Aug 13, 2015

Summer Under the Stars--Ann-Margret: My Story

This post is my contribution to the Summer Under the Stars blogathon, hosted by the brilliant Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film.

When announcements about special guests for TCM Classic Film Festival 2015 begin trickling out, one of the most squeal-worthy for me was that Ann-Margret would make be making an appearance. I adore her energetic, ever so slightly over-the-top persona, her phenomenal skill as a dancer and the way she evolved into an accomplished dramatic actress.

The actress was scheduled to interview with Ben Mankiewicz in both in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel and before a screening of The Cincinnati Kid (1965). I couldn't believe it!

Though I'd admired Ann-Margret for a long time, I realized that I knew very little about her life. In fact, the only thing I could think of was that she survived a massive fall during one of her live shows several years ago. I figured there had to be some more uplifting stories in her life than that one.

So I found a copy of her 1994 autobiography, Ann-Margret: My Story, and dove in.

Whenever I read a memoir, especially a Hollywood memoir, I expect a fair amount of fiction. I always figure that the real appeal of these books is that the subjects reveal something of themselves by how they write about their lives. Something about the way Ann-Margret told her story made me believe her though. She came off as a reliable narrator: levelheaded, frank and self aware.

Though she's had plenty of troubles along the way, Ann-Margret has for the most part led a blessed life. She found success young, was able to grow in her career, and despite a few youthful missteps, she had the luck to find both people to love and to help her advance professionally.

Both of those things happened when she met the love of her life, actor Roger Smith, a man who would become so involved in the promotion of her career that he was often accused of being a controlling Svengali. It is this accusation that seems to have inspired Ann-Margret to write her memoirs. While she holds back nothing as a performer, she's always seemed modest about her private life, and it is a testament to her great love for Smith that she would share so much of herself to set the record straight.

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I was charmed to get a glimpse of the real Ann-Margret. She's not much like her sexy, hair tossing, hip twirling, screen and stage persona. That woman is a stage creation, a force of nature that sometimes even seems to surprise the actress herself.

In her much quieter personal life the actress is more reserved: intensely devoted to her parents, free of issues with drugs and alcohol and disciplined about her health and well-being. Were it not for her addiction to fast motorcycles and the colorful life she led, she might even come off as a bit dull.

Ann-Margret spent her toddler years in the tiny town of Valsjobyn, Sweden, a peaceful place where everyone knew and cared about each other. Her father was restless to get more out of life though, and the family moved to the infinitely more bustling Chicago when she was six.

The actress began performing at an early age, first in dance recitals for which her mother would make her elaborate costumes, and later as the lead in high school dramatics.

Entertaining came easily to the young performer. She was strongly affected by music. Whenever a catchy tune would begin to play, she couldn't resist the urge to move her body.

By college, Ann-Margret was working regularly with a successful nightclub act. When the strain of balancing performing and studies became too much, she chose show business.

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The young Ann-Margret was such a knock-out that even in a place like Hollywood she stood out right away. A friend took her to the set of The Misfits (1961) one afternoon, where she had the thrill of meeting Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Clark Gable, and from across the set Marilyn Monroe noticed her and commented on how attractive she was. Attaining success was going to be hard work, but all the doors were open for her.

George Burns gave the actress her start, casting her in his stage show. Next came the movies, where she had the awe-inspiring experience of starring opposite Bette Davis in her first film, Pocketful of Miracles (1961). The legend insisted that the young actress be shot to her best advantage in close-ups and gave her tips on screen acting.

From then on Ann-Margret was plunged into one project after another: State Fair (1962), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), albums, stage shows. She was in demand, but cursed with undiscriminating management and in danger of overexposure. It wasn't until she aligned herself with producer Allan Carr and Roger Smith that her career found a steady path.

The actress shares stories of her private life sparingly, but the tidbits are interesting. Her memories of the remarkably close relationship she had with Elvis are especially touching. The two were similarly transformed by music and the rock star appreciated that he could trust his Viva Las Vegas (1964) co-star when so many others failed him.

There has been plenty of chaos in Ann-Margret's life, and while she claims that prefers to be taken care of, the performer proves that she is plenty tough when it is called for. Her jaw was wired shut after that infamous 22 foot fall from a platform constructed for a Lake Tahoe show in 1972, and yet she got herself into shape to perform again within weeks, because she wanted her ailing father to know she was okay. When Smith became afflicted by a mysterious illness that sapped him of energy, she overcame her fears of independence and took over the management of her career in addition to caring for her husband.

The actress has grown in her profession, proving herself in drama after enjoying huge success in musicals and comedies. With a Golden Globe and two Oscar nominations under her belt, the industry has clearly recognized her achievements.

This was an addictive read. I almost literally carried the book around me until I'd finished it (didn't think it was wise to take it in the shower...). The actress shares a lot of detail while staying respectful to the people she has known, never oversharing. If you have any interest in Ann-Margret, I highly recommend it.

It probably goes without saying that I will be glued to TCM today. Hope to see you all tweeting at #TCMParty and #SUTS!

Take a look at my other posts featuring Ann-Margret:

TCM Prefunc: 10 Reasons I Dig Ann-Margret

I write about seeing Ann-Margret at TCMFF 2015 here and here.

My review of Once A Thief (1965), which stars Ann-Margret and Alain Delon

All  TCMFF images property of A Classic Movie Blog.

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