|Kurt Russell, in the role that changed his career: 1979's "Elvis."|
Elvis was a career-changer for Kurt Russell for several reasons. First, this was Russell’s big dramatic break as an adult actor. Like Ron Howard, Kurt was a popular child and teen actor, and both moved on to adult roles, but cast as bland boyish types. Well, after Happy Days Ron Howard found his happy ending in directing. And after a slew of TV roles in cop shows and westerns, Kurt Russell was cast by director John Carpenter in Elvis. Raves for Russell as The King of Rock then paved the way for his movie career. Kurt and Carpenter went on to work in four feature films together, including the cult classic, Escape from New York. Finally, Russell and Season Hubley met on the set of Elvis and married shortly afterward, for four years.
I’ve read while John Carpenter was excited by the prospect of making the Elvis Presley story, he was disappointed by the lack of creative control he had over the project. While his Halloween was a surprise movie smash, apparently it didn’t translate to network TV. ABC and their long-time artist/producer Dick Clark were in charge and probably responsible for some of the more questionable choices regarding this three hour TV film. Still, Elvis was such a ratings smash that it was later released overseas as a feature film.
|Kurt Russell worked with the real Elvis Presley in "It Happened at the World's Fair."|
While there’s a lot to like about this Elvis, there are definitely shortcomings. The main issue is that this telling is overly discreet in delving into Presley’s personal issues. As a high school grad the year Elvis died in ’77 at age 42, I recall how shocked the public was by Presley’s sudden death. Yes, there had been speculation about Elvis’ physical appearance the last several years of his life. Elizabeth Taylor Warner was going down the same path during this period, but the public just chalked it up to fried chicken and Jack Daniels. And while the press was far less hands-off toward public figures post-Watergate, we didn’t have social media and cell-phone cameras documenting their every move. So, it was a double whammy when Presley passed, that his huge prescription drug dependency was then revealed.
|Kurt Russell as Las Vegas Elvis, where the film begins and ends.|
There’s no mention of Presley’s drug problem in Elvis. Carpenter cleverly makes allusions to it by way of his mother Gladys. She suffered from depression, drank and took pills to calm her nerves. Gladys died at 46 when Elvis was just 23. Many, including myself, believe this was a huge blow that altered his life. Gladys died Aug. 14, 1958; Elvis died Aug. 16, 1977 at age 42.
|Kurt Russell in a scene as Elvis Presley, with little Lisa Marie.|
A criticism leveled at the 2022 Elvis is that it doesn’t deal with Presley’s later women. Neither does this version, which awkwardly ends with his 1970 live performing comeback. Also, I’m not sure why country/Elvis tribute performer Ronnie McDowell was chosen to sing for the Elvis soundtrack. Was this over possible legal issues with record companies or manager Colonel Tom Parker? McDowall does a fine job imitating him, but most of the time you’re aware it’s not Presley singing.
|Kurt Russell as pre-stardom Elvis Presley, with lighter hair.|
Of course, Kurt as Elvis IS the show. And I’d give Russell an A- as Elvis. Kurt Russell is one of the most engaging of actors, so he’s perfect for Presley, who was renowned for his warmth and charm. His first time up at bat in a big dramatic role, and Kurt pretty much hits it out of the park. In a tricky role that could come across like an impersonator, Russell brings his sincerity to the role of Elvis. Presley was open in his emotions as a family guy and entertainer, and Russell embraces this wholeheartedly. His own boyish humor matches Presley’s. Kurt also has the advantage of looking a good bit like the real Elvis, with the same basic build. When Kurt’s Elvis dyes his hair jet black, the effect is striking. And later, Russell fills out the required jumpsuit just fine.
|Kurt Russell as Elvis in action.|
The film’s stylists do a great job in creating Kurt’s look as Presley, going from dirty blond rockabilly to Hollywood GI to ‘60s superstar. They only get ahead of themselves when they have Kurt looking like big hair and shades Elvis when he’s still in late ‘60s mode, when he and Priscilla are first married.
