The Comb

To those of you new to me, here is an example of the kind of things I look for in actors.

I look for the moments many take for granted, and yet such moments are essential in a building-block kind of way: without these moments, the performance would indeed be “wooden” (a criticism often leveled at Presley, something I disagree with entirely). The problem is when you make it look too easy people often don’t notice, they assume you’re not “doing anything”. But being able to do nothing while onscreen is one of the marks of a good actor. Being able to suggest a three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional screen is one of the marks of a good screen actor.

But then there are other things, less esoteric, more practical. If you walk into a room, have you been in that room before? If you haven’t, then wouldn’t you take a second to glance around you, to see what the room is like? This is how people behave in real life. Unspecific actors miss these tiny bits of reality all the time. They are clearly walking onto a set they know well, they know where the doors are, where the windows are, and so their performance lacks a sense of reality. Much of what is known as natural talent means that a person (actor) does this instinctively. You didn’t need to tell Brando anything (as Kazan repeatedly said). Steve McQueen was so obsessed with keeping the reality fresh and new that he refused to even VISIT the movie set before shooting. He didn’t want to even get one look at the room, the doorknob, the placement of the furniture, because NOT knowing where everything was gave him an automatic freshness and spontaneity. But then other actors, like Michael Caine, always visited the set beforehand so he could avoid blundering mishaps like trying to pull the door open as opposed to push it. Whatever works for the actor. One size does not fit all.

The point is to create an atmosphere for yourself where, in the midst of cameras, commotion, a giant crew, you can be private and do the work you need to do.

In my post about Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, I brought up Meryl Streep’s performance in Silkwood. Roger Ebert noticed that in one scene she glanced at her watch, and then shook it slightly, to get it back intime. A minute character detail (this woman clearly would have a bum watch) that if you’re not looking for it, you wouldn’t see it – but it works on the audience on a subconscious level. You know who she is by the end of that movie, due to the small moments of character specificity that Streep got into it. This is work that is not congratulated. This is not work that WANTS to be noticed. If the audience really notices it, then you, the actor, are making too big a deal out of it. If you, the actor, want the audience to NOTICE all of the hard character work you’ve done, then you certainly are not in the world of the story.

I wanted to provide an illustrative example of this kind of relaxed in-the-moment detail that Presley was able to do in his roles, something he probably did totally instinctively (nobody told him to do such-and-such – they told him to relax, be himself, don’t worry, he was great, but they didn’t engineer his performances for him moment to moment – they didn’t need to: he was already on it). Talent is funny that way. A giant talent means you rarely make a wrong choice. That’s just the luck of the draw. Where an un-talented actor would push or emote, Presley dials it back, keeps it on a slow burn. Where a more ambitious actor would reach for the brass ring in high-tension moments, Presley breathes through it, snarling, quiet, filled with emotion that resonates through the camera. That’s just talent. That is what Hal Wallis saw in the screentest.

But often it’s not the big moments that make up an effective performance. It’s not the climaxes. It’s the small moments in between. It’s the incidental moments that sometimes reach out of the screen and say, “This actor is who he says he is in this movie.” The incidental moments are the ones that carry the most authority.

And this is where Elvis Presley really shines. I think it is why he doesn’t get enough credit (or, hell, any credit) for his acting talent. People still don’t know how to look at acting, talk about it, describe why something is good, break it down. Maybe there is some sense that people still think acting is a pretty silly way to spend your time. DIRECTORS get all the credit. That is a far more manly respectful career. Directors get the credit for everything, but that’s really only because people don’t understand actors and what it is they bring to the table.

So. A moment in King Creole, so tiny you might miss it (it’s included in the clip above). I first saw the movie in college, already obsessed with acting and why I thought this moment was good or that one, and I picked up on the moment right away. It comes in the opening sequence of the film.

This is the kind of stuff I look for in an actor, and once you tune in to moments like this, you will become aware (and amazed) at how many actors miss such tiny (yet so essential) moments.

King Creole, directed by Hollywood legend Michael Curtiz, opens with a haunting early-morning New Orleans scene, as the vendors meander through the streets, peddling their wares in echoing song. (Reminiscent of “Who Will Buy” in Oliver). Presley doesn’t show up right away. When the “crawfish vendor” starts her abandoned howl through the streets, the camera pans up to a balcony. We see Presley through the open window, he hears the Crawfish call and comes out on the balcony to smile down at her, and sing back. It’s a call and response. They are connected. He’s leaning his arms on the window, but you can see his inability to stand still, the musically-inspired twitches his body goes through. He’s standing by himself, singing down to the vendor in the street and the New Orleans morning, but his body is fucking. Yet his demeanor is so unselfconscious that it becomes the potent unbalancing brew of alpha male charisma and innocent plausible deniability (“I just move this way, I’m not trying to be vulgar”) that made Presley such a sexual powerhouse.

