Swedish siren Ann-Margret immigrated to the U.S. with her family at the age of seven, settling in a Chicago suburb and later studying Drama at Northwestern University. Despite an innate bashfulness, the girl set out to become a musical entertainer, making her professional debut as a singer at the age of 17. Fortunately, she was spotted by comedian George Burns, who hired her for his Las Vegas show and arranged for several professional doors to be opened for his protégée. Her first film was Pocketful of Miracles (1961), in which she played Bette Davis’ daughter; this was followed by a lead in State Fair the following year. Ann-Margret tended to be withdrawn when interviewed, which earned her the media’s “Sour Apple” award as least cooperative newcomer. But she was able to overcome this initial bad press via a show-stopping appearance at the 1962 Academy Awards telecast, which turned her into an “overnight” national favorite and encouraged the producers of Bye Bye Birdie (1963) to build up her role. Perhaps the best indication of her total public acceptance was her animated appearance in a 1963 episode of The Flintstones (as Ann Margrock).
Ann-Margret’s career faltered in the mid-’60s thanks to a string of forgettable pictures like Made in Paris (1966) and Kitten With a Whip (1964). (One of the few highlights of this period, however, was her appearance in Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas in 1964, which led to an offscreen relation with The King.) Her career in doldrums, Ann-Margret marshalled a comeback in the early ’70s thanks to the tireless efforts of her husband and manager, former actor Roger Smith. Sold-out Las Vegas and concert performances were part of her career turnabout, although the most crucial aspect was her Oscar nomination for a difficult role in 1971’s Carnal Knowledge. But the comeback nearly ended before it began in 1972 when the entertainer was seriously injured in a fall during her Vegas act. With the help of physical rehabilitation and plastic surgery (not to mention the loving ministrations and encouragement of Smith), the actress made a complete recovery and went on to even greater career heights. She received her second Oscar nomination for her bravura performance in the rock-opera film Tommy (1975), where, in one of the high points of ’70s cinema bizarre, she sang a number while swimming in baked beans. Ann-Margret was equally impressive (though in a less messy manner) in such powerhouse TV movies as Who Will Love My Children? (1983) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1984).
The low point of Ann-Margret’s early-80s career doubtless arrived when she agreed to act in Hal Ashby’s lousy 1982 gambling drama Lookin’ to Get Out (aside a scream-happy Jon Voight) — and probably regretted it for years afterward. A few triumphs marked the 1980s as well, however, such as the actress’s turn as Steffy Blondell in Neil Simon’s enjoyably bittersweet comedy-drama I Ought to Be in Pictures, and her role as a barmaid who strikes up an extramarital affair with – and later weds – Gene Hackman, in Bud Yorkin’s finely-wrought domestic drama Twice in a Lifetime (1985).
After Newsies (1992), Disney’s glaringly awful attempt to revive the period musical, Ann-Margret took time out of her packed schedule to write her 1993 autobiography Ann-Margret: My Story, a work revelatory about herself and her own personal demons that nonetheless evinces respect toward her show-business mentors and co-workers. She exuded warmth as the bon vivant who falls in-between bickering Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the 1993 box office hit Grumpy Old Men and its lackluster 1995 sequel, Grumpier Old Men (and played a satisfying straight man throughout). Yet the high profile of the Old Men releases made them exceptions to the actress’s output in the mid-late nineties and early 2000s, which – though of varying quality – placed infinitely greater weight on television work than Ann-Margret had at any earlier point in her career. (In fact, for a period of about ten years, she became a veritable telemovie staple on par with Mary Tyler Moore and Meredith Baxter-Birney). These titles include but are not limited to: Nobody’s Children (1994), Scarlett (1994), Seduced by Madness: The Diane Borchardt Story, Life of the Party: The Pamela Harriman Story (1998), Happy Face Murders (1999), Blonde (2001) and A Place Called Home (2004).
One big-screen exception arrived in the late 1999 football drama Any Given Sunday, where Oliver Stone gave Ann-Margret her meatiest role since Carnal Knowledge, as the alcoholic mother of team owner Christina Pagliacci (Cameron Diaz. It entailed only a small part amid a massive ensemble cast (Dennis Quaid, Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, others), but provided an excellent showcase for the actress’s craftsmanship. She landed a bit part as Wendy Meyers, the mother of Jennifer Aniston’s character, in the Aniston-Vince Vaughn romantic comedy The Break-Up, and joined Tim Allen and Martin Short for that same year’s Buena Vista holiday sequel Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. As the new decade began, she continued to appear regularly in projects as diverse as The 10th Kingdom, Taxi, The Break-Up, and Old Dogs. In 2011 she starred in the comedy All’s Faire in Love as the queen of a Renaissance fair.