|Kurt Russell as Elvis at Graceland.|
On the minus side, Russell’s musical impersonation of Elvis does leave a bit to be desired: energetic but unmusical, obviously lip-synching, and sporting pretty fake guitar moves. Much of this is hidden with camera angles, so that helps. To everyone’s credit, this film was shot in 30 days, unlike the latest “Elvis” extravaganza. He also didn’t have the musical background of the current Elvis, Austin Butler, or the equal time to musically hone his Presley. Interestingly, the ’79 Elvis runs just 10 minutes longer than the 2022 Elvis! Overall, Kurt Russell gives one of the most believable Elvis Presley screen performances.
|Bing Russell as Elvis' dad Vernon Presley was Kurt's real-life father.|
Most of the casting is quite good. Veteran character actor Bing Russell is the long-suffering Vernon Presley, who happens to be Kurt’s dad! And he gives a solid performance. Shelley Winters is perfectly cast as Gladys Presley. Winters is more restrained here than other roles of this period. Her trademark doleful demeanor and woeful, whining delivery are perfect for Gladys, who suffered a lot in her short life and found Elvis’ cataclysmic fame hard to take. Shelley also brings working class warmth to her awe at Elvis’ lavish gifts and their new home at Graceland. Winters and Russell’s mother-son scenes together are a highlight.
|Shelley Winters is well-cast as Elvis' mother, Gladys Presley. With Kurt Russell.|
What a shame that Pat Hingle has so few scenes as Colonel Tom Parker. Hingle, often cast as the crass villain, is used for that persona, apparently. I’m sure the producers knew if they went too far in depicting Parker, they’d have a law suit on their hands.
|A missed opportunity: Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker, who was reduced |
to a cameo. This is probably because Elvis' infamous manager was still alive!
‘80s actor Robert Gray, who plays life-time Presley pal Red West, is very good here. Joe Mantegna has one of his first roles as road manager Joe Esposito. Ellen Travolta is the gal at Sun Records who believes in Elvis. Ed Begley, Jr. is musician D.J. Fontana. And Breaking Away’s Dennis Christopher has a cameo as actor Nick Adams.
|Season Hubley as Priscilla Presley, who didn't get the same makeover as Kurt Russell |
did portraying Elvis!
However, Season Hubley is hard to believe as Priscilla for the same reason the current actress, Olivia DeJonge, who plays her now: both are slim and angular, where as young Priscilla was curvy and soft, very Elizabeth Taylor-esque. And the stylists, who get Russell’s Elvis quite well, back off on the big hair and makeup that Priscilla wore at Presley’s request. So it’s hard to buy Hubley as Elvis’ baby doll bride. Plus, she seems uptight throughout, whereas the real Priscilla seemed more laid back in photos and videos. Also, both Hubley and Russell were 27 when they played the Presleys. The difference was Priscilla was just 14 when she met Elvis, who was then 24. So Hubley in a pinafore is a bit of an eye roll.
|Hubley as the 14-year-old Priscilla Presley, pinafore and all.|
Some of the scenes in Elvis drag on much longer than they need to. A perfect example is when Hubley’s Priscilla makes it plain to Russell’s Presley that she can live on her own, if need be. This is followed by a scene with her practicing karate by herself. This scene capper doesn’t build at all, it just goes on and on, and finally just goes to the next scene.
There’s probably never going to be the definitive Elvis Presley film. To tell the whole truth, it’s going to take a major documentary or mini-series about Elvis. In the meantime, the 2022 Elvis offers a visual wow about Presley the performer who got crushed under stardom, and the 1979 Elvis is more a straight up but muted look at the life of Elvis. Bottom line, both films boast two fine Elvis Presleys.
|A great shot of Kurt Russell as early Elvis Presley.|
Here’s a tribute I wrote about Elvis Presley and one of his best vehicles, Loving You: https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2019/08/elvis-presley-fans-still-loving-you-1957.html