But that’s not the moment I am talking about.

At the 2:25 mark, he leaves the window and walks back into his bedroom. We are watching him through the curtains. He’s singing. He stands at the foot of his bed, and reaches out for a comb on the dresser.

Then, then, as he’s singing, casually he flicks his fingers along the comb, getting rid of the hair that was left there from the last time he combed his hair.

That is the moment I noticed immediately when watching King Creole in college, and that moment still calls to me now. He does it with such an air of relaxation and reality, he’s just a guy in his room, even though he’s lip synching to a pre-recorded song. Nobody told Elvis Presley to do that. Michael Curtiz didn’t bellow at Presley in his incomprehensible Hungarian accent, “ELVI –” (apparently, he called him “Elvi” – which cracks me up), “ELVI – MAKE SURE YOU REMOVE THE HAIR FROM THE COMB FIRST. IT WILL LOOK MORE REAL.”

That’s all Elvis. That’s his talent knowing what to do and not making a wrong choice. 9 out of 10 actors miss moments like that. They don’t even THINK of them. Their concerns are elsewhere. But Elvis, who in real life combed his hair obsessively all day and all night – it took him hours to get the look he wanted – knows you gotta clean that comb out before you get to work on the ducktail again.

Additional thought: What such moments do are two/threefold. One: It shows Elvis Presley’s relaxation as an actor, and when I see something like that – I immediately relax, as an audience member. “Oh, okay, I’m in good hands.” Two: It helps establish him as a real character, a real guy. But the third one is most important: By flicking off the hair on the comb, he actually makes that room a real room. Through his gesture, he gives the entire film a reality. That’s not a set. That’s that guy’s bedroom. That’s not a prop comb. That’s one of his belongings. And so the story doesn’t start at the beginning of the movie – the movie has a life outside the confines of the screen. This boy we are seeing combed his hair yesterday, and there’s the hair to prove it. Tiny gestures like that help entire movies land.

This is how I talk about acting. This is what I notice. Sure, it’s nice to see him in big scenes, and confrontations, and fiercely attacking Judy Tyler on the sidewalk in Jailhouse Rock.

But when I think of why I believe Elvis Presley was a natural-born good actor, I think of him cleaning out that comb in King Creole.

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43 Responses to The Comb

  1. Pingback: The Comb | The Sheila Variations | Susan Hated Literature

  2. James Wolcott says:

    Absolutely positively, it’s the little grace notes, fillips, and filigrees that keep a performance fresh no matter how many times you’ve seen a film. I think of the way Steve McQueen arranges stones and pebbles around his foxhole in Hell Is for Heroes, as if housekeeping, or the way Tom Sizemore smooths down his hair with quick little movements after he removes his bankrobber’s mask in Heat–he’s this scary dude but slicks down his hair like a cat grooming its fur, which gives a whole different note to the tension of the scene.

  3. sheila says:

    // as if housekeeping //

    Perfect!

    Without the grace notes, it’s hard to establish any sense of reality. This stuff can’t really be taught. You just have to have an interest in creating something real already. I love to watch for such moments. They can redeem poor material.

    Thanks for commenting, James! Looking forward to reading your book, it arrived this week!

    Best
    Sheila

  4. Cara Ellison says:

    I’ve never seen this before so it was all very fresh to me. That opening was killer; I love those images of New Orleans. And Elvis was pure liquid sex in that song. His body was moving – it was so subtle, I can’t even describe it very well – but wow. The way he talks about a “big long pole” um… yeah. About that, Elvis.

    Wowsa.

  5. sheila says:

    Yes – his sexuality was obviously overt, but it was so natural that it didn’t seem planned. The moving body is just how he was. KILLER. Liquid sex, yes!

    KING CREOLE is great. He plays a high school student who just can’t seem to graduate – he’s been held back once and looks like he will be held back again, much to the chagrin of his older sister and unemployed father – and he works as a busboy in a shady nightclub and gets involved with some shady characters … at the very same time that he starts singing out in other nightclubs and becoming a sensation. It’s a serious film, but totally entertaining. Michael Curtiz directed Casablanca – he knows how to create mood and atmosphere. Love KING CREOLE.

  6. sheila says:

    Also, not for nothing, but he rhymes “pole” with “hole”.

    Come on.

  7. Cara Ellison says:

    Oh yeah. He’s all holes and poles. (By the way, that would make a great name for a strip bar.

    “Welcome to Holes and Poles. Would you like to chat with any of our sexy, classy ladies?” )

    You nailed it – he was very natural about about it so it didn’t seem crude or even necessarily intentional.

    This clip is actually the first I’ve seen where I’ve noticed his genuine male beauty.

