of its own as Hopkins becomes more unbalanced. Ann-Margret plays a former girlfriend of the Hopkins character and they meet again when he retreats to his hometown. She’s in an abusive marriage, and naturally the two fall in love – but Fats doesn’t approve. Attenborough does a nice job of building the suspense and when the bodies start piling up the shocks are real. Hopkins is very good as the dual-minded ventriloquist and the voice of the dummy – you really do believe these are two separate entities. What Ann-Margret does here is help ground the film with an honest portrayal of an idealized high school cheerleader whose life hasn’t turned out the way she wanted. Still pretty, but slightly beaten down, she’s the perfect evocation of that pang you feel when you think about what could have been.
Who Will Love My Children? (1983)
The movie roles she was getting weren’t as plentiful or challenging, so Ann-Margret turned her attention to television drama in the early eighties with this stark, moving film and the first of many collaborations with director John Erman. It’s the true story of Lucile Fray, a poor woman with 10 children, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She knows her alcoholic husband (Frederic Forest) is not capable of raising the kids, so she works to get homes for all of them while battling her illness. To say this is a tearjerker is an understatement but it’s not maudlin and it doesn’t manipulate you to pull at your heartstrings. The emotion comes from the honest, pared down work that Ann-Margret does under Erman’s restrained direction. To see what she does here as the unfortunate Lucile and compare it to something like Kitten with a Whip or Viva Las Vegas you can see her growth as an actress of incredible range and versatility. This is one of the best performances of the decade and it won her a Golden Globe and the first of her Emmy nominations. She lost to Barbara Stanwyck for The Thorn Birds (1983) – and Stanwyck acknowledged in her acceptance speech that the award should have gone to Ann-Margret. It was a nice tribute.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1984)
There was no way they were going to top Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. But director John Erman had a couple of things going for him in this widely praised television adaptation: he didn’t have to whitewash the script to eliminate Blanche’s history and he was able to fulfill a wish from the playwright that Ann-Margret play Blanche DuBois. The story of the faded southern belle, now alcoholic and running from her past, wouldn’t seem like an ideal fit for Ann-Margret, but it’s a love match and her performance is on par with Leigh’s. What I like about Ann-Margret’s work here is that she gives Blanche more sensuality while still very clearly showing that this woman’s grip on reality is quickly unraveling. The scenes near the end showing her ultimate breakdown are stunning in the physical and emotional intensity that Ann-Margret brings to them. This was another Golden Globe win for Ann-Margret and she was also nominated for an Emmy but lost to Jane Fonda for her superb work The Doll Maker (1984). Also doing good work, but not rivaling the original cast, are Treat Williams, Beverly D’Angelo and Randy Quaid.
The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987)
This two-part television adaptation (again directed by John Erman) of the juicy Dominick Dunne novel is a visual and nostalgic treat with its look back at a murder in New York society in the mid-fifties. It was based on a true story about the murder of the young heir of a prominent family, and the suspicion that followed his wife, a former chorus girl. This was a big, flamboyant role for Ann-Margret and you can tell she’s having a great time. She gets to be colorful, vulgar, bitchy and sympathetic while wearing a wide array of beautiful mid-century clothes, jewels, and hairstyles. She’s also very convincing as the former showgirl who wants to be accepted into her husband’s family, but she is only barely tolerated. It’s only after she “mistakenly” kills her husband (she says she thought he was an intruder) that the family is forced to rally around her to escape the scandal. Going toe-to-toe with Ann-Margret is the wonderful Claudette Colbert as the matriarch of the family. Their scenes together are perfect, and both were Emmy nominated.
Grumpy Old Men (1993)
It’s not a role that allows for a great performance, but it’s the best example there is of a big screen success for the still very vibrant Ann-Margret after she turned 50. Jack Lemmon and Walther Matthau are two neighbours who were friends and then antagonistic rivals for years. Along comes an unmarried Ann-Margret into the neighbourhood to help up the ante on the rivalry, as both Lemmon and Matthau are smitten as soon as they see her (as they should be). It all resolves itself nicely with Lemmon and Ann-Margret eventually marrying (Matthau gets Sophia Loren in the sequel). This was a big hit during the holidays that year and it’s ultimately a silly but fun comedy allowing Lemmon and Matthau to do what they do best together. For her part, Ann-Margret does bring a spark to the proceedings as the free-spirited Ariel – she’s funny, no-nonsense and very appealing. It’s a nicely judged, relaxed performance.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.