I know what you’re thinking, and it’s true. I did say that one of the purposes of this column was to talk about those who don’t get much notice, and Elvis Presley does indeed seem like the opposite of that. But another thing I want to do is talk about aspects of famous people’s careers that don’t get covered much. And okay, I’m still not sure how much Elvis fits in that. But when his movies are discussed, most of what’s brought up is that they’re bad. Which is still perfectly reasonable, because oh, dear Gods, they’re bad. I mean, I’ve seen Change of Habit, the one where he’s an inner city doctor and Mary Tyler Moore is a nun. Don’t tell me they’re not bad! But they could have been better, and the real tragedy is that Elvis knew it.
From 1956 to 1969, Elvis Presley was one of the biggest box office draws in the United States. And remember, he was in the military for part of that time and still made thirty-one movies. They range in quality from “better than I’d expected” to “what the hell is that?” Mostly, they are light, forgettable fare, where Elvis chases girls and sings songs. His first movie, Love Me Tender, is the only one where he played a supporting role; after that, Elvis starred and everyone knew it. (Love Me Tender stars Richard Egan; I looked him up and saw that he’d been Aunt Polly’s love interest in Pollyanna, leading to “Oh, yeah, it’s that guy.”) And if they didn’t, Colonel Tom Parker made sure they knew.
And that’s part of the problem with his career, frankly. Colonel Tom was a lousy manager who basically rode Elvis for everything he could get, and he limited the movies Elvis appeared in to ones he figured would be a fast buck. Elvis had considered acting before he hit it big as a singer, and in fact his first movie was in the first year of his stardom. (1956 was a busy year for Elvis.) But we’ll never know if he could act, because the movies he made mostly didn’t require it. He played the persona of Elvis a lot, mostly. He knew the movies were bad; he was himself an enormous movie buff, renting out theatres and watching movies all night long for weeks, months at a time. He may not’ve had great taste—one of the people who went to those showings once got so sick of The Nutty Professor, which he saw a dozen or more times, that she ducked out to eat—but he loved movies. Except his own.
They wanted him for Tony in West Side Story. Nicholas Ray wanted him for Jesse James in The True Story of Jesse James. They wanted him for Bus Stop, opposite Marilyn Monroe. Robert Mitchum wanted him for Thunder Road. The Defiant Ones. The Barbra Streisand A Star Is Born—it’s a terrible movie, but that would have been interesting casting. So many movies that might have been and never were, so many movies that he might have actually been proud of. Or, yeah, he might have been terrible. We don’t know; we can’t know. But we know it’s who he wanted to be and learned he was never going to be.
Oh, not all the movies are that bad. It’s hard to be as bad as Change of Habit. Jailhouse Rock isn’t very good, but it’s not all that bad. Love Me Tender is even kind of good, though not very—I haven’t seen it in years, but I gave it a six out of ten at the time. And it’s been even longer since I’ve seen Blue Hawaii, but I remember that as . . . inoffensive enough for what it was. But when that’s the best you can get out of your movies, it’s kind of no wonder you don’t want to watch them again, even if you’re the sort of person who will sit through The Nutty Professor three times in a single night. Actually, they wanted him to be in a movie with Jerry Lewis at one point; he probably would have liked that.
Special thanks to Alternative Movie Casting Guru Michael Guarnieri for a short list of movies Elvis was considered for. And because, yeah, you need to see it? Have the image.