Elvis Presley’s musical career is the stuff American legends are made of, but experts say the king of rock and roll always dreamed of winning an Academy Award for acting. He was never nominated, but according to critics, his early film work showed a promising young talent.
In the 1958 drama “King Creole,” Presley played Danny Fisher, a high school dropout trying to support his family who falls in with a criminal crowd and becomes a nightclub singer. Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”), the film is widely regarded as the best of the 31 movies Presley starred in over the course of his career, and a far cry from the musical romps like “Blue Hawaii” he would become known for in the decade to come.
Louisville-based Elvis expert and best-selling rock author Alanna Nash says Presley’s performance in “King Creole” shows what his film career could have looked like had his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, pursued more serious film projects on his behalf.
“I think he had the skills of certainly a James Dean, who was his hero,” says Nash. “There’s a famous scene in which he says ‘now you know what I do for an encore,’ in which he breaks a bottle to defend himself from a nightclub hood. You see in that scene sparks of what he might have amounted to as an actor–very influenced by Marlon Brando, very influenced by James Dean, almost a method actor.”
Nash is the New York Times best-selling author of three books on Presley, beginning with the oral history “Elvis and the Memphis Mafia” in 1995 (originally titled “Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia”). The latest is “Baby, Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him,” published by HarperCollins in 2010.
She will give a talk and answer questions about Presley’s film career before a screening of “King Creole” Wednesday at the Clifton Center. The event is part of the Wild & Woolly Film Series.
Presley received a deferment from the military to complete filming of “King Creole” before enlisting in the Army in 1958, and Nash says Presley was convinced his career would evaporate during his two-year service. By the time he returned home, he thought, rock and roll would be over and the public wouldn’t want to see him on screen. Colonel Parker promised him that wouldn’t happen.
“But one way the Colonel could fulfill his promise was to put Elvis in films that were guaranteed to turn a profit, and that didn’t necessarily mean drawing on Elvis’ skills as an actor, but eventually lining him up with a bunch of girls in bikinis and as many songs as they can stuff into a scene,” says Nash.
Nash delved deeply into Presley’s relationship with his manager in her 2003 book “The Colonel: the Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley” and recently won a journalism award from the International Country Music Conference for a Vanity Fair article she wrote on an iconic and mysterious photograph of Presley kissing a woman backstage in 1956.
“He’s become my life’s work. I hadn’t planned on it to start out that way, but I couldn’t think of anyone more fascinating or emblematic of America,” says Nash.
She says while European scholars take Presley seriously as a cultural figure, Americans tend to still regard Presley as a nostalgia act–even, at times, a cartoon. But Nash calls Presley a symbol of America, for good and bad.
“The U.S. Postal Service issued an Elvis stamp, and they had us vote on which Elvis they wanted. It’s always the younger Elvis people want to remember in images, not the Elvis of the Seventies,” she says. “Part of it is we don’t like to think of ourselves as growing older, and part of it is we hate to think of how unhappy he was in his latter years. Certainly a large part of his unhappiness grew out of his film career, and how he was strapped into roles that didn’t challenge him.”