You Can Love Elvis Tender, But Not For His Acting

By Douglas McGrathSep 9, 2001
The New York Times has an article about Elvis' movies. Although we do not completely agree with it (especially bringing TTWII down to "Love Me Tender"), we think it gives a very thoughtful (and well researched, except for the title of "Got a Lot o'Livin to Do") overview of Elvis' movie career. You Can Love Elvis Tender, but Not for His Acting Forty-five years ago, Elvis Presley made his first movie, a musical Civil War drama in which he marries his dead brother's girlfriend and later finds out his dead brother is alive. That Civil War caused people so much trouble! The movie was called "Love Me Tender." It features the song of the same name for which Elvis, in a mind- boggling collaboration, wrote the lyrics to a Stephen Foster melody. Elvis knew so little about moviemaking that when he arrived for the first day of shooting, he had memorized not only his dialogue but also the entire script. By 1969, when he walked through "Charro," a western so execrable that the horses look embarrassed, he does not appear to have learned even his own lines. In 16 years Elvis Presley made 33 movies, and it is one of the innumerable tragedies of the film business that none of the films fully accommodate his amazing talent. Most of them, in fact, aren't good at all. And I don't mean good like "The Bicycle Thief." I mean good like "The Road to Morocco." This is not to denigrate his talent, only his development and exploitation of it. He is unquestionably a giant of American popular music, the landmark male singers, it seems to me, being Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. His early television appearances are electrifying, still the most astonishing mix of ignorance, rhythm, sex and showmanship ever put before the public. His talent to arouse and delight is all the more gratifying in light of what followed: a degradation of audience and artist alike that eventually ravaged him as well. Yet his movie career is a catalog of squandered promise. It begins tantalizingly and ends in squalor. In "Love Me Tender," while he is not consistently good, he is undeniably winning. There is a sincerity and eagerness in his performance that does not so much deny criticism as disarm it. You often find yourself liking him while at the same time being aware that he's doing something wrong. He is alternately sexy, simian, sensitive and wooden. Every so often, he seems like a robot with eye shadow. But what he lacks in technique, he makes up for in feeling. In scenes calling for big emotion, he is sometimes too big. But often he is quiet in a way that draws us to him. He sings a number of songs, and wonderfully. There is still no one like Elvis. To watch him dance is to see Cubism brought to life. There is sometimes the sense that his upper and lower body do not belong together, and every so often the bottom half tries to make a run for it. What is most appealing in "We're Gonna Move," "Poor Boy" and "Let Me" is how much fun he appears to be having. In a few short years, when the formula for commercial success had regrettably been discovered and set, you could not find this happiness in his face again. He seemed like a singing hologram. But in "Love Me Tender" there is an infectious joy in what he does, and in the title song, which he repeats at the end, you sense a depth of emotion, and a restraint, that appears only erratically in his acting. It is a promising debut; you feel that in the right hands he could do something solid. His next film, "Loving You" (1957), is both a step forward and a step back. On the positive side, it is prettier to look at. It is Elvis's first color film, and the color is creamy. In addition, in a pattern that would soon be broken, there are several good songs: "Mean Woman Blues," "Teddy Bear" (sung against a purple scrim sprinkled with stars), "Loving You" and "Livin'," in which he does some of his most irresistible dancing. He has acquired more discipline in both his acting, which is still marked by a certain blunt energy, and in his numbers. Now when he jiggles his leg, it looks like a choice, not a seizure. All around, it is a pleasant piece of entertainment. But it succeeds by trying for less. You don't have the feeling that he's making so many mistakes, but you also don't have the excitement of seeing a young talent reach for something. His next film, "Jailhouse Rock" (1957), with another terrific score, is one of his best. It is grittier (back to black and white) and Elvis is quite convincing as a hot-headed ex-con trying to break into show business. His acting is more confident but less emphatic, and he has (temporarily, it turns out) acquired the actor's technique of making something out of terrible dialogue. When a woman says to him, "How dare you use such tactics!" he replies: "That ain't tactics, honey. It's just the beast in me." Don't ask me how, but he puts it over. Even better, he is frankly sexual in the film — he gives a woman a look in a bar that not only undresses but X-rays her. This is exactly what we want of Elvis in the movies; it advances what the television appearances only allude to. In the flatly innocuous 20-odd movies that were soon to follow, you would never know that this was a boy who frightened girls' parents. It's as if somewhere after his appearances on Ed Sullivan's show, he'd been spayed. But in "Jailhouse Rock," you can see what all the fuss was about. He followed that film with "King Creole" (1958), one of the few times he worked with a director of some stature: Michael Curtiz. It is a drama, and he does good things in it. The New Orleans setting suggests Tennessee Williams, and you sense how exciting it might have been to have him in a Williams piece. In fact, he was offered the Brando part in the film of Williams's "Fugitive Kind," but Col. Tom Parker, Elvis's manager, turned it down. (He also turned down Kris Kristofferson's part in the 1976 remake "A Star Is Born," but I'm not sure that counts as a loss.) It is here that the tragedy, or at least the great unknown, of Elvis's film career lies: what if he had worked with a great actor's director like Elia Kazan? Elvis had proved in his music that he could express himself in complicated emotional ways. But as an actor he needed someone to draw this new talent out of him. He wanted to do something serious but was insecure about his skill. This doubt was exploited by Colonel Parker, who was, above all else, a businessman. Elvis went into the Army after "King Creole," and when he came out, Parker, with his carny gift for the obvious, put him into "G.I. Blues" (1960). Its mindless story, witless dialogue and forgettable score naturally combined to make the film a huge hit. Elvis, still hoping, then made two dramas: "Flaming Star" (1960), in which he touchingly plays a half-Kiowa (a part first offered to Brando), and "Wild in the Country," written by Clifford Odets. They used Elvis more daringly and, of course, were less successful. When his next film, "Blue Hawaii," manufactured in the corny, crummy mold of "G.I. Blues," was also a hit, the promise of a serious career ended. The loss of dramatic material had a tragic consequence: it meant he would now do comic material. Excluding ballet, I can't think of anything for which he is less gifted. He delivers a joke with the insouciance of a telemarketer. He often makes the appalling decision to laugh after what passes for a joke in these scripts, as if he has so little confidence in either the material or his ability to perform it that he has to let us know in this way that it was meant to be funny. It is painful to watch, all the more so because he seems to know how bad he is and begins to withdraw from the material. If the worst of his early style could be described as overemoting while underenunciating, the style after "Blue Hawaii" is the old underenunciation with a sickening new element of self- loathing. Utterly joyle
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