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From Kitten With a Whip to Florence Nightingale: A Lifetime Achievement Award for star Ann-Margret

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

A half-century ago, rising movie star Ann-Margret co-starred in 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie as a girl with a crush on an Elvis-like teen idol. A year later, the bombshell from Sweden shared star billing (and a real-life romance) with Presley himself in Viva Las Vegas.

“That’s when I met Elvis, when we were doing makeup and hair tests,” recalls Ann-Margret, who on Saturday, Nov. 9, receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

“Believe it or not, we both were shy,” Ann-Margret says of their first encounter, an M-G-M photo shoot for Viva Las Vegas. “They got us the makeup and hair and the outfits. It was just awkward because we didn’t know each other.”

Now 72, Ann-Margret declines to speak further about the King. “Certainly we dated. I’ll leave it at that. We dated each other. We were friends for 14 years. ... I’d rather not talk about Elvis. It’s a very, very private relationship we had.”

Ann-Margret Olsson’s family emigrated from Sweden to the U.S. during World War II. She’s been a star since age 16, following a TV performance on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour in 1957. “I had just had chicken pox. There was one on my face. The makeup man put makeup over both of them so hopefully you couldn't see them.”

In her first film, Ann-Margret co-starred as Bette Davis’ daughter in Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Then came a 1962 remake of Rogers & Hammerstein’s State Fair opposite Pat Boone.

“I played a girl on the wrong side of the tracks,” she says. “Pat Boone — I nibbled his shoulder which had never been done on screen.”

Next came Birdie. Columbia Pictures realized Ann-Margret would be so popular, studio bosses called her back months after production ended to film a newly written title song to screen before the opening credits.

Red-headed Ann-Margret singing Bye Bye Birdie in front of a blue screen is perhaps the most iconic moment of her long film career.

Not all her films in the 1960s brought prestige but helped establish her sexy persona: Kitten With a Whip, The Swinger, Mr. Kinky.

Then, director Mike Nichols cast her in among the most intelligent and provocative films of the early ‘70s, Carnal Knowledge.

Ann-Margret’s portrayal of Bobbie, Jack Nicholson’s pathetic girlfriend, earned her an Oscar nomination and critical respect as a serious actress.

Carnal Knowledge also brought Ann-Margret some unhappiness. She is still uncomfortable with the film’s nude scenes.

“I’ve only watched it one time,” she says. “I am from a family, the only child. My father would not see it. Well, you could understand. He was very proud of me that I was nominated for an Oscar. But that’s his baby, that’s his daughter.”

A year after Carnal Knowledge, Ann-Margret nearly died when she fell 22 feet from a stage platform during a Sahara Hotel performance in Lake Tahoe.

She broke her left arm and smashed her face and jaw, requiring extensive reconstructive surgeries. “Ten weeks and I still could only open my mouth about two inches,” Ann-Margret recalls.

A few months later, she was back on national television in a special called When You’re Smiling, her father’s favorite song. “My daddy was very ill with cancer. The only way I could show him that I was well was to go back on stage.”

Ann-Margret has worked continuously since then, headlining hotel nightclubs including Miami Beach and co-starring in films such as Tommy, Who Will Love My Children? and Grumpy Old Men.

She has been married 46 years to actor Roger Smith, who became her longtime agent and now suffers from an incurable nervous system disorder.

Ann-Margret says she learned early to keep her life in perspective.

“You’re a normal person and then you become a celebrity. I’m still the same person inside. I just play other people,” she says. “Now I’m doing it big. I’m taking care of my grumpy old man. He has Parkinson’s. Florence Nightingale. Call me Flo.”

IF YOU GO

Ann-Margret receives a Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award 6 p.m. Saturday at the Inaugural Chairman's Awards Gala dinner at Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa, 3555 S Ocean Dr, Hollywood. Grammy-winner Michael Bolton performs. Tickets $250. www.fliff.com

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