In Tickle Me (1965), Elvis plays Lonnie, an out-of-work rambling rodeo rider who makes extra cash singing wherever anyone will have him. Through a series of encounters, Lonnie gets a job at a ranch which operates as a “fat farm” for young starlets (who are all gorgeous, and we are supposed to believe they are “fat”, but hey, that’s Hollywood), and his mere presence (naturally) wreaks havoc among the starving ladies. He coaches them on horseback riding and the like, but he basically becomes Eye Candy from the moment of his inauspicious clumsy arrival. Jeremy Richey, from Moon in the Gutter, who I so enjoyed talking with about Elvis as an actor has an in-depth essay about the film, going into its history, its production, and also its charms as a film. It’s a hoot, frankly. Elvis is all gleaming-black hair and sleek tight Western outfits in it, impossibly gorgeous (really: it’s just impossible), and the plot couldn’t be more goofy (a real parody of the Elvis Formula Film). In order to save money, The Colonel (as Technical Advisor) decided to fill the soundtrack with earlier lesser-known Elvis songs, as opposed to having stuff written fresh. This was a remarkable decision and goes a long way towards elevating Tickle Me (at least in terms of music) over other Elvis films, where the songs are often downright dismal. In some cases, Elvis is lip synching to songs he recorded back in the early 60s. But the sound is fantastic.
And something rather interesting (and explosive) happens during one of the early numbers in the picture, “It Feels So Right”. Originally recorded in 1960, “It Feels So Right” was included on the great Elvis Is Back album, his first release (or “escape”, as he always used to joke) on getting out of the Army. Lean, clean-cut and even demure-looking at times, Elvis came roaring back into relevance as a man, no longer a pudgy (albeit cute and sexy) kid. The new maturity shows in the music, as well as his vocal stylings. He has grown during his two years away. He has stretched his voice, he has worked on new material, he has pushed his range and worked on his breathing. He was not just disappeared during 1958-60. Those were very productive years for him creatively and you can hear the energy and joy in Elvis Is Back. Tickle Me was filmed in 1965, so going back to 1960 Elvis in the middle of the film is startling. We’re talking 1965. We’re talking The Beatles. The whole culture was changing, the culture that Elvis had helped create. He was “trapped” in the movies, though, and the songs written for the films often (most often) didn’t reflect the changing times. There are exceptions. But for the most part, Elvis movies take place in Elvis Land, a time outside of time, a time where Elvis is King, there is no outside world, there is no larger context – because when you have Elvis, that’s all the context you need. He justified films merely by being in them. You can imagine how that could be a disheartening experience for someone so competitive as Elvis, someone so determined to do well, but it is just one of the elements that make him fascinating as a performer.
Nowhere is this more evident than in “It Feels So Right.” Lonnie has gotten a job playing in a Western bar, while he waits out the off-season for his rodeo gigs. Directly following this number, he gets into a fist fight (with his real-life and eventually traitorous pal, Red West) that is so extreme that it destroys the entire bar. Naturally, Lonnie loses his job. But his performance of “It Feels So Right” was so smokin’ hot that the proprietress of the fat farm offers him a job on the spot. He takes it. He won’t have a problem having a lady boss, he assures her when she asks.
There is no purpose to “It Feels So Right” except for Elvis to show himself off. And again, that’s all the justification necessary (an element of his performing life that is often either misunderstood or dismissed or railed against- People want MORE from him. Hell, I do, too.) But what we have here is one of the purest examples of Elvis’ sheer personal charisma and electric animal magnetism ever caught on film. It’s almost embarrassing to watch. His sex appeal is so out there, so embodied by him, he doesn’t have to DO anything to bring it out. He’s not “doing” too much here. He also is barely lip synching (the sync of the clip is a bit off, too, which is kind of annoying – but check it out anyway). Elvis didn’t overdo the lip synching, he understood in those smart bones of his that it wasn’t about mouthing the words to perfection. Nobody cared anyway. He poured his attention onto other things. And by other things, I mean BEING. BE-ing onscreen is one of the most difficult things for actors to achieve. The great ones all can do it. They show up, they impress us with their reality, their sense of truth, and none of it ever looks like work.
