Millie Perkins was 22 years old when she made “Wild in the Country”, playing Elvis’ character’s sweet long-time girlfriend. She had catapulted to fame as Anne Frank in the movie “Diary of Anne Frank”, but she had originally been a model, and had other goals. She took fame in stride, and never seemed to take it too seriously. At the time she was making “Wild in the Country” she was married to Dean Stockwell. Those of you who have been reading me for a while will remember the Dean Stockwell Obsession of 2007, and so this is an Obsession Dovetail if ever there was one.
Perhaps because she wasn’t overly ambitious, or one of those hungry empty actors looking to climb up the ladder (ie: Nick Adams) – her words about Elvis in an interview with Peter Guralnick are fascinating to me. She kind of hones in on the lack of respect with which Elvis was treated – and it was subtle but there. There’s the story of Christina Crawford (Joan’s ingrate of an adopted child) who was in the movie (she’s awful), and she was teasing Elvis trying to get a rise out of him. The versions of what happened differ but he blew up and threw a glass of water in her face. She’s lucky he didn’t haul off and slap her. Slap her for me, Elvis. Slap her for the book she will eventually write about her mother, won’t you? Millie Perkins sensed that feeling on the set, that people were so proud of themselves for being better than Elvis. I am glad Guralnick did not edit her words, because you can actually feel her struggling to say what she means. She keeps working at it. She keeps trying to find the right words. She has a very very interesting take on Elvis Presley, as she met him at that time. An aside: I completely disagree with Guralnick’s take that Presley seems “lost in the role”. Stick to music criticism, Pete, you have no idea what you are talking about.
And one last aside which just goes to show you how memory works. Philip Dunne thought Elvis Presley was a genius actor. He used that word. But everyone’s experiences of an event are different, and here is Millie Perkins’ memory.
I think that everybody making the movie thought, ‘We’re classier than all those other Elvis Presley movies. We’re so much better.’ Everyone was going around patting themselves on the back for being artists; they were going to do something with Elvis that other people couldn’t, or didn’t want to, do – and I think they didn’t come up with the goods at all.
Elvis turned out to be someone I liked very much. I felt there was a man with a heart and soul there who truly cared about people. Certainly he treated me as if he cared about me; there was a mutual respect between us. But his life was on a level that my life was not on. I was married to Dean Stockwell at the time, and he was – I felt like he was drifting. The guys were on the set every day, you know, wrestling on the floor. I didn’t even know what girls he was dating at the time, because it didn’t interest me, his personal life seemed so silly. And yet I knew he was a victim of it. I felt like Philip Dunne fawned all over Elvis. Elvis’ attitude was – I saw Elvis looking around that set and summing up people faster than anyone else could have, and I felt that after a short period of time he was disappointed in Philip Dunne, but he was too polite and well behaved to say anything.
He tried very hard to make this film better than his other movies, and you saw him trying and asking questions. And I just believe the sad thing is that [the director] did not have the ability to help Elvis through it. I remember doing this one scene; we were sitting in the truck, and we were supposed to be driving home from a dance or going to a dance, and in the script he was supposed to break into song, turn on the radio and start singing. And to me it was like, “Yuck.” I was very young, and I thought, “My sisters are going to tease me, this is so embarrassing and tasteless.” You see, I was a snob, too. But – and this was the nicest thing – while we were rehearsing, finally the director walked away, and Elvis looks at me and says, “God, this is so embarrassing. Nobody would ever do this in real life. Why are they making me do this?” So there we were, both of us having to do something and we just wanted to vomit.
He never used his star power – never. Maybe he should have. Maybe he did it on some other level, but he sure didn’t do it on the set. I felt like he was younger than me, this very humble person who would make statements about what he believed in. And I would think, “He’s saying that to show me he’s a fine human being.” All I know is that there was a person there with a refined heart and soul, and I say refined on any level you want to look at it. When you meet someone like that, you know they’re there, even if they’re sitting there eating fifteen lollipops – that’s beside the point. That’s just what they’re doing at that time, but that’s not the essence of the person. The essence of Elvis was as fine a person as I’ve ever met; he treated me as well as anyone has ever treated me in this business.