Happy Birthday, Ann-Margret

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Ann-Margret entertaining US troops in Vietnam, 1966

Today is Ann-Margret’s birthday. Her autobiography, Ann-Margret: My Story is wonderful. What a career. And it’s still unfolding. There are so many classic scenes. Tommy. Carnal Knowledge.

Of course, too, there is the Elvis connection and that is what I will write about today, although there are so many other phases to her extraordinary career. These are edited re-posts on Viva Las Vegas, the one film she did with Elvis. One of his best, partially because of her presence, and their onscreen chemistry. In a perfect world, the two of them would have made 5 or 6 movies together, instead of just the one.

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It’s no secret that the two had a love affair. They remained friends to the end, and she was one of the only Hollywood people who made the trip to Memphis for Elvis’ funeral. The two of them were raised in similar old-fashioned conservative ways, and that was one of the ways in which they bonded, as she describes in her book: Respect for your elders, do the right thing, be kind and polite, grateful for what you have, etc. The entire time they were dating, Ann-Margret was living with her parents, and Elvis would come over, and have dinner, and hang out with her family, and do all the things a good old-fashioned boyfriend is supposed to do. He “got it”.

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And while we don’t know about the sex they had, and neither should we, we do know that Elvis bought her a gigantic round bed. You figure it out. Beautifully, the check for that damn bed ($780.00) is on display at Graceland, with a note in Elvis’ handwriting in the Memo section: “Personal gift for home of Miss Ann Margret.”

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The two of them were sometimes fish-out-of-water in the more brutal and selfish atmosphere of Hollywood show-biz, and they found much comfort and ease in one another’s company. They would drive around the Hollywood hills, and park the car, looking out over the skyline, and talk about everything under the sun. They were idealistic, hopeful, and total fans of one another. “You’re awesome,” “No, YOU’RE awesome,” was how they felt.

Ann-Margret wrote in her book, bluntly, “I will never recover from Elvis’ death.”

While she does devote a chapter to their relationship, she does not give away much, and never speaks of him in anything less than a totally complimentary way. She refuses to divulge “dirt”. (You will find that that is the case with all of his girlfriends. All of the women in his life. Including Priscilla. They are loyal to him, and protective. It says a lot about who he was in life.)

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Watch this extraordinary clip of Charlie Rose’s interview with Ann-Margret. Watch her quiet firmness, the sense of heartbreak still there, the feeling of Love you get from her. Rose is not being too pushy, and is clearly reacting to what is right in front of him, her sensitive refusal to “go there”. Other than her book, Ann-Margret does not speak of Elvis. At least not of their relationship. That was their private business. Elvis trusted her. To betray his trust would be unthinkable, even from beyond the grave.

The two were paired up together in 1964’s Viva Las Vegas, Elvis being the biggest star in the world at that point, and Ann-Margret on her white-hot rise to superstardom.

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From the first moment they met, each recognized a kindred soul in the other. They both said words to that effect. They drove the producers of the film crazy by risking their lives riding motorcycles like daredevils around late at night (there’s a motorbike sequence in Viva Las Vegas, too). Elvis’ nickname for her was “Ammo.”

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Presley, at the time he was dating Ann-Margret, became so overcome by his feelings that he actually approached his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and asked him to manage Ann-Margret’s career, too. Col. Parker only had one client: Elvis. It was a tense situation between the two men, the Colonel reminded him that if he took on Ann-Margret that would leave less time for Presley. It was a warning. The Colonel was not a fan of Viva Las Vegas anyway, because Ann-Margret had too much screen time. You know, as brilliant as the Colonel was, in his P.T. Barnum way, there were a lot of things he didn’t “get”.

It didn’t work out between Elvis and Ann-Margret, but for the rest of his life, any time Ann-Margret opened in Vegas, she’d find her dressing room filled with flowers (in the shape of a guitar) sent there by Elvis. She was always on his radar. She was in the inner circle of his heart.

To see Viva Las Vegas now is to see all of that happening in real-time. It translates onto the screen in unmistakable ways. I mean, watch this. (And look for Teri Garr! She was one of the dancers.)

Here’s a woman who not only can resist him, as well as hold her own onscreen beside him, but she also obviously openly adores him, who he is and what he does onstage. She looks up at him in “Come on Everybody”, dancing like the fangirl that she is, beaming a smile saying, “Give it to me! You’re so AWESOME! Give it to me!”

