Jeremy Richey’s site Moon in the Gutter has been an almost-daily pitstop for me ever since I discovered it years ago. He approaches his topics with passion and enthusiasm, and reminds me of one of those buttons on Facebook that was being “shared” recently: “Promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate.” Jeremy’s site is an object lesson in that. He promotes what he loves with an enthusiasm (and knowledge) that is infectious. His interests are wide-spread and all-encompassing, and his analysis is in-depth. I had been wanting to chat with Jeremy about Elvis for some time, although we have already done so in private. He has written a lot about Elvis, not just Elvis’ music but his film career as well. As I have said on my own site, Elvis’ acting career is universally dismissed by everyone (except the fans who love Elvis). I have some theories on why this is, one of them being that the main commentary that we get about Elvis is from music critics, and they hated the fact that Elvis wanted to be in the movies in the first place, so they resent his time in Hollywood. They hate the soundtracks. So even an excellent writer and thinker like Peter Guralnick is capable of side-swiping a fantastic film like “Wild in the Country” with one or two dismissive paragraphs in his Elvis biography, because the “acting thing” is just not as important to him as the “music thing”, and so he doesn’t take the time to analyze the film or what Elvis is doing in his performance at all. It is one of my major beefs with everything written about Elvis. It is important to remember that Elvis Presley wanted to be a movie star. He wanted to be an actor, and that desire probably pre-dated his desire to be a musician. He got a job as an usher in a movie theatre when he was a teenager so he could see the movies he loved over and over. Acting was not a passing fad to Elvis. This was not Elvis being pushed by the Colonel into an area he had no interest in. This was what Elvis wanted. But to the music writers, they hate the whole thing. To them, the majority of the 60s was a total wash. To them, Elvis was on Pause until 1968 when he did the NBC special. I disagree entirely with that predominant analysis. Kent Adamson and I went into this at length in our conversation about the Colonel and Elvis. Elvis was a wonderful actor. Jeremy has been eloquent on this point on his own site, and I have written about it here, but I thought it would be interesting to pose a couple of questions to Jeremy about this topic, and post his answers. It has been one of my hopes, with all my writing, that people who read my Elvis stuff may look past their preconceived notions about “Elvis in Hollywood” and decide to check his films out. It was a unique career. It deserves far more recognition. It deserves far more praise. I thank Jeremy for the obvious time and care he put into answering my questions.
You have mentioned on your wonderful site, Moon in the Gutter, that Elvis Presley is one of your favorite actors. I would love for you to elaborate on why. Why do you think he was so good onscreen?
First off, I have to say that my love for Elvis Presley goes all the way back to my childhood. I was blessed to have two parents who had incredibly great musical taste and Elvis was the first musician and actor I ever fell in love with. I can pretty much trace my entire obsession with the arts back to the days as a kid, curled up on the couch, watching an Elvis movie or listening to one of his records.
Even at a very young age I detected there was something very special about Elvis Presley on screen and as I got older, and started reading about film, I could never comprehend why he was so universally maligned, or ignored, as an actor. Sure, a lot of the films were lightweight but there was nothing fluffy about the way Elvis commanded the screen. That confidence and ease was remarkably distinct and he was just dripping with the kind of charisma only the greatest stars have.
There are many reasons why I think he was so good on the screen. Perhaps the most obvious thing to mention is just how incredibly beautiful he was to look at.
Film is a visual medium and, to paraphrase Jerry Reed, Elvis looked better than most gorgeous women, so there is just a real striking aesthetic pleasure in watching him on screen. For sheer Wow factor Elvis was easily on par with cinema’s great faces, from Garbo to Dietrich, Brando to Clift, Monroe to Bardot.
Of course, it’s not enough to just have a beautiful face and body as you have to have soul and Elvis’ incredible spirit always comes through, even in the worst films he made. You get the feeling watching this man that you are seeing someone really genuine and good…there is a real warmth that Elvis was able to project on screen that I just don’t get from too many other figures in film history.
Last, but certainly not least, I think Elvis Presley was, despite decades of being a critic’s punching bag, a very talented actor. I question anyone who doesn’t think this after watching the dramatic range he showed in works like King Creole and Wild in the Country and the incredible comedic zeal he displayed in films like Viva Las Vegas and Live a Little Love a Little. I know Elvis really wanted to follow in the line of guys like Clift, Brando and Dean but for me his style had much more in common with an actor like Cary Grant.
Well, you know that I agree with you! Is Elvis’ excellence onscreen entirely separate from his powerful rock ‘n roll persona or do you think it is related? I ask because his acting is often taken for granted, or dismissed, and I wondered what you thought he was actually DOING as an actor that was so special.
