A QA with Jeremy Richey about Elvis Presley As An Actor

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.

Elvis Presley eating lunch while filming his first movie, “Love Me Tender” (1956)

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.

Elvis Presley in “King Creole” (1958), directed by Michael Curtiz

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.

Greta Garbo

Marlon Brando

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.

Elvis Presley and Cary Grant chatting after one of Elvis’ first Las Vegas shows

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.

Elvis’ show at Russwood Park, Memphis. July 4, 1956.

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.

Marilyn Monroe in “Bus Stop” (1956)

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.

Kurt Russell as Elvis in John Carpenter’s “Elvis” (1979)

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.

Carolyn Jones and Elvis Presley in “King Creole” (1958)

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.

The production number in “Jailhouse Rock” (1957)

Ann-Margret, Elvis Presley, in Viva Las Vegas (1964)

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.

Rachel Weisz

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.

Shelley Fabares and Elvis Presley in “Girl Happy” (1965)

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.

Kris Kristofferson and Streisand in “A Star is Born” (1976)

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!

Millie Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Tuesday Weld in “Wild in the Country” (1961)

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.

Elvis Presley in “Change of Habit” (1969)

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?

Elvis Presley and Michele Carey in the wonderful comedy “Live a Little, Love a Little” (1968)

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).

Sharon Tate in “Valley of the Dolls” (1967)

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.

Elvis Presley approaching a herd of wild horses, “Charro”

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.

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78 Responses to A QA with Jeremy Richey about Elvis Presley As An Actor

  1. Melissa says:

    What a wonderful interview! At this point I’ve seen about half of Elvis’s movies, and I couldn’t agree more with both you and Jeremy. The fact that his acting is so unappreciated is truly boggling to me. I went into watching the first of his movies that I saw, Blue Hawaii, with such low expectations because of his films’ reputations, and couldn’t believe how wrong everything I’d heard about him was. And that isn’t even his best movie or role! Elvis was charming and charismatic, with the kind of presence that makes you want to watch him no matter what he’s doing on screen — a true movie star.

    Last Saturday I watched both Follow That Dream and Wild in the Country, and was blown away by how wonderful he was in them. Seeing those two movies in one day was a good illustration of how versatile Elvis could be as an actor. Follow That Dream is hilarious, and Elvis’s comic timing is brilliant. It may be my favorite of his comedies that I’ve seen so far. His part in Wild in the Country couldn’t be more different, but it’s just as good. It’s a role I can imagine someone like Brando or Clift handling, and Elvis acquits himself beautifully, with such vulnerability and sensuality.

    I’m glad people like you and Jeremy are out there writing about Elvis’s movie career and putting a more positive — and more accurate — spin on it. It’s too bad he didn’t get the praise he deserved for his acting talents while he was alive, but at least he can get some posthumous kudos.

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – I am so excited to hear your thoughts – especially when you mentioned how you had such low expectations and then were like, “What the heck is everyone complaining about??”

      I love Follow That Dream. It’s one of my favorite Elvis performances and yes, he is hilarious, as this sort of literal-minded simple sweet guy – I love the sequence in the bank when everyone thinks he’s there to rob it, and he just flat out does not get it. He really is acting there – that’s NOT Presley – he wasn’t some simple-minded guy – but boy, he really nailed it. Love that whole movie.

      Wild in the Country is certainly an undiscovered gem – it is baffling to me that so few people have heard of it.

      And wait til you see Live a Little, Love a LIttle – that’s like a screwball comedy with a dash of psychedelic 60s flavor. My favorite part of his performance is how unremittingly CRANKY he is from beginning to end – it reminds me so much of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, and how PUT upon he was by this crazy dame, how annoyed he was … yet you knew that meant she was getting to him. It’s AWESOME to see Elvis be the one being pursued. That rarely happened in his movies. At least not in a serious way. But here, he is basically running as fast as he can away from this scary woman, telling her to leave him alone. Very very funny movie.

      I agree with Jeremy that the only movies where you can sense the exhaustion and despair are Clambake and Paradise Hawaiian Style. He is overweight, unhappy-looking, and the movies are not worthy of him at all – especially Paradise. He doesn’t even get to kiss anyone in Paradise, which is baffling to me. Why on earth do you think we want to see Elvis, peeps in Hollywood? To see every single kiss he goes for to be thwarted by some interruption? Lazy. And Elvis knew it.

      But in all other films, he’s just fantastic. I even love him in Kissin’ Cousins, even though the movie itself has all kinds of problems.

      And yes, Blue Hawaii is so much fun.

      Another thing that I think people don’t get about Presley is that these movies could not play – EVER – with anyone else in the lead role. It is impossible to imagine anyone else in Blue Hawaii. These movies were crafted specifically for him – so much so that he obliterates the thought of anyone else stepping in to the same part. He was that indelible a presence.

      It was a blessing and a curse for him. He didn’t want to just show up and “be him”. He wanted to act. But this is a kind of acting that is as rare as they come. He was a star. A unique star.

      • sheila says:

        And one we didn’t mention at all but that I went into at length in my conversation with Kent was Stay Away Joe. This is one of my favorite Elvis performances, and it’s flat out a good movie. At the time, some people balked at the portrayal of Native Americans – and that would probably still be a problem – but I think the picture of this crazy family trying to survive is actually quite sympathetic. It’s also hysterical – really loose, and funny, and free. Elvis in rare form. Jeans and cowboy boots, wrestling in the dirt with his brothers.

        And one of my favorite scenes in the Elvis lexicon: a sexually suggestive smoking’ hot scene between Elvis and none other than Joan Blondell.


      • Melissa says:

        I love the bank scene in Follow That Dream, too. He’s so clueless about why anyone would think he was a robber! That scene made me laugh out loud. I also love the part where he’s chasing the mobsters around in the woods, wearing that silly pith helmet his girl makes him put on because a sheriff needs a hat. The character he plays is completely adorable – dim, but not really the idiot everyone thinks he is. He has an unsophisticated, native intelligence of a sort. It’s so endearing.

        I actually saw Live a Little, Love a Little just a week or two ago. I love that you compare his crankiness to Cary Grant’s in Bringing Up Baby. It’s so true! Nobody could play cranky quite like dear Cary, but Elvis is delightfully frustrated and grumpy in the film. It’s a strange movie, with all the psychedelic ‘60s stuff. I almost think I’ll need to see it again to really appreciate it, since I was kind of thrown by how bizarre parts of it are. I enjoyed it, though. I especially enjoyed how surpassingly beautiful Elvis was in it. I mean, there really aren’t words for how pretty he was. The other man who makes me feel that way is Gary Cooper, in his 1930s heyday. They might be the two most physically breathtaking men I’ve ever seen in the movies.

