Ann-Margret doesn't like to talk about her Viva Las Vegas co-star and onetime kissing-buddy Elvis Presley. And it's understandable. She is a certifiable superstar in her own right. But once you fall beneath the shadow of the King, it's hard to separate yourself from him, and although I'm not supposed to ask Elvis-related questions, I have at least one I want to sneak in. Maybe, I think, I can charm this famous beauty into telling all. Maybe we can even become buddies.
At 2 p.m. straight up the phone begins to ring. The caller ID reads "private." It's her. I know it's her, and for a moment I freeze. This is, after all, Ann-Margret, the slightly trashy, fiery-spirited, red-headed apple of my adolescent eye. I only came to understand the word erotic after watching her writhe about in baked beans in Ken Russell's screen adaptation of the Who's Tommy. And there can be no denying it, I had lusted after her since I saw a certain film where Elvis Presley and Cesare Danova chase her around America's gambling capital, asking everyone they meet, "Have you seen a girl this tall, legs incomparable?" Well, have you?
"Hello, this is Ann-Margret," the voice from the other end of the phone line cooed. She really cooed. Or maybe she purred. I can't be sure. One way or the other, I felt like I should be paying $3.99 a minute to hear someone talk to me like that.
"Ann-Margret," I answer, "I've told you not to call me here anymore. My wife gets so jealous." Laughter follows. Wonderful, giddy, sexy laughter. Things are going so well.
"So, do you ever watch American Idol?" I ask casually.
"No," she answers, and the conversation goes dead in the water. This was not a good development. You see, as an amazing vocalist, fantastic dancer, and lascivious looker, Ann-Margret embodies (or perhaps once embodied) everything the American Idol judges claim to be looking for. During her heyday in the 1960s and '70s, this motorcycle-riding performer had the stuff to make teenagers scream and to make parents nervous. I thought she would have quite an opinion on the subject.
"I have been in a lot of talent shows," she offered at length. "I was on Morris B. Sach's talent contest when I was only 13. I did the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. Oh, the nerves, the nerves, the nerves."
"Can these kinds of contests prepare someone for superstardom?" I ask.
"No," she says. More silence follows. And then she starts to open up. "I don't think anything in the world can really prepare you for that sort of thing, when it happens to you. But one of the things I always tell kids, sometimes young kids who don't really understand but their parents do, is that you really have to learn how to take rejection." Margaret lost the Ted Mack contest to a man who played "Lady of Spain" on a leaf. Yes, a leaf. So she knows. "If you can't take rejection, you're going to be blown away," she says. "It's especially true for women in this brutal industry."
And then Ann-Margret, the actress, songstress, and aging love-goddess of my dreams, makes a slightly embarrassed admission. "I have seen an episode of American Idol," she says a bit sheepishly. "And I could never, not in one million years, go on a show like that and have millions and millions of people judge me. And I feel so sorry for those kids, especially the ones who are really truly sensitive. Because at an audition it's just you and three or four people in the rehearsal hall. And when you are done they don't talk to you. [When you finish] it's just 'Thank you for auditioning, goodbye.'"
Having been away from performing for nearly a decade, she says the need to entertain had grown too strong. "You can't operate that need out," she says. "You can't eat it out or tear it out, and, honey, I want to put on a show. I'm like the Energizer bunny -- I just keep going and going and going." But what is an Ann-Margret show like today? Surely it's not like the days of old when she would come roaring on stage on a motorcycle.
"Oh yes, we do have a motorcycle in the show," she says. "I still ride bikes. I have one very girly bike. It's lavender. Harley-Davidson is hand-painted in white script, and there are daisies painted all over it. It's SO girly. And we are doing all kinds of music [in the show] -- rock-and-roll, blues, and standards. I realized that I had never actually performed anything from Viva Las Vegas or Bye Bye Birdie live, so I'm singing the song "Viva Las Vegas" in the show and doing things from Bye Bye Birdie."
At last the opportunity has presented itself. She has brought up the subject of rock-and-roll and Viva Las Vegas. Now, it seems, is my chance to ask about Elvis, but I decide to ease into the conversation with an easy question.
"What's the best rock-and-roll film of all time?" I ask. "Bye Bye Birdie, Tommy, or Viva Las Vegas?"
"Well, Bye Bye Birdie isn't really rock-and-roll. It's Broadway. So it's not Bye Bye Birdie. And Tommy isn't really rock-and-roll either. That's the '70s, right? So it's a completely different era. So it's got to be Viva Las Vegas."
"So," I ask cunningly, "while on the subject of rock-and-roll "
"Oh," she interrupts, sensing the inevitable, "look at the time. I really do have to run. I have another interview to do." We say our thank-you's, and she hangs up.
All I wanted to ask was, "You're so talented, and your career has been fantastic, with Oscar nominations and tons of critical praise. Do you ever feel like your association with Elvis eclipsed your talent? Has that relationship become a burden over the years?" And although she never heard the question, I suppose I got my answer. It began "Oh, look at the time" and ended with a click.
Ann-Margret at Gold Strike Casino, Sat., May 10th