Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century 27: Ann-Margret, Actor

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The Independent Culture
IT ISN'T every actress who can survive a movie that requires her to writhe around under the overcooked direction of Ken Russell. For Glenda Jackson the shame was clearly so great she became an MP. But Ann-Margret, who - for no immediately apparent reason - is made to disport herself in a bath-tub of baked beans in Russell's ineffable version of The Who's Tommy in 1975, came through the experience with her customary serenity.

It may have helped that Ann-Margret was not without a bit of previous in the writhing department. In 1966, she made a comedy called The Swinger, in which she played the author of a racy autobiography. Because the Hollywood version of the Swinging Sixties - created by balding paunchy movie producers who were not particularly swinging but often sixty - usually involved the casual humiliation of women, Ann-Margaret became a human paintbrush, at one point covering herself in paint and wriggling around on a blank canvas.

At the age of 25, Ann-Margret's career was believed to be in terminal decline. Yet a few years earlier Ann-Margret Olsson, who came to America from her native Sweden as a child, was America's teen sweetheart. The Theatre Owners of America voted her Star of the Year in 1964 after her success in Viva Las Vegas opposite Elvis, the most provocative partner Presley ever had and the only one with whom you could believe he actually slept.

He may very well have done in fact. They certainly had a romance, but her biography, Ann-Margret: My Story, is full of tasteful fades leaving us no closer to knowing how far she and the King went. A similarly discreet veil is pulled over her relationships with other early Sixties heavy hitters, including John F Kennedy and Frank Sinatra.

Kennedy certainly saw her as a replacement for Marilyn Monroe. In 1963, the year after Marilyn's famously breathy Happy Birthday Mr President, JFK chose Ann-Margret to pay him a similar tribute. There were also other parallels between the two actresses; unsuitable men, alcohol, and prescription drugs.

With her career reduced by the late Sixties to Italian potboilers, barely exhibited in America, you would not have staked much on Ann-Margret's future.

But Ann-Margret re-wrote the script. She refused to be used and abused by men in the way that Marilyn was. An article in an early Sixties fan- mag hints at the steel behind the pout. "Ann-Margret sweeps men off their feet," the writer gushes. "She goes on breaking hearts and making men miserable. Many a big game hunter has had better luck with lions than with this tantalizing tigress."

On screen she returned triumphantly in Carnal Knowledge in 1971, the first really serious movie she had ever done, with a moving display of vulnerability as Jack Nicholson's ill-used mistress.

She married Roger Smith, an actor from the television show 77 Sunset Strip, a marriage that has endured more than 30 years, with Smith acting as her agent and looking out for her like a mother hen.

She has never wanted for work. Superior TV movies are what she does mostly these days, including a biography of Pamela Harriman, former wife of Randolph Churchill and so-called "courtesan of the century", who triumphed as her own woman after her last husband died, and was appointed American ambassador to France.

The story is not a million miles away from Ann-Margret's, a triumph not so much over adversity as over tacky bad taste, and the bad judgement of men in the face of a pair of breasts and a sweet smile. Like Harriman, Ann-Margret thought of Girl Power long before the Spice Girls.