        For me the ’68-70 time frame is Elvis at his most sublime looking – tanned, slim, jet black hair with sideburns so sharply cut you think they’d cut you to touch them. He’d always been gorgeous, but in the late ‘60s he became this dangerous, sexy beast – growling out “One Night with You” and pacing the stage like a caged panther in the ’68 TV special, looking so damned hot in Live a Little Love a Little, Love a Little and Change of Habit, giving a deliciously dirty performance of “Polk Salad Annie” in That’s the Way it Is. I’m looking forward to seeing Charro (scruffiness!) and Stay Away, Joe, which you’ve made sound very interesting, since they’re from that time period, too. Stay Away, Joe is coming on TCM later this month.

        Back to Change of Habit for a second. That’s another movie I’d often heard derided as terrible, one of Elvis’s worst films and acting jobs, etc., but when I watched it I was once again totally puzzled as to why anyone would say that. It’s not a flawless movie, of course, but I chalk that up more to the time period than anything. Some of the attitudes toward life in the ghetto and medical treatment were strange (the rage reduction scene seems bizarre to modern eyes), but the movie is quite entertaining and Elvis himself is fantastic. I guess people find it laughable that he would play a doctor, but that’s just snobbishness. I mean, the guy read medical textbooks for fun! He wasn’t stupid. I thought he was convincing, and brought such warmth and kindness to the part. The scene you screencapped in the post, of him walking down the street, is one of my favorite parts of the movie, too. It’s a lovely moment and he plays it perfectly.

        Plus, that movie gave us “Rubberneckin’”, a song you’d have to be crazy not to like. It’s kind of cheesy, totally funky, and just too much fun. I defy anyone to watch that scene and not clap along with the lady background singers. ;-)

        • bethann says:

          Love that whole ’68 look with the Comeback Special. Hoping that Sheila will write another one of her insightful blog posts about that entire deal. He was looking good in the later part of the decade and its amazing how different he was in front of an audience singing and performing compared to the movie cameras. He is so completely different that what you see in the Comeback Special could be a different individual.

          • sheila says:

            Bethann – Performing live is a different medium than stepping into a story and embodying a character. Of course it was like a different individual. He was flexible with how he used his talent. He always understood the medium he was in.

            As I’ve said before, I honestly don’t care that Elvis was upset about his movies. I mean, I care in an abstract way, but I feel no need to reflect his own opinion about his own life. The man is dead – and he was also wrong in his assessment of his acting career – dead wrong – and my goal is to help people understand that, those whose minds might be blocked to it, for whatever reason. Preconceived notions, whatever.

            To compare the comeback special to the movies is apples and oranges. Jeremy and I wanted to highlight the movies because there is gold in them thar hills, undiscovered.

            But I see absolutely nothing lacking in his acting roles – aside from the fact that we know that HE was unhappy – but imagine if we didn’t know that. Imagine if we didn’t know his feelings about his films – I think his career would look very different to a lot of people – I think there’s still a lot of “let’s protect Elvis” commentary going around with a lot of critics, especially music critics, who can’t stand the movies, know how much Elvis hated some of them, and so – like little drones, don’t want to seem “disloyal” to Elvis by admitting they like them. It’s insane. Enough of that, boys. Elvis was always good in his films, but something is definitely released in him in the films of the late 60s – as Jeremy mentioned – these are nearly forgotten films, but each one of them are very interesting in their own right.

            So I don’t find it useful to compare in any unfavorable way the comeback special with the movies he made around that time. It is all part of the same continuum of expression. Some of his best performances – Live a Little, Stay Away Joe – were made around that time – performances that stand on their own.

        • sheila says:

          Melissa – yay for your comments. Yes, him with the pith helmet! And manically reciting the multiplication table so as to stave off his lust. HILARIOUS.

          He knew EXACTLY what he was doing in that movie. He kNEW how funny it was. Very good acting. Almost sneakily good. Like Hepburn said about John Wayne: “He’s very good at acting. You don’t catch him at it.”

          I love Change of Habit. It’s strange – I looked up rage reduction therapy – which eventually became what is known as Attachment Parenting and it was all the rage at that time, and very controversial (still is, I guess). It’s a very strange scene, but I think Elvis is beautiful in it. Strong, but you never feel he’s going to hurt her.

          I totally bought that he was that guy. Thats the thing about Elvis: put him in anything, I’ll buy it. You can count on one hand the actors you can say that about – and I’d put John Wayne on that list. To me, there are a lot of similarities in impact and reality. You just don’t even question ever that he is who he says he is – because he brings himself so FULLY to the part.

          Unabashedly. It’s amazing because both of them could be rather shy. Volatile, as well, with volcanic tempers – but in general both were polite and shy men. But they were able to be 100% free and relaxed in front of the camera, letting us SEE them – totally fully. That takes real guts. Especially when you are asked to do the same thing in movie after movie.

        • sheila says:

          And yes, Melissa, nobody was better looking than him during that time.

          Stay Away Joe is really special. There is a fight scene, involving the entire cast at a raucous party, that feels like it goes on for 15 minutes, and it is hilarious.

          • sheila says:

            And Charro is great because it has a moment that stands alone in Elvis’ career- where he is allowed to be seen as totally down-and-out and vulnerable – a gang who have it in for him ambush him, and hold him down, and put a hot poker against his neck and hold it there.

            Watch Elvis’ body as that happens to him. Watch his hands. I was especially taken by his hands. Frozen in claws of horror. Very good acting. He was never allowed to be seen as lost, he always had to “win” in every moment in the Elvis formula films – even his moments of befuddlement carry very little risk – but Charro … you actually have to witness him being overpowered and hurt very badly. Again, like Jeremy said, this is evidence of how good he was as a physical actor – like Wayne, or Cooper – guys who appeared to really DO the things they did in their movies. Or like the later stars of the late 60s and 70s – Clint Eastwood, etc.

            Even though I always knew Elvis had it in him, that scene is still shocking, because of its rarity. You want to intervene. He’s Elvis! Don’t brand his neck! It’s painful to see a thoroughbred shamed and overpowered – but that’s why it’s so good. Wish we had more of it, but at least we have that one moment.

            And watch his hands when they brand him!!

        • sheila says:

          Melissa – I agree, that period is his best – where he is literally to DIE for. The sideburns, the chiseled face, the tan – it’s all just a bit TOO MUCH.

