How Do You Portray Elvis?

elvis movies

Elvis Presley may be the most-impersonated person in the world. Even as far away as Parkes, Australia, and Porthcawl, Wales, major festivals are held every year in which thousands of people “rock” up as The King. The first recorded Elvis impersonator was Carl “Cheesie” Nelson in 1954, mere months after the young Presley recorded his first tracks.

Some may think portraying Elvis is a simple affair. Some slicked-back hair, a flashy jumpsuit or black leather jacket, and a little bit of gyration are all you need to have people understand who you are pretending to be. If they are still in doubt, just mumble “Thank you very much.”

Of course, the ease at which one can provide a superficial impersonation means it is even harder to find portrayals that offer something more. How do you capture the charisma, the humor, and the vitality of one of the 20th century’s biggest personalities in a way that avoids cliches?

This is the challenge currently faced by Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler in the new biopic, Elvis (out on June 24). Their movie focuses on the early years of the star and his relationship with his larger-than-life manager, Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks). If you can take anything from Luhrmann’s previous films, you can expect it to worship the music and mythology of the man, but how honest it will be about the history is unknown.

Elvis is as much a myth as a person, and his “character” often appears as the former, rather than the latter. Take Peter Dobson’s portrayal in Forrest Gump. His face always slightly out of frame, or blurred in the background, Zemeckis might very well have picked up any impersonator off the street to play the role. The mythological Elvis is taken a step further to become an imaginary friend of Clarence Worley in Tony Scott’s True Romance. Played by Val Kilmer, his face is never shown, and his body rarely. In both films, it is the power of cool, the implication of the King that is important, rather than the man himself.

For most people, the most powerful portrayal of Presley the person might always be that of Kurt Russell. First filling the shoes of “The King” in John Carpenter’s straight-to-television biopic Elvis, Russell might very well have been born to play Presley.

The 1979 film, which also starred Shelley Winters as Gladys Presley, was a passion project for Carpenter and filmed in only 30 days. Despite being made for television, it received such an exciting response from audiences that it later had a short-run theatrical release and was nominated for a Golden Globe. Critics have praised Russell’s portrayal as “the best performance [of his] career”, commenting on the intensity and strength he brought to the larger-than-life character. The film would begin a lifelong relationship between filmmaker and actor and set Russell on a career beyond the boyish teen characters he had played before the musician.

Of course, perhaps the most successful portrayal of “The King” has been that offered by Elvis Presley himself. In Priscilla Presley’s autobiography Elvis and Me, she wrote that “He believed he was capable of performing more demanding roles than he was getting, and to prepare himself, he still studied certain actors whom he admired, such as James Dean in Giant and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and The Wild One.”

Elvis himself first appeared in film in 1956, starring in Love Me Tender, a movie titled after one of Presley’s own songs. Fans were outraged that his character died in the movie, but it didn’t stop them from lining up thirty-three more times to see him play on the big screen. While Presley never felt he obtained the respect he wanted as an actor, he also knew that each time he took to the stage it was also as a character being performed.

Inspired by his long-term friendship with Liberace, Elvis commissioned Bill Belew to create the flamboyant jumpsuits the star is best known for today. Before his 1972 Madison Square Garden Shows, Elvis was quoted as saying “the image is one thing and the human being is another…it’s very hard to live up to an image.”

Some very big names have slicked back their hair and tried their best to play Elvis Presley. For comedies and dramas, the character has been played by Harvey Keitel, Michael Shannon, Bruce Campbell, Robert Patrick, and Jonathon Rhys-Meyers. There is no doubt that Austin Butler will not be the last to take a shot at The King. As we look forward to this new performance, however, it is worth considering just how much we really knew of the singer, and how much was just a really good show.

-Thomas Gregory

Photo: Elvis Presley (Getty Images)

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Thomas Gregory is an Australian writer with a passion for rediscovering the lesser-known geniuses of our past. With degrees in both theatre and computer science, he especially loves exploring the way technological advances have given us new art to enjoy. He is currently listening to the Killing Eve soundtrack and reading a backlog of Patricia Highsmith novels.

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