Movie News & Reviews

SLO film fest honoree Ann-Margret talks show business, marriage

Ann-Magret will receive the King Vidor Award for Excellence in Filmmaking on Saturday in San Luis Obispo as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
Ann-Magret will receive the King Vidor Award for Excellence in Filmmaking on Saturday in San Luis Obispo as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

Ann-Margret’s shyness is legendary in the entertainment industry.

“People have said to me, ‘I can’t believe you’re in show business,’ but I was always that way,” said the two-time Academy Award nominee, whose career as an actress, singer and dancer has spanned more than five decades. Although she was soft-spoken and withdrawn as a girl, she explained, “When I got up and performed, I was a different person.”

Ann-Margret, 74, is sure to shine Saturday when she receives the King Vidor Award for Excellence in Filming at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Former King Vidor recipient Alan Arkin, who co-stars with Ann-Margret in the upcoming comedy “Going in Style,” will present her with the award following a screening of the 1964 movie musical “Viva Las Vegas” at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo.

After an on-stage conversation with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, Ann-Margret will help present the George Sidney Independent Film Awards — named after the King Vidor Award-winning filmmaker who directed her in “Bye Bye Birdie,” “The Swinger” and “Viva Las Vegas.”

Ann-Margret is just the second woman in the film festival’s 22-year history to receive its highest honor. Eva Marie Saint was honored in 2004.

“She, to me, embodies what that award is about,” festival director Wendy Eidson said of Ann-Margret, noting that the entertainer has worked with “the legends of the business” — from Elvis Presley to Jack Nicholson — and defied the expectations of generations of moviegoers.

“All I wanted to do is entertain people,” Ann-Margret told The Tribune in a recent telephone conversation. “I wanted to make them happy. I wanted to make them feel. I wanted to touch them in some way, and I never expected anything (in return).

“Boy, was I surprised.”

Born Ann-Margret Olsson, she spent the first six years of her life in Valsjobyn, Sweden, a small farming village near the Arctic Circle — most of them away from her father, who had moved to Chicago to work. She and her mother reunited with him in the United States in 1946; Ann-Margret became a naturalized U.S. citizen three years later.

Ann-Margret said her parents taught her the importance of stoicism in the face of adversity.

“I come from a family where you don’t ask for anything. If you don’t have the money, you wait (until you do),” she said.

As a result of her upbringing, Ann-Margret said, she took a pragmatic approach to her show business career. She made her official debut as a performer at age 13 on a local television talent show, and started playing clubs and casinos while attending Northwestern University.

Ann-Margret’s big break came in 1960 when she performed in actor and comedian George Burns’ variety show at the former Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The 18-year-old earned rave reviews, which in turn landed her an RCA recording contract and her Golden Globe Award-winning film debut in 1961’s “Pocketful of Miracles.”

She followed that up with starring roles in “State Fair” and “Bye Bye Birdie.”

“There are two gentlemen who have touched my life and made my career: Mr. George Burns and Mr. George Sidney,” Ann-Margret said. “From those two gentlemen I learned so much.”

Burns taught her about comedic timing and the value of regular rehearsals, she explained, while Sidney gave her acting advice.

“I was a sponge,” Ann-Margret recalled. “Everything that I learned, I wanted to learn — and I still want to learn continually. Everybody, if you’re a performer or not, needs to be inquisitive.”

All I wanted to do is entertain people. I wanted to make them happy. I wanted to make them feel ... and I never expected anything (in return).


Over the course of the 1960s, Ann-Margret expanded her show business education — serenading President John F. Kennedy at his 46th birthday party and sharing the screen with Presley in “Viva Las Vegas,” Dean Martin in “Murderers’ Row” and Steve McQueen in “The Cincinnati Kid.” She launched her Las Vegas stage show, shot a pair of CBS television specials and entertained U.S. troops stationed in Vietnam during USO tours headlined by Bob Hope and Johnny Rivers.

While working on 1965’s “Once a Thief,” Ann-Margret met her future husband and manager, “77 Sunset Strip” star Roger Smith. The pair married in 1967.

“She came out of that era as a sex symbol,” Eidson said of Ann-Marget. “She had to find a way to prove that she was a serious actress and not just beautiful.”

Ann-Margret said she never minded her sex symbol status. “I’ve always been flattered,” she said. “Aren’t you flattered when a man will come up to you and say ‘You are really so sensual. You are so outstanding?’ ”

Still, she acknowledged that the true test of her talent came in 1971’s “Carnal Knowledge.”

“I knew when I read the script that I would have to go way down deep into my soul” to play a self-destructive sexpot, said Ann-Margret, who earned her first Oscar nod for the role. She credited director Mike Nichols with coaxing a Golden Globe-winning performance out of her.

Ken Russell, who directed the actress in another Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning turn in 1975’s “Tommy,” was equally intuitive, she said.

“Somehow he knew if he yelled at me, there was no way to respond. I would be devastated,” recalled Ann-Margret, who plays the mother of the title pinball player in The Who’s rock opera. “If you’re a director, you have to be patient and you have to get really into the person and behave in a way where you’ll get the most out of them.”

All I wanted to do is entertain people. I wanted to make them happy. I wanted to make them feel ... and I never expected anything (in return).


In addition to professional triumphs, the 1970s saw one of the most trying periods in Ann-Margret’s life.

In 1972, while performing in Lake Tahoe, she fell nearly 22 feet from an elevated platform, landing face down. She broke her left arm, cheek bone and jawbone.

“There were three days when I was unconscious. I had no idea (what happened),” she recalled. “When I finally woke up and I couldn’t move, Roger told me what had happened to me.

“I realized (that) the gentleman upstairs wants me to do something. It was not my moment to leave this world. … I feel so blessed that I was spared.”

Asked what she felt called to do, Ann-Margret said, “It was to help people.”

“A lot of people have called me over the years that have had trouble. I just try to help them” by giving advice and sharing her experiences, she said.

Over the past few decades, Ann-Margret has pursued that mission while continuing her acting and singing careers.

She earned Golden Globes for her turns in the TV movies “Who Will Love My Children?” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and a Primetime Emmy Award for her role in a 2010 episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” She most recently appeared onscreen in the TV series “Ray Donovan.”

“The awards mean so much to me because there are people who thought that I was worthy of getting recognition for my work,” Ann-Margret said.

However, she’s equally proud of her marriage. She and Smith will celebrate their 49th anniversary in May.

“People have said, ‘Oh, they’ll never make it.’ And guess what? We made it,” she said.

Ann-Margret acknowledged that their union hasn’t been without its challenges. In 1980, Smith was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease; she’s served as his primary caregiver ever since.

“I want to help him as much as I can and continue taking care of him, my stubborn, grumpy old man,” she said. “That’s what you do when you love someone. … If your partner has a broken wing, you fix that.”

“I’ve realized through the years how strong I really am, because I’ve been put to the test,” Ann-Margret continued. “That’s the way my mother and father were. … You don’t just talk about it. You do it.”

“Viva Las Vegas” showing and Ann-Margret awards ceremony

5 p.m. movie showing, 7 p.m. awards ceremony

Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo

$15, $10 for students and film festival society members

546-3456 or