          Like: for realz??

          Like that other great Jerry Reed comment: “He was so pretty I thought I’d been born wrong.”

          It’s supernatural, really.

          • bethann says:

            I apologize. I am obviously over my head and been misunderstood. Sorry.

          • Melissa says:

            I recently bought two books about this time period — ’68 at 40 Retrospective by Steve Binder and Elvis: Vegas ’69 by Ken Sharp, and both are full of the most gorgeous, glossy color pictures of Elvis. You’re right, his beauty in that era is almost too much to handle. It seems unreal! Like, how on earth could he look like that? That profile, those cheekbones, that nose!

            It’s so much more than his looks, though. He just had an aura and allure that jumps of the page or movie screen and totally arrests you. It’s star power! Have you seen Dick Cavett’s interview with Katharine Hepburn, where he asks her what star quality is? “I don’t know,” she says, “but I’ve got it.” Yep. That’s Elvis, too. I find him totally fascinating.

          • sheila says:

            Yes. Powerful – and, like Jeremy said, somewhat undefinable because of its spiritual aspect. You know it when you see it, boy!!

        • sheila says:

          No need to apologize, Bethann! The 68 comeback special is explosive, for sure. In a way, the movies allowed it to happen – that dangerous guy was percolating all the time.

          But what he was doing in the movies was equally unique, distinct, and hasn’t at all gotten its due – so that was really my point.

          No worries!

          • I love hearing some more good thoughts for Change of Habit! It’s always been one of my favorites and I hate how maligned it has been. There is, of course, a certain dated quality about it but I think it’s a fine film (and Elvis is amazing in it). I like the director William Graham a lot (he later directed for The X-Files where I suspect he probably entertained the cast with stories of Elvis) and I feel like he valued Elvis as an actor and was happy to be able to direct him in a more serious work. I also think the supporting cast is really fine as well. Barbara McNair was an incredible performer and, despite the fact that she doesn’t care for the film, Mary Tyler Moore is quite good. I love Ed Asner’s brief appearance as well!
            I do love Rubberneckin but, for me, the title track is the real jewell. It’s one of my favorite Elvis songs of all-time and I think one of his great relatively unknown recordings.

          • sheila says:

            I know, all those girls jamming around Elvis – a great urban-apartment scene, totally unique in Elvis’ career where he was usually placed in an unrecognizable world: Elvis Land. There, he is clearly part of a bigger community.

            I could do without the merry-go-round song, but other than that, I find it very entertaining – and also (randomly) quite accurate about post-Vatican II nuns going out into the community, taking off the habits – that was a HUGE deal at the time (I have two great-aunts who were nuns) … and so the film seems to be trying to attempt to deal with it. Interesting.

            And good old Regis Toomey, whom I’ve always loved (The Big Sleep!!) as the cranky old-school priest who has a hard time dealing with the ramifications of Vatican II (even though Vatican II is never mentioned by name). My great-aunts had many run-ins with priests – here and in Ireland – that could have been taken from the script of Change of Habit!

          • sheila says:

            Jeremy – I was also so fascinated to learn that William Graham came out of the Neighborhood Playhouse – and was well-versed in the Meisner technique – which is the acting technique I was trained in from my days as a teenager. And really for the first time – even though this was Elvis’ last film – someone took the time to talk to Elvis about acting, he talked to him about the Meisner technique and what it was (and you know Elvis was a sponge!!) – and that good acting is all about RE-acting. I may be imagining it but I can almost see Elvis putting that into practice in that film – I think it’s one of the reasons he seems so relaxed, so in touch. He’s thinking about RE-acting. I love that Graham wasn’t intimidated to give Elvis some tips, and that Elvis was totally open to it. He was HUNGRY for it.

    • Thanks so much Melissa for reading and for the very nice words. I totally agree about Follow that Dream. It’s a really charming film and contains one of Elvis’ best performances. The way he projects the innocence and naivety of that character is really special.
      There is a really touching quality to several of those films he did in between Blue Hawaii and Viva Las Vegas. It’s a feeling that kind of disappeared from films in general after the mid-sixties. I am thinking especially of Kid Galahad and It Happened at the World’s Fair. They are such delightfully breezy and warm works, as is Follow that Dream. I think the soundtracks to all three of those films are all really fine as well.

      • sheila says:

        I love the soundtrack to Kid Galahad – and that movie is really unfairly maligned. It’s really good, and in my opinion – even though I didn’t know the guy – it feels very very close to the real Elvis, to me. That soft-spoken politeness, the genuine sweetness, and then the explosive potential for temper. I really like him in it.

        • sheila says:

          And one of my personal favorite moments is in World’s Fair – when he and the little girl ride the monorail back to the parking lot after a long day. In another movie, they might have had him sing “They Remind Me Too Much of You” as he rides the monorail – but they made the choice to have the beautiful song play over the scene – so for the first time, we see Elvis silent, still, and just THINKING – for the entirety of the song, as the little girl sleeps leaning up against him. It is a gorgeous contemplative moment. He is totally relaxed. It’s very deep.

          • I love the way Elvis interracted with little Vicky Tiu in It Happened at the World’s Fair. It feels so natural and genuine. Compare it to how forced the scenes he had with that kid in Paradise Hawaiian Style (which I think is the worst Elvis film and album) were.

          • sheila says:

            Oh God Paradise Hawaiian Style blows. It has no redeeming features. It’s a disgrace. The only rocking song they give to that obnoxious little child – why? why was that decision made? Ugh. It’s so lazy.

            I do love the outtakes of him trying to get through “Datin'” though where he can’t stop laughing. Even as they’re setting up for the next take, you can hear Elvis quietly guffawing, trying to get it together, and it makes me laugh every time I hear it.

            No wonder he couldn’t keep a straight face. That material was appalling.

        • I like Kid Galahad a lot as well and it was another film, like King Creole, that really allowed Elvis to shine among some really splendid actors (Gig Young, Lola Albright, Ed Asner and Bronson). I think the fight scenes are well-done and the soundtrack is amazing. “King of the Whole Wide World”, “Riding the Rainbow”, “I Got Lucky”, “A Whistling Tune” are terrific tracks.

          • sheila says:

            Yes, I particularly love “King of the Whole Wide World” – it’s on my workout mix. He is singing the hell out of that song, there’s a real joy to it.

      • sheila says:

        Also, I know that there was a lot of tension between Charles Bronson and Elvis. Elvis wanted to be friends, Bronson wasn’t interested or impressed.

