Liz Smith

Will Emmy Finally Gleam for Ann-Margret?

"WE THINK you're a little drunk, ma'am."

"So, what are you -- the sobriety police?"

That's how it went between Chris Meloni and Ann-Margret in the opening scene of the "Law & Order: SVU" episode that has garnered an Emmy nomination for the famous flame-haired actress/singer/dancer.

This is not Ann-Margret's first Emmy nomination, of course. She has been up for the award six times -- for her striking performances in TV films such as "A Streetcar Named Desire," "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," "Life of the Party: The Pamela Harriman Story," and "Who Will Love My Children?" Ann-Margret admits winning an Emmy would be "lovely." (She has also been nominated twice for an Oscar for "Carnal Knowledge" and "Tommy.")

But she would be the first to tell you that much, much better than winning an Emmy, was the tribute paid to her from the podium by Barbara Stanwyck back in 1983. Stanwyck took the Emmy for "The Thorn Birds." She made a short gracious speech and then remarked on Ann-Margret's performance in "Who Will Love My Children?" -- "Ann-Margret, you were superb!" In the audience, Ann-Margret dissolved into tears. And she still becomes moist-eyed at the memory.

I SAT with Ann-Margret for about 15 minutes in the green room backstage at ABC's "Regis and Kelly." She had only a brief amount of time because within hours she was to set sail on the QE2 for a cruise to England, with her hubby of 43 years, Roger Smith. "We got tired of skiing," she said. "This seemed fun but a little less strenuous."

First of all -- because I know you want to know -- she looks amazing. Still a beauty and still unmistakably recognizable as Ann-Margret. If she has ever had "work" (aside from her face being reconstructed after that horrific fall in Las Vegas many years ago), it has been deliciously discreet. She is voluptuously encased in a purple pants outfit. But no cleavage. The private Ann-Margret doesn't feel the need to expose the public image.

As always, she is remarkably affectionate, considerate and so soft-spoken, that even sitting next to her on a small couch one must lean in close. So close, I get a whiff of a delicious fragrance and compliment her. "Oh," she says wistfully, "it was my mother's favorite perfume. It's called..." but she speaks so quietly, all I get is an indistinct sound -- it sounds like "Adjdere." (Perhaps it is Eau Du Sud by Annick Goutal?) Her mother's death several years ago still upsets her.

SO WHAT was it like working with Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay? "They were so sensitive, the both of them; so considerate. They were 'right there' for me. Honestly, they are two of the most generous actors I have ever worked with." (I can't imagine anybody not being generous to Ann-Margret, but in Hollywood, remembering her sometimes painful experiences as a young star, I suppose anything is possible.)

She also says, "When the producers approached me about doing the show, they said, 'We read this, and we knew it was for you!' So I took it and read it, and I loved it, but then I thought, 'Hey wait a minute, they knew it was 'for me?' A blousy, beat up, drug-addicted alcoholic? Hmm....!"

I ASK her, how it is that so little is known about her? She smiles slyly. "Because that's the way I want it. That's the way I've always been. Maybe I'm a little bit of a loner, but it is my work that has been important to me, not" -- and she waves her hand above her head -- "all that. And I'm not putting down anybody who derives some pleasure and satisfaction from it, it's just never been for me."

But, I ask, not even when she was a very young star, and everything was burning hot -- "Bye Bye, Birdie," "Viva Las Vegas," "The Pleasure Seekers?" She shakes her head. "I always knew what I wanted. And that was to entertain, to act. I knew what came with it. But I always knew it was my choice to accept that other part into my life." I am tempted to mention Elvis, her "Viva Las Vegas" co-star -- and the media furor around that friendship -- but this is a sensitive subject. The last time I was with her, in Philadelphia during her tour of "Best Little Whorehouse" she became quite emotional. I opted for an all-happy get-together, especially considering our brevity.

We speak of her image, and that I am always astonished at the difference between the woman I know and the stage and screen vixen. "Oh, that's all an act. I'm just play-acting. I'm always play-acting."

I assume this is true, and perhaps even when she is in character as "Ann-Margret private person confronting the press." Not that I don't believe she is as soft and sensitive as she appears. But nobody lasts as long as Ann-Margret without a tough core. She has depended on Roger Smith, and while he lived, Alan Carr, for a lot of career guidance. (No to mention the advice and love of her longtime friend Neal Peters, who was there with her in the green room -- Peters is the keeper of the flame of Ann-Margret's legend; surely the world's greatest historian on the subject.) In the very, very private part of her life, Ann-Margret might have more pragmatically tough moments, but she presents herself and treats others as she wishes to be treated -- with exquisite care and sensitivity.

I ASK her something I have always wanted to -- about the fantastic opening and closing scenes of "Bye Bye Birdie" with Ann-Margret running toward the camera, her red hair and her peach dress flying in the wind?

She laughs, "Oh, well, you know the studio didn't want to do that at all. That was the idea of the director Mr. George Sidney." (Sidney was more than a little obsessed with the actress, and would direct her in two more films -- she was his very own finger-snapping, hair-tossing, hip-flipping Marlene Dietrich to his Josef von Sternberg.)

"He wouldn't let go of the idea. But the studio hated it. So, he just went ahead and paid for it himself, out of his own pocket. It was months after I'd finished the movie and I'd already dyed my hair another color, so we had to go back to red. And then, they put me on this treadmill that was, I don't know, 20 feet high and no railings and the wind machines were really strong. I suppose I should have been scared, but I wasn't. I loved it." Well, why not? Surely even at that young age, Ann-Margret must have sensed this was her moment to bloom, and George Sidney solidified that moment with one of the most famous screen images of all time.

Ann-Margret still performs her stage shows, perhaps with a few less motorcycles than in the past, but plenty of razzle-dazzle. She has played New York City only once, about 15 years ago, Radio City Music Hall. I suggest to her -- why not come into Manhattan's Carlyle Cafe, or The Regency? Neal Peters screams -- "See?! This is what I have been telling her for years!" Ann-Margret says, "But, that's not my kind of show; I don't know..." I assure her an evening of Ann-Margret ballads and gorgeous gowns would go over big time. She doesn't appear convinced. But finally says, sweetly, "Well, you both seem so sure..."

Now Ann-Margret must fly, or sail, to be exact. She tells me briefly of two movies she'll appear in later in the year, and promises to consider a cabaret appearance. She hugs me and says, "Nobody is as kind to me as you are!"

Before she's out the door, I say: "Maybe when Lindsay Lohan is out of rehab you two can work together. She loves you." Ann-Margret stops in her tracks. "Liz, I hope so. Now, that is one talented girl. I mean really, she's got it. I've met her and I like her a lot. She has problems and people have been so cruel, so cruel."

She pauses, and her eyes fill up. "I've never understood that kind of cruelty. Never. And I've known it. I won't talk of it. But I know."






Television - Will Emmy Finally Gleam for Ann-Margret?