Cary Grant, a master of Be-ing onscreen if ever there was one, had this to say about the dismissive (and ignorant) comment “He was just playing himself”:
To play yourself — your true self — is the hardest thing in the world. Watch people at a party. They’re playing themselves … but nine out of ten times the image they adopt for themselves is the wrong one.
Think about that the next time you are tempted to dismiss someone’s work because he was “just playing himself”. Be-ing is hard work in real life, let alone on screen.
Because Elvis made things look so easy (and, in a way, inevitable – he makes it look like, “Well, of course, that is the only way to play that silly scene, of course”) he is not given the props he deserves. I challenge any actor working today to pull off what Elvis pulls off in “It Feels So Right”. Men’s sexuality, in a way, is more delicate than women’s, because they aren’t as required to turn that side of themselves on at a moment’s notice publicly. Women have no private realm. Women are constantly judged on their sex appeal, even in situations where their “fuckability” shouldn’t even matter. Female Supreme Court justices are subjected to the same objectification commentary that Kim Kardashian is. Men have spheres in their lives where their “fuckability” isn’t on the table at all. And so there is a tension, and it can be a beautiful tension, when male actors have to let that side of themselves show. Male sexuality is more private, in a way, since women walking down the street on their way to work are expected to be pleasing to the eye. Men operate in private. Actors who can let us in on their private selves that way are to be cherished. These are the great movie stars. These are the ones who can be vulnerable, can hold themselves up to the same judgment that women face every day.
In this context, Elvis has always been an interesting case. He operated in a typically feminine sphere, using himself as a burlesque performer from the get-go, before he was even having sex himself (probably). He objectified himself. He realized he was pleasing to the girls just by showing up, and so, smart boy, he used it. He was not embarrassed. He brought his sexuality into the public realm, and reveled in it. He didn’t stalk around aggressively with it, the way a Mick Jagger eventually did, turning his male-ness into a weapon of domination (as awesome as that can be). No. He was more stereotypically female about it, with the concentration on the pelvis and the shoulders, and also the sense that he was receiving the love from the audience. He is both aggressive and receptive, for all the world like a burlesque dancer hiding her lady bits behind a fan. This is all part and parcel of Elvis’ magic that he could so naturally pull this delicate dichotomy off, especially as a white male in his day and age. Men didn’t use themselves that way at all then. Clearly the man knew what he looked like. Elaine Dundy, in her beautifully researched book about Elvis’ mother, posits that beauty creates its own meritocracy, and Elvis was beautiful from the beginning. Dundy writes:
In his late teens, the blue-eyed Elvis’ features were taking on more and more of Vernon’s handsome cast. He had grown into a beautiful boy. Like all beautiful boys, he was sending out disturbing sexual vibrations and not only to the opposite sex. Of all the inequalities of childhood, the inequality of beauty is perhaps the most unfair and the one least able to be dealt with. Some children are more beautiful than others and everyone knows it, and it sets up a tension that works both for and against them.
While stories abound of Elvis’ shyness as a teenager, and his acne and his stutter, the pictures don’t lie. He was a gorgeous boy, exotic-looking, sensuous.
This was just the gift of genetics. Beauty is something we all are attracted to, whether it be in fine art or a human being. Human beings like to look at beautiful things. But there is a distancing factor there, too, and that is Dundy’s contribution to the narrative of Elvis as a young boy. He stuttered, he was shy, and he dressed like a freak. He grew his hair long. He was teased. The prevailing narrative is that he was an isolated dreamer, not one of the boys, and not a lady-killer either. Dundy suggests that Elvis’ beauty was something his peers recognized early, probably in grade school, and it was that that isolated him. People who are that pretty are naturally separated from the crowd. Others may have envious feelings, as well as desirous feelings. That creates a tension. Beauty has its own rewards but it has its pitfalls too. Elvis was a lonely Mama’s boy, but I do wonder if sometimes, all by himself, he thought, “I’m pretty. I’m different from all of them. It isolates me now, but I’ll use it to my advantage first chance I get.” Why else would he dress in pink suits in high school?