        I only mention this because NONE of that is evident on the screen. You totally believe those guys are friends, confidantes.

        That’s professionalism.

        • Yea, I hated to read that. I like Bronson a lot and thought he and Elvis were great in the film together so it’s a shame they didn’t hit it off. It’s so rare to hear about someone not getting along with Elvis that I am always taken aback when I hear it!

          • sheila says:

            Jeremy – in that doc. you sent me, I love all the actresses bitching about Stella Stevens’ mean comments about Elvis – “What the hell was HER problem? Sounds like sour grapes to me.”

            Speaks volumes. Everyone who knew him knew how nice he was. You rarely hear a bad thing about him – so when someone does come out and says something ungenerous, you start to assume that it has to be that person’s problem. It can’t be Elvis’ problem. Not with overwhelming evidence on the other side.

            I do think he and Bronson are very good onscreen together – I like the scene when they work together to pull that old jalopy down in the barn.

      • Melissa says:

        Thank YOU for all the great insights into Elvis’s movies! I’m glad I found your blog through Sheila’s site. I haven’t seen Kid Galahad yet, but it’s near the top of my to-watch pile and I’m looking forward to it.

        I think I’d include Girl Happy in that list of breezy, warm works you mentioned, though it came out a year after Viva Las Vegas. I love that movie! Some of the music is really good, and Elvis has wonderful chemistry with Shelley Fabares. The “Puppet on a String” sequences are lovely and very romantic. I actually like that movie even more than It Happened at the World’s Fair, probably because I felt Elvis clicked so well with Fabares.

  2. Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that Elvis is unappreciated as an actor. Let’s face it–critics don’t exactly appreciate him as a singer either. Even his presumed supporters like Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick don’t really get him (though Guralnick has certainly broadened his view over time). Every time I see one of those “Greatest Artists of Rock and Roll” lists by Rolling Stone or VHI or Mojo or whoever and Elvis is something like eighth (he’s always something like eighth–I think it’s some sort of rule), I think: “Don’t the people who vote for these things realize that without Elvis, there wouldn’t even BE a list?”

    Great interview as always Sheila.

    • sheila says:

      haha Kind of like that abysmal song he recorded in the mid-70s: “Raised on Rock”. Totally ridiculous. What do you mean, he was “raised on rock”? The guy helped invent it. An insane decision to record that song.

    • I’ve noticed that Elvis always seems to come in around number 8 on all those lists as well. The segments on him almost always feel just obligatory as well more than anything else and it is so frustrating. Like Johnny points out, it is ironic because without him these lists (and the people ranking higher) would not exist.

      • sheila says:

        People can’t give him his due. He’s too big. It’s like trying to comprehend the planet Jupiter. They need to compartmentalize him, cut him down to size. Lester Bangs really really got at the heart of that in his crazy rambling “notes” for his book review to Lost Highway. He starts out trying to write the review and then descends into a 10 page rant about Elvis – which involves him exhuming Elvis’ body and consuming the drugs in Elvis’ system just so he can walk in the guy’s shoes for just one day …

        I honestly think professional critics resist that kind of powerful fan-driven influence.

        It’s why idiots say stuff like, “Sure, John Wayne was good, but he wasn’t a real ACTOR.” I saw someone say that on FB the other day. If what he was doing wasn’t “real acting”, then I don’t know what “real acting” is. But Wayne had the ability to connect with an audience on such a primal first-person basis – I mean, A-list “important” actors should dream about having that ability!

        • One of the most moving things I have ever read on Elvis was the essay that Bangs wrote shortly after Elvis died. It might be the piece Sheila mentioned. I find his frustration and confusion so brutally honest and refreshing and his final thought of (paraphrasing) that we will never agree on anything like we did on Elvis to be one of the most heartbreaking and true statements ever written on the man.

          • sheila says:

            That obit is one of the best things ever written about Elvis, yes. Amazing how prescient it was.

            If you have a copy of Bangs’ stuff, you should check out his “notes on Lost Highway” – which starts to be about Sam Philliips, but then he can’t stop himself and he descends into a fantasy of BEING Elvis and it is one of the most extraordinary things ever written about Elvis. Hard to read. But brilliant.

          • sheila says:

            Jeremy – excerpt of it here, but it’s worth while to seek out the whole thing. That is just a fraction of the craziness of the entire piece.

  3. Really wonderful, thanks for the great read. One other moment that would be in my top 5 would be the scene in the motel room between Elvis and Hope Lange in Wild in the Country.

    • sheila says:

      Chris – Thanks! I think that motel room scene is the best acting work Presley ever did. Certainly one of his most romantic scenes. Wonderful stuff.

      • sheila says:

        And I would love to hear your other choices. I have been thinking myself about what my Top 5 would be.

        • sheila says:

          There are so many good moments in Viva Las Vegas but one of my favorites is very small, so small you might miss it. It’s after his date with Ann-Margret and she takes him home to meet her dad. The father says to Elvis, “Yes, she’s told me a lot about you.” And a look crosses over Elvis’ face – it’s vulnerable, soft – totally real – and he says, “I didn’t think she would have mentioned me.”

          Now, he’s Elvis Presley, a superstar. But he can still tap into the shock that someone has been talking about him, that the girl he is so into clearly liked him enough to tell her dad about him. He’s taken aback, touched. It’s a very nice moment. Those moments add up in that film. That’s why the romance is so touching, besides the fact that we know how intensely the two actors felt in real life about each other.

          • bethann says:

            Even right before her dad appears in the scene when he is paying the piano and singing, there is just something so gloriously sweet, so blatantly humble and vulnerable about his appearance. It is certainly a noteworthy moment.

          • I think the pairing of Ann and Elvis in Viva Las Vegas is one of the great on-screen couplings ever filmed. It’s just such a great pleasure watching every second of them together.

    • sheila says:

      It’s so personal for both of them. The way they look at each other, even in the most casual moments of dialogue. You just feel the connection between them.

  4. bethann says:

    Being of the same generation as Sheila, its odd, but I do not recall watching very many, if any Elvis movies as a child (Not a movie buff, at all really! GASP!! Am I allowed to weigh in?). I do, however, recall hearing much of his music his lps were often on the stereo (you know, the cabinet type that took up an entire wall) and I can recall watching the albums change as one would drop down after the previous one finished. I know, boring stuff, but I did want to say that it really wasn’t until my “Elvis Obsession Revival” (late 2006, early 2007) as a parent and adult did I take the time to watch his films. My husband bought for me a 5 disc set that Best Buy was advertising and the first movie out of the box, chosen by my then 7 year old, was Live a Little, Love a Little. After watching the movie, I wondered why his movie career post Viva Las Vegas had been so derided with comments of poor acting, poor scripts, uninteresting story lines, etc. I found LALLAL hilarious and interesting and comparable to what is known as today’s chick-flick, sans the adult content of today’s offerings.

