Ann-Margret delivers her best performance in her role as quiet advocate for the AIDS community
by Dann Dulin
A star was born…when Ann-Margret coolly sashayed before the camera in her debut film, the 1962 Rogers & Hammerstein musical State Fair. Glimmering in sunny yellow short-shorts and a breezy white and yellow polka-dot blouse, her golden red hair flowed and bounced, framing her angelic face and radiant, sexy smile.
An AIDS activist was born…when Ann-Margret delivered a rousing and moving speech on Hollywood’s Paramount Studios lot in 1985 for the world’s first AIDS Walk. 4,500 people were in attendance and the event brought in $673,000. Just days before the walk, Rock Hudson announced that he had AIDS.
“So many friends are gone from this disease. So many dancers I used to dance with have died,” laments Ann-Margret from the spacious living room of her home atop a Beverly Hills canyon, where she’s lived with her husband, actor Roger Smith, for forty-two years. She takes a breath. “I remember we were in Aspen one time. We used to have a home there because I liked to ski. One of our sons was in the hospital and Peter Allen was there, too, because he had run into a tree while skiing. Oh, Peter…my…” She halts. The pain of Peter’s death from AIDS still holds a powerful grip.
“He and Dean Pitchford came up to me one time at a party and said, ‘We’d love to write a song for you.’ Surprised, I said, ‘Great!’ Then they asked, ‘What would you like to sing about?’ I said, ‘My life, my work.’ That’s all I said! Three weeks later they came through this front door [she points to it], Peter sat at the piano [the ebony grand sits behind us] and Dean sang, ‘Once Before I Go.’ They wrote it for me. It was a gift to me…,” she gushes. A few months later she sang it at The Riviera in Las Vegas. She sings a few bars: “Once before I go/I want you to know/That I would do it all again…” What a treat to hear that oh-so-familiar sultry voice! It calls to mind the iconic musicals she’s appeared in: Bye Bye Birdie, Tommy, and of course, Viva Las Vegas, with Elvis Presley. For a time they dated, remaining close friends for the rest of Elvis’ life. She calls him “E.P.”
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall once owned Ann-Margret’s home, which she and Roger named “Camp Smith.” Nestled into the lush wooded hills, the home comes complete with a white picket fence. When she first visited this area in the late sixties, she felt a strong cosmic affinity with the land. “Something called me here,” she says. To get here, one must drive up a snaking steady incline. Then you stumble upon several buildings and a brick and layered stone patio that leads to the main entrance. Standing by the garage is her lavender motorcycle with “Harley Davidson” scripted in white, with strategically placed painted daises, a large one on the front fender. “A girlie bike” she calls it and, yes, she still rides it.
When we meet at the two large white front doors on a rather warmish spring day, she’s bundled up in olive green sweats and sports a snug, black knit hat and her signature lavender tinted glasses. She just finished a workout with her trainer, a regimen that she follows three times a week. She’s vibrant, in shape, and still resembles that sex kitten in State Fair who made such an impression on this journalist as a young lad. Since 1985, she and a group of friends walk the hills every Saturday morning, come rain or shine. “Whatever possessed me to say 9 a.m.?” she later grumbles jokingly.
Encountering Ann-Margret for the first time is a refreshing venture. Her sustained handshake is meaningful and she looks directly into my eyes, pausing to connect. It’s a welcome and intimate gesture. Afterward, she offers me a drink. We both sip green tea and relax in her French Provincial living room on a white sofa speckled with a pattern of hefty pink flowers. The room is a mishmash packed with paintings, knickknacks (many are gifts from friends), potted palms, lavish throw rugs, chandeliers, a Swedish flag, and a framed photograph of Sweden’s royal couple. White plantation shutters are wide open and the floor-to-ceiling square-pained windows allow masses of sunlight to bathe the room.
Like two old pals, we discuss a variety of topics including healthy eating and my travels to Sweden. “I love to talk about Sweden and
almost feel like it’s my duty to make sure that people have a good time,” she says, instinctively lapsing into Swedish for a couple of sentences. “Oh my gosh…Oh my gosh,” she says catching herself and returning to English, slightly embarrassed. “The moment you say something about Sweden I say, Ja….”
Her keen enthusiasm reminds me of Kim McAfee, the teenage character she portrayed in Bye Bye Birdie. Nominated for two Oscars for her performances in Tommy and Carnal Knowledge, her extensive list of credits include the 1991 AIDS-themed telefilm Our Sons, starring alongside Julie Andrews [A&U, November 2006], Hugh Grant, and Zeljko Ivanek. Ann-Margret’s portrayal of a bigoted, fundamentalist mother whose gay son is dying of AIDS is haunting, especially since the character is so different from the actress. “John and I had done several films together, so I was comfortable with him and he knew I could handle that part,” says Ann-Margret, about the director John Erman, who several years earlier directed the groundbreaking AIDS story, An Early Frost. “I just saw John recently in New York.”
While in New York, Ann-Margret became snowbound and was unable to attend the annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards gala, which benefits Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs. She was to accept its Arts and Activism Award. True to her word, a week later, she trekked to the desert city to accept her award and toured Desert AIDS Project. “I’m so honored,” she declares. Then she asks rhetorically, “Have you been to the Desert AIDS Project? The place is so incredible, Dann. They have eighty apartments for the clients, a dentist on the premises, psychological counseling, medications are available—and no one is turned away. I was just…,” she stops then continues, “I was overwhelmed at the goodness of the people who started that. OH!”
Ann-Margret’s voice is soft, almost demure, yet commanding and poised. She eloquently pronounces each word crisply and clearly, like a young schoolgirl would, reciting her lessons.