While his acting stands on its own merits I think it is a bit impossible to separate his rock persona from his screen work and this, partly, boils down to the fact that most people who fall under the spell of Elvis Presley become entranced with all aspects of his career and life. That said, I don’t think that fact should diminish what he was doing as an actor, just like the ongoing fascination with Marilyn Monroe’s life shouldn’t take away from how truly brilliant she was in works like Bus Stop and The Misfits.
The two main things that I think was special about Elvis acting was his astonishing ease in front of the camera and his dedication to do well in even his worst films. Of the 32 narrative-based films he made, I only sense the frustration that I know he often felt in two, Clambake and Paradise Hawaiian Style. Despite the fact that most critics viewed his films as just commercial ventures, I always feel a sense of care and dedication in Elvis’ work as an actor and the grace he displays again reminds me of Cary Grant at his finest. Kurt Russell said the reason he loves Elvis movies is because Elvis is in them and I think that line shows just how profound the most obvious statements can be.
If you had to pick, what is your favorite Elvis film? And why?
If I had to pick one then I would have to say King Creole, which I know is an obvious choice, but I think it’s such a special film and I am so glad that Elvis got to make it.
Ultimately he might have been disappointed with his film career but no one could ever take away the fact that he had worked with a director like Michael Curtiz and actors such as Caroline Jones, Dolores Hart and Walter Matthau on such a special project. Roger Ebert once wrote that Elvis Presley never made a good film, a thought that I am sure many critics share. Seriously though, if works like King Creole, Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas aren’t considered “good” films by the critical establishment then I reject that establishment completely.
Often, Elvis’ career as an actor is mentioned with some sadness, as though it is all about missed or lost opportunities. What do you think is the greatest missed opportunity in his career? Is this a case of someone who was never allowed to show his full potential?
Well, there is an element of sadness since we know that Elvis was ultimately disappointed with his film career. If I could go back in time and meet the man one of the main things I would want to tell him is thank you for leaving us so many films that have really brought so much joy to a lot of people’s lives. He might not have ever gotten to reach the heights that he dreamed about as an actor but when all is said and done this is a career that has influenced filmmakers ranging from Steven Spielberg to Stephen Frears to Quentin Tarantino and actors like Bill Murray, Angelina Jolie and Rachel Weisz. It was Weisz, among our most graceful and poetic actors, who said that when she would get lonely she used to have imaginary talks with Elvis.
I really feel like his film career, much like his music, does the same thing for millions of fans all over the world. Even at their silliest they offer comfort and solace and that aspect of his career should only be mentioned with great joy.
Of course there were missed opportunities and, to my eyes, the biggest one was when he didn’t costar with Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born. It was a defining decision that I think might have changed everything and I still get sad when I think about it. It’s funny because I love Kris Kristofferson‘s work in the film but, God, Elvis would have been spectacular in that role and who knows how it might have changed his life.
When you hear Elvis films discussed at all, it is usually the early ones, like Jailhouse Rock or King Creole, or his most well-known, like Viva Las Vegas or Blue Hawaii. But you make no secret about your love for some of his other lesser-known films. Could you talk a little bit about your favorites?
Among the most important films Elvis appeared in, that has still yet to find the audience it deserves, is Wild in the Country. It’s a wonderful film, featuring stellar work by Elvis, Tuesday Weld, Hope Lange and Millie Perkins, with a screenplay penned by none other than Clifford Odets!
It’s a real pivotal film for Elvis along with Flaming Star, as it was due to the relative failure of both of these works (and the success of Blue Hawaii) that set in motion the ‘Elvis Formula Film’. I have often wondered what might have happened had more folks flocked to see his incredible work in Wild in the Country and Flaming Star over Blue Hawaii and Girls Girls Girls.
While it is easy to lament the fact that he didn’t get to make more films like Wild in the Country, some of Elvis’ most delightful and relaxed work can be seen in the period between 1962 and 1966 with my favorites being Follow that Dream, Girl Happy (one of three films he made with the marvelous Shelley Fabares), and Tickle Me (a sneaky satirical poke at the typical ‘Elvis Film’ ).
The real buried treasures though are the string of films he made at the end of his movie career that successfully smashed that Elvis formula, although sadly at that point many moviegoers had turned away. The Italian Western inspired Charro is really underrated and features a bearded Elvis getting his first real opportunity to be menacing since Jailhouse Rock, more than a decade before, and his final film, Change of Habit, stands as a wonderful example of just how much Elvis had grown as an actor since Love Me Tender in 1956. He’s so wonderfully laid-back, confident and natural in the film and all of the hesitancy that he had early on has vanished.
Of course, the great ‘unheralded’ Elvis Presley film is the mighty Live a Little Love a Little.
Totally. What is it about Live a Little, Love a Little that is so damn good?