    Elvis was not only a very capable actor with perfect timing for comedy, but was so beautiful and charming on screen that as a viewer, sort of just took you in, almost against your will. LALLAL remains today as one of my most favorite movies of Elvis’s cannon. My daughter, who was the catalyst for this “Elvis Obsession Revival,” can recite many humorous lines from this film and always gets a kick out of Albert, the dog. The film never fails to entertain.

    Subsequently, I began to collect his other movies and over several years, saw them all. Not every single one of those movies is as funny or as entertaining as LALLAL, but many are and at 3 movies per year, with 6-10 songs per movie, can a viewer really expect that quality of entertainment and engagement? Never was he not arresting on film. It was as if the camera not only captured him in all of his beauty, but it was as if the camera stroked him, caressed him, bringing out every single one of his most beautiful details.

    Having done much reading about his life and career, it is common knowledge that his behavior on the sets were exemplary, polite, professional. It is also common knowledge that his film career fell short of his expectations, however, for the movie going public, he was a unquestionable success, of which many actors and actresses would envy to obtain just a tiny margin of his box office drawing power.

    Wild in Country is another gem that is so overlooked, and while I can understand Gurlanick’s criticism of it, this is certainly not a bad film and I agree that Elvis was suited for more roles of serious subjects and dialogue. I had not seen this movie in many, many months and having recently read something on Moon in the Gutter, recommended to me by Sheila, I pulled out the movie to watch it again last week. After popping it in the dvd player and walked out of the room, I returned at the beginning of the scene where we see the court hearing recommending Glynn Tyler for parole. I must admit, almost shamefully, that when the camera swept to Elvis’s face, I was taken back by his impossible beauty. He is so arresting on film that it left me sort of waylaid, stunned by his face filling the screen, reciting his lines. There is really nothing exceptional about the scene (although to see him so humble and beaten down never fails to capture something within me that I cannot explain) any more than many other scenes in the movie, save and except his appearance on screen is breathtaking. One can easily sort of forget about the storyline and acting abilities. But taken back I was and it was purely coincidental that this blog post should appear just days after watching WIC for the first time in many, many months.

    There is also a scene in Jailhouse Rock that sort of takes your breath away by his magnetism on screen. While he is singing “Baby, You’re So Square,” he becomes ELVIS, master of stage and making little girls wet their panties, and there is something about his appearance in this scene, his little dance movements that just jump out. Its very subtle, but there is no doubt that its there. To me, its much better than the entire production of the famous dance sequence of “Jailhouse Rock.”

    In Viva Las Vegas, his first exchange with Ann-Margaret is titillating, while they are talking while standing by her car. The close-shots of both characters leaves no doubt about the chemistry between these two stars. Elvis is looking at Ann-Margaret and his eyes are little dancing in his head, looking almost ‘into’ her, and it is obvious he is captured by her person. Even if I had never read a word of his hot, off-screen affair with the beautiful redhead, there is no denying the heat and craving he had for her.

    I share Jeremy’s favorite scene in King Creole when he breaks the bottles and says “Now you know what I do for an encore.” Its almost scary to watch his personality change in such a small amount of time. But KC contains so many very subtle moments that they are too many to list. I cannot understand where the talent he had on display in KC was not as obvious after his army days. My guess it was his disappointment with the scripts.

    Change of Habit is another favorite. His incredible beauty notwithstanding, he has his moments in this film as well. The scene with the little girl and rage reduction is almost too much to watch, but his line “they call that Southern charm” never fails to get me. The scene where he is finishing dinner (noodle ring) and is discussing the Feast of San Juan Chaguez is also another telling one. His interaction and playing off of his female costars is great.

    And there are so many many more I could mentioned of his other movies…..

    I realize I have probably used up my allotted space and time here as this is not my blog, but I just wanted to let you know that in this blog post, you have affirmed some of my same feelings about Elvis as an actor, some that most bios and critics seem to miss.

  5. sheila says:

    Bethann – // (Not a movie buff, at all really! GASP!! Am I allowed to weigh in?). //

    Of course you are! This is an eclectic site, I get all kinds of people here interested in all kinds of things.

  6. Thanks for asking Shelia, this is fun. My other top 4 moments would be:

    Tickle Me has some great moments. I think the flashback bar scene is very funny and well done by Elvis, he was a good comedic actor. I like that whole movie, he looked great and the songs are wonderful, culled from earlier knockout studio albums.

    I love the porch scene during the thunderstorm in Girls Girls Girls. It’s all so idyllic
    in a way.

    The drunk scene with Weld and the water hose in Wild in the Country I thought was effective. The scene is pretty layered, emotionally.

    In King Creole, on the ferry with Nellie. The guy had chops.

    • sheila says:

      Oh yes, that thunderstorm is lovely. I always want to step into that scene.

      Tickle Me has so many funny moments – in that haunted hotel, with the girl going bats hit and Elvis trying to keep it all together. He also has one tiny moment, a gesture really – His female boss puts the moves on him in her office. He has already fallen for the aerobics teacher so he is basically being molested by his superior. But of course, he’s Elvis, so he kisses her, making some snarky comment about “I’ve heard this happening to secretaries, but this is ridiculous.” Of course, mid-clinch, aerobics girl comes in and sees them kissing. She storms out. It’s Elvis’ reaction that is so funny – so specific – totally him – worthy of Cary Grant. His left hand kind of crooks up, making this weird awkward gesture, almost pleading, and he cocks his eyes at his boss cynically, hopelessly, and says, “She’s never gonna believe me.” I can’t describe why it is so funny but the whole symphony of gesture and look makes me laugh every time I see it.

      And I think his greatest acting moment comes in the opening scene of Wild in the Country when he quotes something from the Bible in Latin and then is asked to transcribe it, and he says – and the way he says it just lands, his whole body relaxes, his eyes go way deep – “My God, why hast thou forsaken me.”

      Yes. Boy had major chops.

  7. sheila says:

    I also love his boorish behavior at the snooty music party in Jailhouse Rock. I thin that’s probably quite an accurate depiction of how some people saw EP at the time – like some dumb hick – and although they tried to be polite, he wasn’t having any of it. I think he plays that very well. And then, of course, the hot make out scene on the sidewalk with Judy Tyler.