In that moment, she is US.

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Elvis Presley and Las Vegas went way back. At the height of his exploding popularity in 1956, he played Vegas, which, at that time, was made up of a middle-aged establishment crowd. Entertainers like Patti Page, the Rat Pack boys, performed in small clubs, and well-dressed people sat at tables, clapping. Presley, the grease-bomb from Memphis, was already known for wreaking havoc at his shows. There had been a riot in Florida, where girls poured backstage and ripped his clothes off (at Elvis’ instigation, by the way). Playing Vegas was risky but an important step at broadening his fan-base. Unfortunately, though, the 1956 Vegas shows did not go well. Everyone (including Elvis) considered the whole thing to be a disaster, and Elvis walked around Vegas late at night after his shows there, beside himself with anxiety. Why didn’t they love him? Dismissive reviews were written in national magazines, and Presley and the boys went back on the road to connect to the teenagers who seemed to “get it”. And so Las Vegas remained a fearful image in Presley’s mind, although he loved to go there on vacation. Vegas was a potent symbol to Elvis of the rare crowd he could NOT conquer. (Of course, in the late 1960s and on until the end of his life, Elvis came back and took Vegas by storm).

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But before all that, in 1964, Presley had taken another crack at the Vegas scene, with Viva Las Vegas, directed by George Sidney, and co-starring the young Ann-Margret, who had just made her first big splash in Bye Bye Birdie (a spin on the Elvis Presley story). Viva Las Vegas was the biggest and most traditional Hollywood musical that Presley ever did. The plot is the same as most of his other movies: Race car driver/singer, girl he wants, race he needs to win, exotic location, etc. Presley loved Vegas, as I mentioned, and even if he had never played Vegas so successfully in the 70s, he still might be associated with that town forever, due to the catchy anthem of the title song. It’s one of the few songs he ever sang that didn’t have to do with either a romantic relationship or his love for Jesus. It’s about his love for a town.

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Viva Las Vegas works primarily because Presley was partnered with someone who could go toe to toe with him, and was actually compelling enough in her own right that the audience felt some tension in the romantic relationship (and tension is where it’s at, when it comes to cinematic romance). Who wants to see a smooth guy who knows he will get the girl get the girl? Yawn.

But Presley is so strong a sexual presence that it’s difficult to imagine anyone turning him down, and many of the movies made that mistake … of not investing enough in the tense possibilities of a girl who would play hard to get with such a strapping sex symbol. Ann-Margret, as the swimming instructor in Viva Las Vegas, doesn’t play hard to get, not exactly, although the first number, where she puts him off, and he pursues, could be construed as in that realm. The beauty of it is that you know she wants him, but she certainly doesn’t want to make it too easy for him. And he enjoys the pursuit.

The two of them together are charm personified.

It’s fun seeing Elvis Presley have to work to get the girl (and every time the champagne cork explodes out of the bottle, surprising him, during the scene where he is waiting on Ann-Margert and his rival, the Italian racing star, I laugh out loud. I have been laughing out loud at that moment since I first saw the movie when I was a kid. What can I say, I’m easily pleased.)

Ann-Margret was almost as much of a powerhouse, in terms of a sexual persona onscreen, as Presley was. Presley needed resistance, as a star, someone who could stand on her own, give as good as she got. At the same time, what she gives him, especially in the number “Come on Everybody” (clip above), is the adoration and gleeful attention of his hordes of young female fans. There are shots of him up on the stage performing, and she’s down below, rocking out, and looking up at him with total joy, pushing him on. (Look for the expression on her face at around the 1:23-24 mark. It’s abandoned with joy and need. Very honest moment.) I would also like to point out that the final section of the number, when the two are onstage together, is filmed in one take. No cuts.

It’s fun to watch because it seems real. It IS real. The mutual appreciation society of two big stars.

They were so in sync they were like twins. Elvis said to a friend after the first recording session with Ann-Margret for the film that they moved the same, that their impulses were the same, they both felt the music in the same instinctive way. It was such a pleasure for him to “play” like that with someone who anticipated his moves, reflected them, and brought her own fire to the process.

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Presley, as a performer, offered sex, but it was a certain kind of sex. It was friendly sex. Not that he wasn’t overpowering, he was, but he still managed to seem friendly and fun about it, rather than off-puttingly confident and cool, and that was what his formula movies so often missed. He’s portrayed as a cool guy, surrounded by throngs of eager women, and while he is never less than entertaining … it’s that heat he brought to the table that was so watchable, erotic, undeniable.