Humanitarianism is not new to Ann-Margret. She sprouted her wings while traveling to Vietnam (twice) with Bob Hope’s USO Tour to entertain the troops. For her efforts, President Lyndon Johnson bestowed on her a citation for outstanding performances for her tours. “I’m extremely proud of that,” she points out. “And to this day, ahhh, when I meet someone who says they saw me in Da Nang or Phu Bai or Dong Tam, I say, ‘Ohhh…,’” she murmurs, purring like a kitten, “‘you’re back on American soil! Thank the dear Lord.’”
Ann-Margret is also active when it comes to doing “anything with pets,” as well as the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation Of America. Roger, her husband of forty-three years, was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease, in 1980. Thanks to effective treatment, Roger is doing fine.
A former publicist of Ann-Margret’s tells me that when it comes to charity, she keeps a low profile; she does not want to make a big fuss. She’d rather visit those in the hospital than wave a banner. But just where does this come from? “Empathy comes from my parents,” explains Ann-Margret instantly, admitting that they were her role models. She briefly gazes at one of the many crystal cats on the coffee table. “Oh I wish you could have met my mother and my father….You would have loved them.”
There’s no pretense about Ann-Margret. Though wrapped in a hint of shyness, she’s warm and honest and wants to make you feel comfortable.
An only child, Ann-Margret recalls the closeness she had with her parents. At one point she escorts me over to a table to view a framed wedding photograph of them. Her mother passed in 2001 and her father in 1973. Looking at the photograph she comments, “I remember Daddy, he was so adorable.” She pauses for a moment, still fixated on the image. “I have to believe that I will see them and all my loved ones again. I couldn’t continue if I didn’t believe that.” Tears form around her violet eyes and she gently plays with a necklace composed of tiny diamonds, an early birthday gift from Roger.
Ann-Margret has three stepchildren, who came into her life when they were three, six, and seven. She calls herself “The Wicked Stepmother of the West” and years ago one of the children gave her a T-shirt inscribed with the phrase, “Here Comes Trouble.” She likes that! She has four grandkids and will soon be a greatgrandmother.
Ann-Margret’s children were all in their twenties when the AIDS epidemic struck and, because of her work with the AIDS community, she made sure that they were fully aware and informed about prevention. “I’m very worried because young people who are promiscuous can be very careless,” she says fanning her hand across her chest. “At seventeen, you’re a warrior. ‘Nothing is going to get me.’ And some say, ‘Well, I can just take the cocktail.’ Ohh….” She moans, mocking body chills. “They believe it won’t hit them. But they need to learn that they are no different than anybody else. If they keep on with reckless behavior they could get infected and perhaps the medicine won’t work for them,” she stresses. “You can’t play with your life that way!” she says delicately yet forcefully, choosing her words carefully, as if speaking to an assembly of high school students.
A worry shadows her face.
As Ann-Margret takes a sip of tea from her lively flower-decorated mug that even boasts a 3-D rose on the handle, we touch on the Obama administration’s response to the epidemic. “I know last year he signed an extension to the Ryan White [HIV/AIDS] bill,” she offers. “Before that in 2003, President Bush started PEPFAR.” She begins to rattle off the acronym but has difficulty. “Wait!” she snaps, remembering, “I printed out this material from the Internet.” She darts from the room and returns with the print-out. She scans over it. “Yes, it’s the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.” In 2008, President Bush reauthorized this bill by signing the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Reauthorization Act. It sanctions up to $48 billion for PEPFAR from 2009–2013 and was named to honor the two late Congressmen, one Democrat and one Republican, who authorized the original 2003 act.
“This is extraordinary,” she marvels, heartfelt. “I was thrilled to see how much the government is funding.”
Later this year, two new films will be released that costar Ann-Margret. Last year she appeared on both Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (for which she won an Emmy) and Army Wives, and even played a wealthy Southern-belle auntie in the film The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, based on a play by Tennessee Williams. (In 1984 she appeared in a television production of Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and was nominated for an Emmy and won the Golden Globe for her performance.) Ann-Margret continues to entertain and to give back through her charitable efforts. At the end of the interview I ask her to describe herself in one word. She answers, “Complicated.” Maybe Peter Allen’s song, “Once Before I Go,” which also closed her 1994 autobiography, My Story, does sum it up best about Ann-Margret:
I’m sure I’d make the same mistakes
I’d even suffer through the pains
and joys and aches
I suffered then,
But I’d do it all
Oh yes, I’d do it all again.
I depart back through the white front doors, taking a few steps past a huge shady oak tree and the inviting swimming pool. I turn around for one parting question. “Ann-Margret,” I say. She is leaning gingerly against the doorframe and fussing with a nearby plant. “What would you like to be remembered for?” Immediately she utters two words: “I cared.”
And More Ann-Margret
AM was a cheerleader at New Trier High School, where other alumni included Rock Hudson.
AM was discovered by comedian, actor, and entertainer, George Burns.
AM’s first film was State Fair, though A Pocketful of Miracles was released first.
AM appeared on the Flintstones, voicing the character, Ann-Margrock.
AM’s favorite film is Splendor in the Grass.
AM was first choice to play Gypsy in the 1962 musical Gypsy.
AM was close with Lucille Ball, who called her either “Margret” or “Junior.”
AM’s proudest moment is when she bought her parent’s their very first home.
AM likes to play solitaire on the computer.
AM sang at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party the next year after Marilyn Monroe’s legendary appearance.
AM is portrayed by Rose McGowen in the 2005 TV movie, Elvis, who is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
AM considers Elvis a pioneer.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.