Elvis Presley: The Actor
It was and has been my contention for a long time that Elvis Presley was an underrated actor whose thespic abilities had they been allowed to develop via interesting and challenging parts might’ve turned him into a film actor of considerable talent. But he was essentially victimized by his success as a singer. So as a result he was never given the chance either by the people who managed his career, Col. Tom Parker especially or the studios that produced his films. Or for that matter by the film critics of the day. Right from the start with his first film Love Me Tender (1956) they went after him with knives and arrows. And after that every time one of his films was released it afforded them the opportunity to show how caustic and witty they could be at his expense. What did they expect? That this young rockabilly singer would reveal himself to be as skilled as Olivier or naturally gifted as Marlon Brando? I suspect not. I think they were just trying to punish him for being so damned successful as a singer/performer. There is a kind of snobbery among critics that unattractively manifests itself whenever a phenom like Presley comes along.
I mean here was a young man with no dramatic training making a genuinely honest effort in his first outing and I might add achieving some very affecting moments in the process. But it was very clear that he was new and unsure of himself. But with his next film Loving You (1956) he became more relaxed and more sure of himself. That film was followed by Jail House Rock (1957) where a lot of his pent up energy and rage found an outlet that was entertaining as well as dramatically compelling. Then came King Creole (1958), directed by Michael Curtiz, for which I think he gave the best performance of his career. Then Military service intervened. G.I. Blues (1960) was his next film and for me the turning point. After that most of his films were tailor made comedic inanities designed to showcase his musical abilities in undemanding and not very imaginative ways. All that seemed to be required were some pretty girls, a lifeless script, a few musical numbers and Mr. Presley. Yes there were a few exceptions like Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, ( both released in 1960) but the majority were what I call travelogue films with titles like It Happened at the World’s Fair, Fun in Acapulco, Blue Hawaii and Paradise Hawaiian Style where even he seemed to be bored by the lack of challenge in the roles he was given. The one exception was Viva Las Vegas (1964) the film he made with the young and vivacious Ann-Margret. They apparently sparked something in each other that brought the film to life despite the stupidity of the story. But after that it was business as usual until both Presley and the public grew weary and he stopped making fiction films.
But while all this was taking place I quietly kept hoping that somewhere along the way someone would take the chance and offer him a dramatic role that had some teeth in it. The two I thought of at the time were Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending retitled The Fugitive Kind (1960). Marlon Brando played the role and was good in the film but I still feel that Presley was more naturally suited to the character and would’ve surprised everyone by acquitting himself well in the part. Another was Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), Horton Foote’s adaptation of his play Travelling Lady. The role went to Steve McQueen but again I thought it should’ve gone to Presley. Or at least offered to him for the same reasons stated before.
Now all this was wishful thinking on my part because I don’t know if Presley or his management people would’ve considered the parts even if they were offered. And I also appreciate the fact that Presley’s reputation was such that an announcement in any of those projects would’ve been met with derision and laughter that would’ve undercut the seriousness of their creators’ intent.
I know that we can’t undo the past but I always find it interesting to speculate on “what might have been”. In the case of Presley and the two films mentioned I still think that his future and his reputation would’ve been considerably altered had he been given the chance to prove that his acting abilities went way beyond the roles he was given. But we’ll never know. So all this is just idle dreaming on my part. But still it’s fun to think about.