San Luis Obispo Film Fest: Ann-Margret Talks Movies, Music, Men and Motorcycles on Eve of 75th Birthday

The sex-symbol of the '60s who became a two-time Oscar nominee in the '70s will receive the fest's King Vidor Award on Saturday.
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Ann-Margret

What is the polite way to address a stranger who's only known by one name? "You could call me Ms. Smith, but I'll tell you what, call me Ann-Margret!"

Thus began my conversation this week with one of the most beautiful and talented women ever to work in Hollywood — or to go by one name — Ann-Margret, who will receive the King Vidor Award for career achievement at the San Luis Obispo Film Festival on Saturday.

Born in Stockholm with the last name Olsson, it's hard to think of any Swedish import that has ever been as popular with Americans. She will turn 75 next month, but remains forever young in the mind of anyone who witnessed her explosive rise to stardom more than a half-century ago — or has discovered her work since.

While on a trip to Las Vegas as part of a Northwestern musical quartet, Ann-Margret was spotted by George Burns, who enlisted her in his own act. Shortly thereafter, she landed an RCA recording deal and a screen test that resulted in a seven-year contract at Fox. It was the same year that the studio's longtime resident sex-symbol Marilyn Monroe died, and the new starlet — with her girlish voice and face, womanly figure, impressive singing ability and underappreciated acting chops — made for a perfect successor. (She insists, for the record, "I never modeled myself after anyone.")

Ann-Margret shot to stardom in such musicals as 1962's State Fair (she went out for the part of the good girl and was cast as the bad girl), 1963's Bye Bye Birdie (who can forget the iconic opening and closing number with her on a treadmill?) and 1964's Viva Las Vegas (her introduction to future beau Elvis Presley). But she proved her chops in the '70s with performances in two films that landed her Oscar nominations: Mike Nichols' 1971 drama Carnal Knowledge (1971), as the girlfriend-turned-wife of an abusive Jack Nicholson ("I'm proud that I lived through that," she says of the emotionally grueling experience, which left her considering retirement) and Ken Russell's 1975 rock opera Tommy (which she remembers as "four months of joy").

Over the course of her career, she has worked with many of the greats, most of them gone now. Her film debut, in 1961's Pocketful of Miracles, came under the direction of Frank Capra and opposite Bette Davis, something she found "unbelievable." She bonded with Steve McQueen during the making of 1965's The Cincinnati Kid — "We shared a love of motorcycles," she says, noting that she still rides "a beautiful lilac-colored Harley that's got little daisies on it." And, by most accounts, she and Presley were madly in love (she had been labeled "the female Elvis" before they ever met), but other relationships and his premature death got in their way. She doesn't like to talk about him because it brings up "very personal feelings," but she does allow, "He was spectacular."

Though she's happy to revisit her rich history, Ann-Margret prefers not to live in the past. She finds it "very uncomfortable" to watch her movies (she says she screens each only once), but loves meeting her fans, who remain as enthusiastic about her as ever ("If a man thinks that I'm sensual, I am flattered," she grants), and is extremely gratified to know that her work still means something to many (she was deeply touched by Mad Men's recent use of a clip of her performing the Bye Bye Birdie outro).

"I never had an inkling that anything like this would happen," she says of her career. "I thought of myself as a performer; I never thought of myself as an actress. I'm continually amazed that this has happened. I feel so blessed." She hastens to add, "I think the thing I'm proudest of in my life is that if Roger [Smith, an actor who became her manager] and I make it to May 8, we'll have been married 49 years." When I ask how they met in 1967, she corrects me with a laugh. "We met in 1964," she says, "but for three years we lived in sin."

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