Elvis’ beauty is a fact of nature. It just IS. But there are plenty of beautiful people, and actors have a higher percentage of gorgeousness. It can’t just be about the beauty. It has to be about how one inhabits said beauty. This is what makes Catherine Deneuve so remarkable. Or Gary Cooper. Or Greta Garbo. These people with extraordinary faces, and transcendent beauty, who can also use it to their advantage. They are not clothes horses or pin-ups. Their beauty becomes something entirely other, when translated onto the screen. Elvis had that.
I am not that beautiful. I have no idea what it feels like from the inside to have such beauty. But, in trying to understand it, all I need to do is watch the clip of “It Feels So Right”, and watch the result of a man who is easy with who he is, who understands that he is pleasing to look at, who doesn’t revel in it in a way that is off-putting or vain, but who definitely revels in it in a way that seems generous. It is a magic trick not to be tried by amateurs. Humility mixed with self-pleasure and generosity is a rare combination indeed (especially rare among men, who, as I mentioned, are not accustomed to placing themselves in an entirely sexual Objectified context: “Look at me, my only purpose right now is to turn you on” – this is woman’s work, this is woman’s realm. Elvis turned that on its ear, essentially. He did it naturally, he did it automatically, and he did it from within. It’s still radical.)
That’s why it looks so easy. That’s why it is one of his sexiest moments on film (although nothing can top what is going on here). He doesn’t get in the way of anything. He knows the purpose here and he is not self-conscious. He is also subtly making fun of his established persona, in a way that lets us know (as Jeremy pointed out) that Elvis was always in on the joke. He’s too full of energy and excitement of the sheer erotic possibilities of life to be jaded about his position. Elvis’ joy in sex and in himself (kind of the same thing) always seemed very organic to me, something that was one of his true contributions to the cultural explosion that he helped start. “Isn’t it fun to be sexy? Isn’t it fun to let this side of ourselves out?” Yes, Elvis, yes. It is fun.
“It Feels So Right” is one of my favorite Elvis numbers in any of his films. Additionally, it is filmed in a way that cracks that collective experience that Elvis provided open for us. The different shots of the writhing and gyrating audience members, the little roly-poly guy who suddenly stands up grinding his pelvis, and the blonde babe in lilac who is basically rendered horizontal in the sheer shock of Elvis being close to her. This is a strong statement of Elvis’ mass appeal, what he did to audiences of all sexes, and the scene is shameless and exuberant in capturing that. Entertaiment is a service industry. Elvis understood that better than most. It is what helped keep him grounded. Even the capes and jumpsuits are indicative of his cellular understanding that he was there to entertain, to make people happy, to give them a good show. It is his generosity in this regard that strikes me here. It is his job to bring people out of the mundane everyday. He was “chosen” for that. It was his destiny. He didn’t complain about it, although it isolated him, as it did in high school. “Okay, this is what they want from me … happy they want anything from me at all … so here it is: All of me. Everything I’ve got.” In presenting himself as such a clear and fun object of desire, he sets the people in his audience in this scene free. He remains cool and controlled, and the people at the tables lose their ever-loving minds.
It’s still unbalancing. You still don’t see men use themselves in this way in cinema. This is still seen as women’s work.
And the best part of all of this is: It’s so much fun to watch him. We don’t resent his beauty, we don’t find it off-putting or alienating, in the way we do a lot of other beautiful people. There is nothing worse than a person trying to take their sexuality too seriously. Sex is too much fun for that, although it is also a serious business. But you don’t want to be ponderous about it, you don’t want to be self-conscious or overly serious. Here, Elvis wears the mantle of his almost eerie beauty and his sheer sexual power so easily, he wears it with such warmth and familiarity and fun, that his beauty somehow does become its own reward. For himself, and for us.