    • It’s just the beast in me.

        • That Jailhouse Rock moment almost made my list. I love the way he says, “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.” That’s one of the great punk-rock moments ever captured in a film and, of course, the beast in me line is still jaw-dropping. He’s so great in Jailhouse Rock. The scene where he confronts Mickey Shaughnessy towards the end is another one of my favorite moments…

          • sheila says:

            It’s so great because they really let Elvis be ugly in that movie. They really let him be nasty. Quite brave, if you think about the times – and also the contrast to the more palatable portrayal of a rock and roll star in Loving You. Jailhouse Rock is almost like a documentary – and Elvis’ rise to the top was similar to that story told, except that Elvis was always so polite and nice and “Yes, sir” and all that. A good Christian boy, trying to make his mama proud. Not at ALL like Vince. Again, that’s a very fine acting job – and brave, too – because audiences might assume that he was just like Vince, when he wasn’t. He was much more tolerant.

            Really good stuff. Brave – he was young to be that brave as an actor – especially with so much damn pressure on him.

            Even today, when big singing stars try to go into the movies, they often can’t “get it up” because they want to be seen in a certain light. They don’t want to mess with their own mythology. It’s rare when a big musical star makes an impact in a really good film for that reason (like Eminem did in 8 Mile, where he was straight up an awesome rough-round-edges leading man, like Stallone was in Rocky).

            But way back in 1957, Elvis was doing that.


  8. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    Sheila, whenever somebody lays the “John Wayne couldn’t act” line on me I always tell them to watch The Searchers and Rio Bravo back to back (which, let’s face it, is not exactly assigning them to Purgatory–and it’s always a safe bet they’ve seen neither). That’s two films made just a couple of years apart for two pantheon directors who loved each other’s work precisely because, by each’s own admission, they couldn’t do what the other did. But John Wayne could handle both–easily, with utter conviction and without losing the essence of whatever it was that made him “John Wayne.” Like you say….If that’s not acting?

    And, yeah, the couple of people who took me up on it came away convinced!

    On the other hand, if somebody tells me Elvis couldn’t sing, I usually just give up on them and assume they are tone deaf.

    • sheila says:


      I think my beef, though, is people who insist that Wayne isn’t a “real actor” because he always “played himself”. Total misunderstanding of what acting is. Very few people say Wayne “couldn’t act” – but they think that because he made it look easy and because he played a version of the same guy in movie after movie, that that is not “real acting”. (Similar to Jeremy’s point about Presley in his last paragraph in the QA here.)

      While I am sure some people think Presley “can’t sing” I am sure what they really mean is “I don’t like his music”. I’ve heard similar shit about Christina Aguilera: “She can’t sing” – which is flat out inaccurate. I don’t care your taste. She can sing. You may not like her music but she can sing.

      Now, though, try convincing those same skeptical people that Elvis was a fine actor, too. Hell, try convincing anyone. You’ll see the uphill battle, but that’s the fun of it!

      That’s what I’m trying to do here.

      It’s the acting that interests me. It’s there that I actually feel I have something to add.

  9. And believe me it’s been revelatory. I’ve only seen eight or ten of Elvis’ movies (looking to correct that soon!) but even based on that I didn’t see why he got so much grief for them. So it’s been a real treat to read you and others you interview who actually know acting from the inside in a way that I never could poking holes in the “offical” narrative (which of course isn’t official at all–just oppressively familiar and shortsighted).

    …and I have to say that finding out he made a movie with Michele “El Dorado” Carey has basically made my year! Elvis, the gift that keeps on giving!

  10. Laurie says:

    Thank you! What a wonderful insightful article. I agree with you assessment 100%. I often wonder why Elvis has never gotten the respect he so richly deserves as an actor. Like you my favorite Elvis film is King Creole but Jaihouse Rock is close too. I agree too that Elvis possessed that “something” you can’t name but when you see it you know it. He was just so beautiful and so natural. You felt like he was who he was playing.. He had the ability to make you forget it was Elvis the legend while watching but you couldn’t ever turn away because he was able to convey so much. He had great timing and used his facial expressions to convey what he needed too. I love Elvis the actor and think he should be honored with a lifetime achievement award for his work. I can’t think of any other person that will ever come close to being in Elvis’ stratosphere. If it was his name only that drew people to the movies than how come Madonna hasn’t been able to do it. She is just bad. With her it’s Madonna being Madonna, and I’ll never understand the critics in their loving Evita, I thought she was horrible. Their was no emotion in her face and her singing was marginal at best. Elvis was just pure talent, he had a light about him. To think that he never did movie junkets either and his films were by the most part very successful tells you something.

  11. Greggers says:

    I love your posts here, Sheila, great stuff! And some great insights by the commenters, too! I think Walter Matthau said it best when he said that Elvis was smart enough to know that acting was all about being yourself within the confines of the script. There’s a lot of evidence on film that he knew his stuff! I, too, see the promise of the later films, that he seemed to be finally on the path to doing decent films, but by then he just didn’t trust it to happen anymore, apparently, and was excited to get back into the live gigs anyway. I’m one of the few who defends “The Trouble With Girls” (!). It may not be great, but just look at all the characters running around in it, with Elvis just sort of along for the ride, looking great with the lambchop sideburns and even the song scenes look good instead of ruining the song (Clean Up Your Own Backyard is almost an early music video). I don’t know why, but you just get the sense that if he had kept going in that vein, making comedies like that and LALLAL, and dramas like Change of Habit and Charro, he might have redeemed his movie image.

    Thanks again, great stuff!

    • sheila says:

      Greggers – thanks for the comment! I love Trouble With Girls – it’s a real nice glimpse of where EP’s career could have gone. He’s just part of an ensemble there! I love it!

      I wrote a little bit about Trouble With Girls here.

  12. Danny Preymak says:

    From studying what I have my conclusion is that he was more like stressed that he would have to do more dramatic roles to continue as a successful actor than being unhappy with the less serious films. I truly believe that he was enjoying say working Girl Happy just as much as we were watching it! He wanted to prove that he could do successful dramatic film but he was still having fun in the meantime.

  13. sheila says:

    Danny – Sure. Nobody said otherwise. Of course he was having fun.

    Elvis was a genius onscreen – this is part of what we are talking about here. He is never false. In Girl Happy he’s true as true can be (did you read the piece? Jeremy labels Girl Happy as one of his favorites of Elvis’ performances), and he’s also true in the darker King Creole or Change of Habit.

