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.