    Did you ever write anything on James Dean? He has that same energy.

  8. sheila says:

    Holes and Poles. hahahahahaha dying … seriously, we need to create that if it hasn’t been already!!!!

    James Dean was Elvis’ idol -incidentally. He STUDIED Rebel Without a Cause. I’ve written a ton about James Dean – I can find all of it for you. James Dean was the reason (along with Al Pacino) I got interested in acting as a serious study. The same was true for Elvis Presley. That’s the kind of work he wanted to do. He was in awe of Dean

  9. Cara Ellison says:

    Sorry I blanked out, I remember we had a discussion about James Dean and the milk bottle, which sounds almost as crazy as Holes and Poles.

    • sheila says:

      Here is everything under the James Dean tag.

      Oh, the milk bottle.

      And Elvi (ie: Elvis) used to imitate that with one of his girlfriends – June Juanico – she describes the two of them drinking milk after “parking” at some Lover’s Lane – and he drank it right out of the bottle like Dean did. She was mesmerized and turned on. But then of course he had to ruin the moment by saying, “That’s just how James Dean drank that milk …”

      Oh. Okay. So that was just you imitating someone. Mkay, Elvi.

      Sweet.

  10. Cara Ellison says:

    Have you ever been to the place James Dean died? I did in California; I wrote something about it but I don’t think I ever posted it on my blog. Weird place. I felt James Dean juju.

  11. Cara Ellison says:

    Yes, I’m totally triple commenting, what of it.

    I think we should make Holes and Poles the first coast-to-coast strip club chain. It could be a thing. What do you think?!

  12. sheila says:

    Can you imagine if you and I, of all people, became porn moguls like Joe Francis, with our Holes and Poles line?

  13. sheila says:

    Everyone knows that porn is the only industry that rarely experiences downturns in demand. So maybe we are idiots to not get right on that.

  14. Cara Ellison says:

    I think there is a fortune to be made. We need to jump right on this. We could branch out! Make Holes and Poles movies, sportswear, sponsor athletic teams! We could be an EMPIRE!!!

    • sheila says:

      I am afraid to Google “Holes and Poles” to see if someone beat us to the punch.

      Please advise.

      • Cara Ellison says:

        I did google it and the first hit is HOLES AND POLES: Being a man has more to do with whether you have the right junk.

        And there is a Facebook page but I’m afraid to look at that.

        Weirdly, the Bechtal Corporation has something called: “Beyond Holes and Poles”.

        I think we’re safe. Sure, people have heard the name but there’s no widespread usage.

        We can do this.

        We must do this.

        We are porn queens in the making.

  15. Cara Ellison says:

    I’m looking for the James Dean piece now.

  16. sheila says:

    Just posted it. You blow me AWAY.

  17. Cara Ellison says:

    That’s just so nice to say. As you know, you’re one of my favorite writers. There’s no qualification to that, no “favorite blog writers” or “favorite unpublished writers” or “favorite writers who write about actors.” Nope, just hands down one of my faves, up there with Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald and even our Holy Lady, Sylvia. So when you like something, I’m always happy.

  18. Directors get the credit for everything, but that’s really only because people don’t understand actors and what it is they bring to the table.

    OK, well, that’s going a LITTLE far. True, “everything” gets credited back to directors via auteur theory. But it’s not like actors are overlooked or swallowed up by auteur theory the way that, say, editors are. We celebrate actors A LOT.

    Still … I’m with you on the larger point about the very little gestures. (Interesting that you mention Streep: As her career has gone on, I think she often makes the mistake of trying to make sure we notice the little moments, which defeats the purpose entirely.)

    This should really be a series: The Very Little Moments.

    (Final aside: Gotta love the opening credits of this movie, the way it just hovers on “Elvis Presley in” as if saying, “What the fuck else do you need to know?”)

  19. sheila says:

    Jason – Ha!! I wasn’t talking about you at all! Or any of the writers I really love (many of whom are our friends). But the auteur theory has gone so damn far that I feel an equal and opposing need to go as far in MY direction just to correct the playing field.

    And yes, editors really really get shafted in this entire conversation, don’t they.

    Can you give an example of that with Streep, just so I can see your thought process? I can’t really think of her calling attention to “tiny gestures” like that, but I’d love to hear something you’ve noticed in particular.

    // (Final aside: Gotta love the opening credits of this movie, the way it just hovers on “Elvis Presley in” as if saying, “What the fuck else do you need to know?”) //

    hahaha Totally – and how the woozy horn comes in at the sight of his name, designed to make the girls swoon in their seats.

  20. sheila says:

    I am cracking up reading through this whole thread. Suddenly my friend Cara and I are making plans to be porn moguls, based on this one clip.

