Liz Smith: Honoring Ann-Margret

“WHY DO you think you’re such a smoky somethin’ when you’re so nothin’ painted blue?”

Every disreputable film fan knows that line. It is one of Ann-Margret’s many out-of-space utterances in 1964’s black and white juvenile delinquent saga, the luridly titled “Kitten With a Whip.” This movie was made a mere two years after Ann-Margret achieved major film stardom as the sweet but almost uncomfortably sexy heroine of the movie version of “Bye Bye Birdie.”

This year, “Kitten With a Whip,” a cult film if there ever was, will be released on Blu-ray. The actress herself might prefer some of her later efforts, such as “Carnal Knowledge” or “Magic” or “Tommy” or “Joseph Andrews” to get the Blu-ray treatment, but “Kitten” holds a special place in the hearts of A-M aficionados.

There are also several significant honors upcoming for Ann-Margret in Hollywood. One will be a tribute to A-M’s sex-comedies of the ’60s, such as “The Pleasure Seekers,” “The Swinger” and “The Tiger and the Pussycat.” The star will attend and participate in a Q&A. This is news. She is notoriously shy and circumspect. She doesn’t really enjoy talking about herself. And she never ever criticizes another actor or a director. This happens at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.

Another planned event for Ann-Margret will be devoted to her TV works. This will include her sensational appearance on the 1961 Oscars, singing “Bachelor in Paradise,” her famous cameo as “Ann-Margrock” on “The Flintstones,” her numerous TV specials and variety show appearances.

I also hope this gala covers A-M’s remarkable series of TV dramas, such as “Who Will Love My Children,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and her masterpiece, “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.” (This also contained the fabulous Claudette Colbert’s final performance.)

But wait, there’s more! Neal Peters, Ann-Margret’s number one fan for decades, is putting out an expanded version of his spectacular coffee table book on his idol.

ANN-MARGRET had one of the most meteoric rises, falls and carefully orchestrated comebacks in film history. She was a natural talent, a real triple-threat girl who could act, sing and dance. The problem was, she was born too late. Had she been groomed by the old studio system, great roles would have been found for her, written for her, and her explosive sexual energy harnessed. (The writhing, pouting A-M of her roles is a totally different woman from the quiet, restrained lady one meets in person. Like her friend Tina Turner, she has two very distinct personalities.)

Early on, A-M was thrown into movie after movie, without much thought. She worked a lot. Too much. And, like her idol, Marilyn Monroe, she often needed toning down when it came to expressing her sexual side on camera. But there was nobody to tone her down. And she was a far more realistic — if somewhat excessive — example of erotic womanhood than Monroe had been. The film critic Pauline Kael once wrote that Ann-Margret’s persona “invited gang rape.”

The director George Sidney was obsessed by A-M and cast her in “Bye Bye Birdie” (which was originally meant to be a vehicle for Janet Leigh and Dick Van Dyke. But once under Ann-Margret’s spell he handed the movie to her.) Then he directed her in “Viva Las Vegas,” where she overshadowed Elvis (and Sidney’s camera became even more invasive.)

Finally, there was “The Swinger,” which seemed to be Sidney’s climactic porny fantasy about his star. A-M generally played a good girl, sort of pretending to be bad, but she was photographed from every conceivable suggestive angle, and her own performance style tipped the material into areas that were slightly disturbing. I once asked Ann-Margret about George Sidney’s obvious infatuation with her. As usual, she sweetly deflected the question, referring to him as “Mr. Sidney” and said how grateful she was for his interest and his talent.

Within a few years, A-M’s once promising career seemed stalled, she had become something of a smarmy joke. But with the help of hubby Roger Smith and manager Allen Carr she slowly rebuilt her reputation on TV and in Las Vegas, where onstage she could be as wild as she wanted to be. (Her horrific, near fatal fall in Las Vegas and her remarkable recovery went a long way in reestablishing her in the public eye.) Although she was twice Oscar-nominated, for “Carnal Knowledge” and “Tommy” she never quite became the great movie star it seemed for a hot minute she might be — the next Marilyn. Thank goodness! She accepted interesting, amusing supporting roles, and her career has maintained its staying power. (She won an Emmy for her guest-starring appearance on “Law & Order: SVU” several seasons back.) And Ann-Margret is still a knockout.

“LES MISERABLES” is doing nicely at the box-office (and even though it’s not my favorite picture of the year, how depressing that yet another remake of “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” overtook it at the box-office this weekend.)

Much has been made of “Les Mis” director Tom Hooper’s decision to film all his actor’s singing the score live, rather than sync. This is not totally new, but in the references to other films that have employed this method I haven’t heard anybody mention Barbra Streisand’s 1976 version of “A Star is Born.” Those were live performances, and her decision to do it that way came from an experience she had during her first film, “Funny Girl.” Barbra was dutifully lip-syncing the powerhouse finale, “My Man” but suddenly stopped and said it had to be live, “because I don’t know when I’m going to feel the emotion.” Director William Wyler agreed. And we sure knew when Barbra “felt the emotion.” Tears streamed down her face, causing audiences to weep right along with her.

Legend has it she was thinking about her faltering marriage to Elliot Gould as she tore into … ”all my life is still despair/But I don’t care, when he takes me in his arms, the world is right, alrighhhhhht!”

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 1/8/13

3 comments so far.

  1. avatar JERILYN says:

    Always hoped that A-M would end up with Elvis but her loyalty to her husband Roger Smith prevented that from happening. I think A-M might have saved Elvis from his destructive path. On this January 8th which is the birthday of the King Elvis those of us who admired him wonder what if? A-M deserves to be honored and once again Our Liz Smith has written a wonderful tribute. Brava A-M and Liz Smith. Happy Birthday Elvis wrapped in the arms of the Angels singing your heavenly hymns.

  2. avatar sfgmen says:

    Ms. Liz, in your article about A-M on the 8th of January, you said that A-M fell from the stage in Las Vegas. The place where she fell was in Lake Tahoe. I love your column.

  3. avatar Hellster says:

    OH! Ann-Margret, how I idolized her! There was her and there was Shari Lewis (of Lambchop fame) for little redheaded me to model myself on in the 1960s when I was a tween. And then in the 70s when I was a young woman, I would tell anyone who asked that when I (finally) grew up, I wanted to be Ann-Margret! Talent, beauty, brains, fame, self-awareness, and sex appeal; who wouldn’t want all that?

    I got to meet my idol a year or two ago; she had come to Las Vegas to attend the funeral of a mutual friend, a woman whose husband has worked for Mr. and Mrs. Smith for many years. How gracious and generous she proved herself to be. Although the occasion was a sad one, I couldn’t and didn’t resist my impulse to take the chance to greet the still-beautiful A-M (and her tiny hand was dwarfed by mine; and I’m not a big woman); she was warm and kind to me although she had her sick husband at her side and she was clearly eager to get him back home, she allowed me to gush over her for a few minutes. What a lovely woman.