The King frequently and famously romanced many of his leading ladies, but his passionate relationship with Ann-Margret went beyond the film shoot. Their bond lasted his whole lifetime and she was one of the very few people invited to his funeral. However, on set, Elvis found himself competing with the powerful director, who was not only infatuated with the leading lady, he helped her upstage the rock star on screen – including in the film’s infamous final scene.
Sidney and Ann-Marget had already rasied eyebrows canoodling on set on 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie.
Coincidentally, the film was based on a 1960 Broadway musical that had actually been inspired by Elvis’ time in the army. The King was offered the role of rock star-turned-GI Conrad Birdie on screen but Colonel Parker turned it down.
The film catapulted Ann-Margret to superstardom and Sidney’s infatuation was clear from the way he expanded her character’s role. It apparently infuriating leading lady Janet Leigh, who was a major star after the 1960 Hitchcock thriller Psycho, so much that she slapped Sidney.
Their co-star Dick Van Dyke described one moment when he and Leigh walked on to a sound stage to find Ann-Margret sitting on Sidney’s lap. Both apparently looked at each other and said, “Uh-oh.”
Leigh was also furious to discover a new title song had been filmed in secret showcasing Ann-Margret (see below). This pattern would continue on Viva Las Vegas, angering Elvis.
The Viva Las Vegas shoot was a hotbed of passions, with Sidney continuing his adoration of the actress, while she, in turn, began her highly-publicised affair with Elvis.
She later said of The King: ”We both felt a current, an electricity that went straight through us. It would become a force we couldn’t control.”
The King was perfectly happy to pursue the Swedish beauty off screen but he did not appreciate being upstaged on screen.
Sidney later said: We made this picture, no problem. The only problem was Elvis didn’t want the girl Ann-Margret to have any close ups. He wanted all the close ups. And he didn’t want her to have any numbers. Well, I said, ‘No… I’m directing the picture. I’ll do it my way.'”
This extended to the famous split-screen final scene where Elvis comes out singing while Ann-Margret dances and poses. They were clearly shot separately and it was reported that Elvis had not wanted to share the limelight so Sidney secretly filmed Ann-Margret and then inserted her (see below).
The drama continued after the film was released.
Sidney said: “Well the picture went out in New York and they didn’t even put his name up above the picture. And they, his people, wanted to sue.”
In the end, Viva Las Vegas was a box office hit and both Elvis and Ann-Margret were praised for their performances.
Meanwhile their affair continued, with the actress using the code name Thumper whenever she called Graceland. When the dalliance hit the gossip columns with reports they were engaged, Priscilla was so angry she she threw a vase across the room and finally confronted Elvis.
Even after the affair ended, Elvis (or EP as she called him) continued to send Ann-Margret guitar-shaped flower arrangements whenever she opened a cabaret in Las Vegas.
Ann-Margret went on to marry film producer Roger Smith in 1967 and they remained devoted to each other until his death in 2017.
Sidney, meanwhile, soon retired from directing. His final film, the musical Half A Sixpence (1968), is famous for Tommy Steele’s spectacular Flash-Bang-Wallop routine celebrating photography.
He remained a major force in film and television. His first feature film, Anchors Aweigh in 1945, starred Frank Sinatra and famously saw Gene Kelly dance with the mouse from Tom and Jerry. This lead to a lifelong involvement with animation and he founded animation studio Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1957.
Sideny was called in by studios and directors to consult on film projects right up to his death in 2002.