  21. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    …I doubt there’s any single clip that better demonstrates all the points you’ve been making about Elvis natural ease as an actor. Leads me to the question…was Elvis able to single-handedly change the culture’s eupemism for charisma from “movie star” to “rock star” because he was the only one who was truly, without qualfication, both? Or am I forgetting someone?

  22. sheila says:

    It’s such a small moment, but it’s eloquent on so many levels. He probably didn’t even think about it – although who knows, maybe he did plan it out (having to repeat it in take after take) – but that just shows his talent even MORE.

    I just Googled “rock star origin of phrase” and fell down a rabbit hole which involved some really fascinating links, none of which were helpful. The first one has to do with Beethoven and it was very interesting.

    I’m thinking – In terms of his status, he was certainly the first “rock and roll star” to make movies that were actually star vehicles, and not just glorified concert movies with a thin plot hanging on them. He was an ACTOR in King Creole, Jailhouse Rock, everything else.

    Frank Sinatra clearly had crossed over into major movie star territory too, but he wasn’t a ‘rock star’. Dean Martin, too. But Presley was a different era. These early vehicles show him quite well, I think. They still don’t “get” him, but it had to be very difficult to perceive what was actually going on with the EP phenomenon while it was unfolding in 56 or 57. Nobody can predict the future!

    His scenes with Carolyn Jones in KING CREOLE are great, just great.

    • Nondisposable Johnny says:

      Couldn’t agree more…If somebody wants to tell me Elvis didn’t have “it” when it came to movies I just tell ‘em to watch King Creole…and if they haven’t been too extremely brainwashed they usually convert!….It’s not what we principally remember Curtiz or Matthau or even Carolyn Jones, for, but they’re all in fine form and there’s still no question Elvis is the star…or make that the STAR. A very rare quality indeed.

  23. sheila says:

    I love FOLLOW THAT DREAM, too. He’s quite interesting in it. An interesting situation where the conception of the character seems to reflect how EP was VIEWED in Hollywood – as some sort of noble savage – again, they didn’t quite “get” who he was – he wasn’t Mowgli in a ducktail, he was intelligent and knew what he was doing – yet he, as an actor, manages to slip out from underneath the perhaps condescending conception of the character and is funny, sweet, sexy and relaxed. He’s playing a character not like himself at all – a character with no sense of irony, really, a guy who doesn’t understand at all that there are sharks in this world who have bad intentions – he misses jokes all the time, he’s extremely literal – None of this is who EP was at all. EP didn’t miss one joke in his whole life, hahaha, and EP was finely tuned when it came to irony – so in FOLLOW THAT DREAM he’s acting a part. He’s not playing himself – that’s a character. It totally works.

    But there’s tons more. I love him in CHARRO, I love him in LIVE A LITTLE LOVE A LITTLE.

    But those early ones are interesting because he’s so new at it, and the studio system is still erected around him in a more solid way than it would be 6, 7 years later.

  24. sheila says:

    Walter Matthau was extremely complimentary about EP’s gifts as an actor.

  25. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    Oh I didn’t mean to imply there weren’t a list of other good performances and lots of great moments….KC is just the one I send people to when they don’t get it, because it’s one of the few where they can’t complain (with some justification) about the rest of the movie. If that one didn’t exist, I’d definitely recommend Follow That Dream or Wild In the Country, though, like you, I enjoy the “silly” vehicles like Girl Happy and Speedway just as much.

    You’re really bringing me out of my posting shell incidentally..I normally don’t comment much and I’m VERY reticent about interpolating myself into idea sessions between aspiring porn moguls!

  26. Cara Ellison says:

    NJ, please, we welcome all viewpoints in our discussion of our burgeoning porn empire. You, after all, are a man (I’m assuming with the name “Johnny”). You’re our target audience. So feel free to speak your mind.

  27. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    Well, speaking as a man I can only say we’re all for keeping it tasteful…until we’re not. It’s that “until” that is the tricky, mysterious part. Believe me, if I knew just exactly how that worked I would gladly share the secret! But I can promise you that if you figure it out there at “Holes and Poles,” you’ll definitely be in a position to invite Warren Buffett over for drinks and tank third world economies!

  28. Sheila says:

    It’s all about the Until!

  29. Cara Ellison says:

    That’s our new tag line.

    Holes and Poles: It’s All About The Until! God we’re gonna be so damn rich.

  30. Cara Ellison says:

    Sheila, check out the 2:55 mark. Elvis is buttoning his shirt, but the shirt stays open. Is that an editing fluke or did he just decide to hell with it, he was leaving it open? Any idea?

    • sheila says:

      Yeah, looks like he was like, “oh the hell with this” and let it be unbuttoned. A good example of not worrying about trivial matters – which is another mark of a good actor.

  31. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    “until”…gotta be worth ten percent! Don’t forget me!

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