Simply put, it’s one of the best comedies of the sixties. It’s an incredibly cool, sexy, hilarious and oddly surreal film that features one of Elvis’ great screen performances. Everything about it is fantastic, from the incredible Billy Strange soundtrack (this is the film that gave us “A Little Less Conversation”), to Fred Koenekamp’s dazzling color photography to Norman Taurog’s sharp direction (it’s a fabulous final film from an incredibly prolific filmmaker). It’s a much more ‘adult’ and sophisticated work than most of the films Elvis made in his career and you can tell he is having a real blast with it.
He was also never more beautiful or relaxed in front of the camera (this was shot in the same year as his legendary comeback special) and his performance here is quite a joy to watch. I’ve never figured out why this really special film hasn’t been more celebrated. Perhaps because Michele Carey (whom I do like) isn’t among his most electric costars?
I’ve always had this fantasy of Sharon Tate as Bernice in the film. She was such a marvelous comedian (and one of the only actors of the period as physically beautiful as Elvis).
It would have been a wonderful teaming but, alas, it is just a dream.
Let’s get down to specifics. I love to pull out the small moments in films, moments when an actor, through his own creativity, breathes life into a role (for example, Elvis’ moment with the comb in the opening of King Creole). While these moments are rarely congratulated, I think they are sometimes THE reason a film, ultimately, works, and is also evidence of an actor’s innate talent. If you had to pick 5 favorite Elvis MOMENTS in all of his films, what would they be?
It was extremely difficult coming up with five favorite Elvis-film moments as there are so many that I love for so many different reasons. Here are five in chronological order that I came up with:
1. The “Now you know what I do for an encore” scene in King Creole.
This is such an incredible moment on so many different levels. Elvis has just sung “Steadfast, Loyal and True” and he’s standing his own with acting powerhouses. The way he turns and smashes that bottle and pulls Caroline Jones behind him. His movements are so wonderfully fluid and graceful but he’s also so incredibly electric and even, a little, menacing in the scene. Uber-cool. It’s a moment that still gives me chills.
2. The kitchen sequence with Tuesday Weld in Wild in the Country.
This is seriously one of the sexiest scenes in film history. I love the way he walks up to her, while she’s sitting at the table, and pulls her dress sleeve back up on her shoulder. The way Tuesday says, “banana oil” with that gorgeous Kenyon Hopkins score playing underneath. Elvis and Tuesday were so incredible together and they look like they want to devour each other in this amazing scene.
3. I know I should pick a sequence from Viva Las Vegas but I have always really adored Girl Happy. It’s such a breezy and fun film…one of the ultimate Elvis ‘formula’ pics. Elvis is so incredibly funny in the film, especially in the frantic moments when he is going back and forth between Mary Ann Mobley and Shelley Fabares (swoon!). I especially love the sequence where Elvis has Mary on the porch and Shelley in his room.
His comic timing is perfect here (that moment when he swings around after shutting the screen door on Mobley is priceless). This and the jailbreak bit are prime examples as to just how joyful and flat out fun the typical Elvis film could be.
4. Another underrated Elvis film is Charro.
While the film is far from perfect, I think Elvis is quite striking in it and I think he probably loved having the opportunity to appear in a Spaghetti Western-inspired film. I love the rather long sequence where Elvis is walking through the desert with just his saddle and stumbles across a pack of horses.
He is clearly doing quite a bit of his own stunt work here and it serves as a reminder as to how dynamic an action star he could have been in the seventies, if some forward thinking filmmaker would have given him the chance. His work in Charro really reminds me of the time Tarantino mentioned that Elvis would have been the perfect choice to play the title role in Kill Bill had he been around.
5. Strangely enough my final favorite Elvis moment also involves him walking. It’s a little bit in his final film, Change of Habit, which never fails to shake me up when I see it. There is this incredible moment where Elvis is walking down the street whistling and he hears a young autistic girl he has been treating copy his whistle.
I can’t really pinpoint what it is about this moment that I find so incredibly moving but, emotionally, it hits me hard. I think part of it is due to just how incredibly confident and healthy Elvis looks here and realizing that he had less than eight years left with us. When I see him in Change of Habit, or all of his films really, I just can’t comprehend what happened to him. It just seems like a nightmare, a false reality…how could someone so incredibly alive and vibrant not be with us anymore?
If you had to label Elvis’ greatest gift as an actor, what would it be?
Elvis wasn’t an actor who necessarily disappeared in a role, like a DeNiro or Streep, but he managed to find different dimensions in his own established and recognizable persona, like a Bogart or Grant. I think his greatest gift was his ability to reach out and touch something deep inside the audience. It’s the same gift that Monroe had. It’s something spiritual, totally undefinable and rarely found in film.
Update: Jeremy adds his thoughts.