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In Viva Las Vegas, even Elvis seems surprised at what’s going on for him. A guy who looks like he looks will have an easy time with women, and the role encompasses that obvious fact. To pretend Elvis isn’t a stunner would be ridiculous, denying reality. But the way she watches him in the movie, the way she glories in him (while not losing a bit of her own power), makes him come alive, makes him explode with even greater heat, the kind of heat and need that made him famous in the first place.

You can see the exchange of heat in evidence in all of their numbers together, but the most powerful representation of it is in a number where they don’t sing at all (clip at the bottom of the post). They’re on their first date at some Vegas club, a quartet is singing a song with the dance moves in the lyrics (‘do the squat’, etc.), and the two of them are pushed together on a crowded dance floor surrounded by other couples.

And it is as though they are the only two people on the planet.

After the dance number, Presley takes the stage and does a groovy manic version of the Ray Charles song “What’d I Say”, as Ann-Margret, once again, wiggles and jams out beside him, pushing him on by looking at him with the adoration of all of his fans. Yet still: being fabulous herself. It’s a fascinating combination, part of her very own brand of indelible movie magic. Elvis Presley could be overwhelming. Ann-Margret meets him, lovingly, enthusiastically, on his level.

That’s why people still love Viva Las Vegas. That’s why people still think it’s fun, and why it was one of Presley’s most successful pictures. Because you get the sense you are in the presence of – or at least in the vague vicinity of – something that is actually real, that is actually happening. Nobody was more powerful than Elvis Presley when he was allowed to be real.

Observe how they are together in that first dance number in the clip below. It’s shockingly intimate. We are being let into a private world of appreciation, heat, and mutual enjoyment. And for a second or two during that dumb dance number, it almost feels like we shouldn’t be watching.

Ann-Margret, of course, has had a stunning career, with many other roles beloved by her fans. She continues to work. I am always happy when she shows up in anything. A class act. A true dame.

Happy birthday.

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5 Responses to Happy Birthday, Ann-Margret

  1. Ann says:

    He was the sexist man on earth and she still is the sexist woman they should have gotten awards for that ! a true love affair with class

  2. Roberto Cicconello Abreu says:

    I still remember her in many movies. I got captive of her acting and singing immediately. She sure has a very special place in my heart. Thanks for everything. Whishing you always the best!. Love!!!

  3. Mike T. says:

    Elvis had wonderful chemistry with a number of actresses (Dolores Hart and the sublime Carolyn Jones in “King Creole” come to mind), but in his entire film career, Ann-Margret was his only co-STAR. What a different film career that might have been if, as you suggest, he had had other opportunities to work with her, and women of similar candlepower. Love them both, and love what I’m seeing on your blog (just read and am still digesting your essay on “Love Me or Leave Me” – a film about which there’s almost TOO much to say, and your voice is a marvelous addition to the dialogue).

    • sheila says:

      Mike – Thanks!

      Yes, Elvis is wonderful with both Dolores Hart and Carolyn Jones in King Creole – there was real care put into those female characters, as well as casting. I love that film.

      And at least his pairing with Ann-Margret happened once!! It very well may not have happened at all – so even though it’s a bummer that they didn’t make a bunch of movies together, the one we have is so entertaining and I am grateful for it.

      and wow – Love Me or Leave Me. What an incredible film. I wish more people knew it.

      • Mike T. says:

        I just wish they’d retained the full scene of Marty’s attack on Ruth which immediately precedes their “marriage.” Day wrote about it in her 1976 autobiography, and their mutual disappointment that it had been heavily edited for the release print. It’s an important story point as a sort of “crossing of the Rubicon” for Ruth in her relationship to Marty.

        I was a fan of Miss Day’s from the first time I saw her, took some flack for it, and even came to understand the cultural viewpoint that engendered some of the criticism. Then I saw “Love Me or Leave Me,” and my response became, “Screw you. This woman is a matchless natural actress.” In the above-mentioned book Cagney even compares her to Laurette Taylor in the comments he contributed.

        Your erudition and keen insight into the technical aspects of film and especially the art of acting made your essay one of the best pieces of writing on Day, Cagney, and “LMOLM” that I’ve ever read. Keenly glad to have so many essays to enjoy in the future. Thank you.

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