  14. Tara Draper says:

    How nice to finally read positive things about the challenging and rich film career of Mr. Presley – he was so often overlooked and underrated by the ‘experts’ in the film industry – boy, did they ever have it worng. It is always a pleasure and a delight to watch any Elvis picture – only a genuinely talented actor can make an audience fell that way!!!

  15. Hi Sheila,

    Charro for example was one of Elvis’s more serious movies in western format. It took Elvis away from the musicals and put him in a more serious and different role; one which i believe (if he had been allowed to pursue more); would have opened him up to a whole new audience and taken his career in movies even higher. Elvis acting talent matched his musical talent, and there were so many other areas this could have gone for him given the option. The fact that Elvis was seen by many as a singer ‘appearing’ in some movies, rather than a movie star in his own right didn’t help. Elvis was up there with the movie greats and there is no denying he was a true legend in music AND movies! I think time became just as much of a burden as anything else. At his level of fame and success; it would have been terribly draining to be doing both.

    I hope you don’t mind, but i have added my review of Charro here; please delete it if not:

  16. Todd Book says:

    I always believed Elvis had an incredible future as a serious actor. You mentioned three films that were early indications. “Love Me Tender”, Elvis’ first film showed everyone the potential he had as a serious actor and many critics had to admit that. “Jailhouse Rock” was another that showed how much charisma Elvis had and how powerful he was on the big screen. “King Creole” is definitely the one in which he really shined. His performance was incredible and he matched the talents of the co-stars, Walther Matthau, Carolyn Jones, and I would say Vic Morrow was excellent as well, and that says a lot about his ability.
    Elvis also was fabulous in “Follow That Dream”, what incredible comedic ability and timing he showed. “Change of Habit” was another of my personal favorites. Elvis looked so great in that film (as he did “Live a Little, Love a Little” and “The Trouble with Girls”). He was so relaxed and you could tell he had his mojo back as you said after his ’68 comeback. The 2 biggest stinkers for me were 1, “Paradise Hawaiian Style” 2, “Easy Come, Easy Go”. You could tell more than the others that Elvis just wanted to be somewhere else and no one could blame him. The poor scripts made him physically ill.
    The person I blame the most for the decline of Elvis Presley is the same man that helped him start his career, Tom Parker. I am so bitter towards that man that I would love to go back in time and punch him right in the face and tell him, “You are killing one of the most talented men ever”. I get furious just thinking about it. Parker had one thing in mind and that was money. It didn’t matter what he was doing to Elvis Presley the man, it was Elvis Presley the money machine he cared about.
    I just imagine Elvis in some of the rolls he could have been in. He needed that challenge in his life, had Parker not denied him of that, he may have lived a long life. Sure Elvis could have helped himself but he was just to damn loyal to do what he should have, kicked Parker to the curb.
    I will always appreciate the films that Elvis made because with that we get to see a special human being. The other regret I have is that Elvis never made a Christmas movie. With all of his wonderful Christmas songs wouldn’t it have been nice to see that every year during the Holidays?
    I guess we just need to thank the Lord for the time he gave us with Elvis Presley.
    Long Live the King!

  17. sheila says:

    Todd – while I sympathize with your frustration, and realize it is a common viewpoint, I disagree about the Colonel! http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=44147

    But thanks for your passionate comment. I agree that Elvis was a great actor. His gifts have yet to be heralded or acknowledged at all because people don’t understand what “good acting” actually entails. He’s wonderful – in the more serious pictures like Wild in the Country and King Creole – and also in the formula pics like Girl Happy (J’adore), Blue Hawaii, Viva Las Vegas. And I LOVE those late 60s pics – Live a Little Love a Little, Stay Away Joe, Change of Habit … he’s marvelous in all of them.

    Happy holidays!

  18. Kathy Bennett says:

    I am looking for a movie that played many years ago. Elvis was not in the movie, but his music was. It was about a little autistic girl that lived in a group home. She loved listening to Elvis’ records.

  19. Jonathan says:

    ‘Touched by Love’ (you can watch the whole film on Youtube.

  20. frankv says:

    jeremy, you are 100 percent correct and finally somebody agrees with me on server. Number 1 Elvis was never meant to be a serious oscar-winning performing as an actor number to his movies were meant to be entertaining light comedy musical and make you feel good kind of movies and finally number 3 you hit the nail right on the head I personally think the movie live a little love a little was one of these very very best movies you hit the nail right on the head Jeremy

  21. sheila says:

    If you’re interested, I reviewed the excellent Live a Little, Love a Little here. An unfairly forgotten film.


  22. johny Angel says:

    I cant believe that Bronson and Elvis didn’t get along. Since like most of us l love and admire both actors. I think Elvis was trying to impress Bronson. I read in ” What Happened Elvis”, in that movie between scenes Elvis was doing all his Karate moves with his buds, and Bronson didn’t like it one bit. Especially since Bronson could really take care of himself. Elvis at this time was just getting started in Karate taking lessons. I could have just been rivalry between two macho guys. But that book was a real eye opener. Red and Sonny West, and Dave hebler really told some unflattering stories about Elvis. But looking back Evis wasnt perfect and did some dumb things as a teen and young adult. But hey, we all did. I am also of the belief that the Colonel did a huge disservice to Elvis when he encouraged Elvis in the early days to not go out in public too much , it will keep the fans more interested and keep the ” mystique alive. It did do that….. but it help make him a recluse too. HisLast 3 yrs or so staying up all night and sleeping all day. I prefer not to dwell on this part or share more of it now. When I saw Elvis on the 1968 Comeback special it was like watching a semi God, a beautiful looking man, who could sing like an angel and had this raw powerful aura of a Black stallion horse. When he sang “If I can dream”with all that Passion and Power……well it about knocked me off my feet. I prefer to recall the King in those magnificent moments. With all the great Movie moments.. Im in total agreement with Jeremy that “Elvis was so great to look at”, was the ist reason to see his movies, not to mention his huge charismatic presence. He had women all over the Globe lusting for him, ..many men too i’ve heard.. I cried like a baby when i heard of Evis’s passing in August of 1977. Thanks Jeremy and all the other posters here. Elvis was way underrated as an Actor. Id love to sit down and discuss Elvis with you Jeremy, it would be so interesting. Id love to discuss his choice of songs too.

  23. Dagmar Egen says:

    I enjoyed all Elvis movies no matter how good or bad the script, because Elvis was in them! His acting was excellent when you consider that , just as with his singing, it was purely his natural, totally untrained, ability.
    I may have missed it in all your comments, but I think the most brilliant piece of acting was Elvis in the final courtroom scene giving a very dramatic speech in Follow that Dream. Brilliant!

  24. Andy McLenon says:

    Wow Sheila! I started reading your fantastic pieces on Howard Hawks, all of them I think and then somehow ended up here because of the interview where Hawks says he didn’t want to work with Elvis because of the corny material, but of course that’s not the kind of film he would have to make with him. Funny how Hawks was the only director who could make “corny” work but in my opinion the corn in Ford’s greatest films at certain points become a distraction, but that’s a side argument.

    I think back when rock criticism was coming into its own most notably with Rolling Stone the rock mythology that most of the original writers became regarded as rock truth, since they were the first to write serious ambitious “History Of Rock and Roll” books a generation took it as gospel. One of the ones that bothered me the most was the way they demeaned Sinatra and never took him as an artist seriously. They treated him and others as the enemy. The other thing they set in stone was how horrible Elvis movies are except for the pre army films. Which reminds me of the most annoying rock quote ever, when Lennon was asked about Elvis’ death and he said “Elvis died when he went in the army” now I have no idea why he said that because he knew it was absurd but to this day I still see that quote being used on Facebook, sometimes by people who it would seem they should know better. For starters the 68 Special in my opinion is the pinnacle of rock and roll, it’s 50 years old this year and I still get shivers watching it and nothing has ever topped it, not that was captured on film anyway and I think it’s safe to say nothing ever will. Lennon famously yelled out in the middle of “Hound Dog” during the One To One concert in 72 “Elvis I love you!” and he wore that huge Elvis pin made of diamonds to the Grammy awards when he was a presenter in 75, so we know his love of Elvis didn’t end with him being drafted.

    You mentioned the spirit of Elvis in the films that was always present and I think that’s an important point. We all know the spirit of unbridled possibilities which runs through the Sun Sessions which all the old rock critics love to wrote about and I love that stuff as much as anyone, everything changed after that for sure. I’ve argued that same spirit is very much alive and on display his early 60’s music and films which many consider to be sacrilege, but I hear the same excitement and feeling of unlimited potential in his voice as I hear in the 50’s recordings. It was full of optimism and excitement about the future possibilities which I think reflected where American culture was at the time. JFK was still president, we hadn’t gotten bogged down in Vietnam yet and the future looked bright, hell we were even going to the moon!

    In the two films and music from 62 Kid Galahad and Follow That Dream you can really feel that spirit of America through Elvis. As far as his acting goes I always try to get the haters to watch Follow That Dream and tell me he didn’t create a believable well defined character which had nothing to do with being Elvis Presley, he’s very good in it and it’s really funny. I love when one of the mobsters, famous character actor is freaking out trying to figure if Toby is really stupid or really smart, really cracks me up. The title song is just great and also “Angel” where is voice is beautiful. Kid Galahad had “King Of The Whole Wide World”, “This Is Living”, “Riding The Rainbow” and “I Got Lucky” which I think all reflect where he was as a person at that time as well as where we were as a country. So great don’t think he was out of touch at all at this point creatively speaking. Try telling that to the self appointed rock and roll justice league!

    I know this interview with Jeremy is years old but I’m just seeing it and it’s got my mind racing, I very much appreciate you both being so insightful and articulate and thanks to the many comments from others too.

    I know this is

    • Andy McLenon says:

      I meant to say that Hawks said that Ford was the only director who could make corny work. Sorry there’s probably a lot of mistakes, I was excited and typing on my phone. : ()

    • sheila says:

      Andy! Again, sorry for the delay in response – crazy times on my end.

      I love your comments! Yes, this is an old post but a favorite – I was so happy to speak with Jeremy and to get his take on Elvis – it’s a take I clearly share – but the more the merrier. I especially like this: “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.”


      // One of the ones that bothered me the most was the way they demeaned Sinatra and never took him as an artist seriously. They treated him and others as the enemy. The other thing they set in stone was how horrible Elvis movies are except for the pre army films. //

      It really is so set in stone – thanks for your perspective on how that came to be. It seems like Gospel, and part of what I’ve been trying to do ever since I started writing about Elvis is to chip away at that unexamined assumption. How can you say Viva Las Vegas is no good? Or Live a Little Love a Little? Or, hell, Girl Happy? Yes, it’s not Apocalypse Now but not everything needs to be Apocalypse Now. It’s a light fluffy bit of entertainment which works beautifully. People are very very attached to Elvis as an icon of rebellion in the 50s – and so it’s hard to square that image with the 60s movies – which i totally get – and on some level it really is totally absurd, what Elvis’ movie career morphed into – but I find it interesting. It hurt him in terms of his music career – no question – and there were all kinds of insane bottom-line decisions made which did not serve him well – BUT what I keep trying to say is: in the midst of all of that, Elvis did his work, made it look fun, and entertained the people who loved going to see him in stuff. This should be celebrated, not dismissed. It’s HARD to do what he did – and he made it look easy.

      // Lennon famously yelled out in the middle of “Hound Dog” during the One To One concert in 72 “Elvis I love you!” and he wore that huge Elvis pin made of diamonds to the Grammy awards when he was a presenter in 75, so we know his love of Elvis didn’t end with him being drafted. //

      That quote from Lennon has always annoyed me – especially since it has picked up so much traction. Even Peter Guralnick – whose work I treasure – split up his two-part biography along the lines of Lennon’s quote. Pre-Army and Post-Army. As though post-1958 it was a long slow decline. That is CLEARLY not the case.

      // I’ve argued that same spirit is very much alive and on display his early 60’s music and films which many consider to be sacrilege, but I hear the same excitement and feeling of unlimited potential in his voice as I hear in the 50’s recordings. //

      I so love to hear you say this! I completely agree!!

    • sheila says:

      // In the two films and music from 62 Kid Galahad and Follow That Dream you can really feel that spirit of America through Elvis. //

      I so agree. The music is wonderful and he sounds so joyous – almost innocent – nothing holding him back, in the zone. And you’re right: just as he did in the mid-50s, in these early 60s films, he tapped into the time, the mood, the vibe.

      // So great don’t think he was out of touch at all at this point creatively speaking. Try telling that to the self appointed rock and roll justice league! //

      So true. And I agree with you about Follow That Dream – that’s some actual “acting” he’s doing there, which requires a sense of humor, some irony, and an awareness of where the jokes are. He has that all down.

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