'Elvis' Best Performances'

- In the Movies -

- Spotlight by Harley Payette

-EIN contributor Harley Payette selects his favourite Elvis dramatic movie performances.

Click here for Elvis June 2006 'Film Month' on EIN

Click here for EIN's 'Celluloid Elvis'

Click here for EIN's 'A Fan's Guide To Elvis Movies'

Could it be possible that Elvis, the actor, really created something special in movies such as 'The Trouble With Girls' or 'Follow That Dream'?


Elvis expert Harley Payette chooses his favourite eight Elvis dramatic performances and wonders where it all went wrong.

I have always said that Elvis could act. Maybe that dooms me to fanaticism but I believe there is a large element of truth to that belief. The performances I've listed below I think prove my contention.

These are I believe Elvis's strongest moments on film. These are not the eight best Elvis films in my opinion but his best acting performances.

1. "Follow That Dream" This one is always overlooked when critics jump to Elvis' defense because comedy is underrated. Elvis here is very funny. His portrayal is not at all broad and he does a terrific job of convincing us that he is something that he definitely was not- a country bumpkin. Even more though he has to convince that his character is not a complete fool and not letting his naievete overshadow some cunning instincts. Aided immeasurably by a fine script, Elvis also delivers a convincing dramatic monologue to climax the movie.

1962's 'Follow That Dream' & the drama of 1958 and 'King Creole'

2. "King Creole" A conventional choice perhaps but Elvis hits all of his lines convincingly and a broad range of emotion. There's a level of introspection in Elvis character and he brings a level of natural ease to the role that he doesn't have even in "Jailhouse Rock" where his line readings are erratic although he is very convincing. The angry edge of his character is very exciting here. The only debit is his James Dean knockoff on the boat ("I'm all mixed up.")

3. "Stay Away Joe" Lost in one of Elvis' all-time worst movies, Elvis' great performance is lost even amongst die hard fans. Elvis is completely animated in a performance filled with energy. Arguably, his most physical performance and a performance where his reactions are completely in the moment and in some ways innovative. I have often commented on the scene where Elvis lights a cigar and reaches into LQ Jones pocket for a match. It's a spontaneous gesture that tells you all need to know about the relationship between the two characters. This choice is something that comes either from the actor or the director not the script. Either way it's a level of realism that is not reflected in many movie performances. 

Overall Director Peter Tewksbury who did such a fine job on "Trouble with Girls" did a terrible job here. The decision to underline gags with goofy musical sound effects was disastrous. Also, Tewksbury's work with actors is off and on. Elvis, Katy Jurado, LQ Jones and Blondell are all terrific. Burgess Meredith though gives what is possibly the worst performance of his otherwise fine career. And the amateurs like Quentin Deand and Sonny West come off as amateurs. To be fair to Tewksbury, the script probably needed a few more tuneups before it hit the screen & nothing is really developed until the third act as the first two thirds of the movie consist of one long party.


Left, the drama of 'Flaming Star', versus the comedy of 'Stay Away, Joe'

4. "Flaming Star" This is the big one. Elvis is very exciting in a largely non-singing role. His facial expressions are marvelous, particularly the stunned look he gives at the general store when he is threatened by his former friend. He does many things right here. The dramatic monologue where he confesses his feelings towards the racism he has lived with for most of his life is flawless and heartrending. But the little touches are there as well, the slightly arched eyebrow when he tells his dad he didn't tell him about the new chief because he didn't ask. The trembling and nervous mumble when he tells the young girl he won't hurt her. And of course, his scenes of violent bravado, many stemming from his sense of inferiority.

This would be number one except for the fact that many of his scenes with the indians are marred by his stilted dialect as if he had to match their broken English. This may be a period flaw but it's a flaw nonetheless.

5. "The Trouble With Girls" This may be a surprising choice for some but I feel Elvis shows real growth here as an actor. To me it's one of my favorite performances because Elvis is trying to step outside himself and interpret the role in the way he would interpret a song. He's creating a character instead of occupying one and there's a real level of thoughtfulness in his portrayal. In many scenes he let's us see what's going on inside of the character's head. I especially like the scene where he pursues the murderress. He swings his arms with an air of false casualness, and his eyes are always on her reacting to her movements. There are several blink and you miss them gestures where Elvis is tipping us in on how his wheels are turning.
There is also one of my favorite bits of Elvis movie dialogue. Mason tells him about how she agrees with what he said about talent. Instead of saying "really" or agreeing or taking it as a compliment, Elvis asks "What'd I say?" This is a nice realistic touch in the screenplay.

I think Elvis' performance has suffered in the estimation of some fans because there are big dramatic scenes and Elvis is in the background for a large part of the movie. But he does well with what he has and I find it a very suggestive performance.


(Right: 'The Trouble With Girls')

6. "Wild in the Country" This one would rank higher but Clifford Odets' over the top speeches would wear down any actor. Still, Elvis is amazingly delicate, especially in his scenes with Hope Lange. I love the sly quality he brings to the scenes with Tuesday Weld and the guy who plays her father where he slowly reveals that he's a lot smarter than they think he is.

'Wild In The Country' left, & the iconic 'Jailhouse Rock'

7. "Jailhouse Rock" A few of his lines are tossed off but he is full of explosive charisma throughout the movie and it's probably his best expression of punk defiance on film. He is thoroughly convincing as a bad ass.

8. "Girl Happy" My final selection and another Elvis performance that gets dismissed because it was not a good movie. Elvis though is full of fun and is very expressive physically. Look at his reaction at Gary Crosby's question about why he cares so much about Shelly Fabares. Elvis has no dialogue and has to get it across with a look and does. Look at the genuine sense of fun he brings to the scene where he gets Romano kicked out of the hotel. Look at his stunned surprise when Harold J. Stone blows smoke in his face in the final scene.

My favorite though has to be his line readings in the scene where he's convincing Big Frank to send him and the boys down to Fort Lauderdale. "My father sent me down there... slight nervous pause- to bring my sister back." His timing is perfect.

It's actually the fact that "Girl Happy" is a bad movie that makes me put it ahead of other contenders like "Change of Habit" or "Loving You" as Elvis does something with nothing here. In those movies he had a semi-character to play. "Girl Happy" is fun to watch simply because Elvis engages us.

(Right: 'Girl Happy')

Click here for review of FTD Soundtrack 'Girl Happy'

Of course in other films there are also many great bits and signs that Elvis could have hit the mark as an actor. For instance in "Change of Habit" there's a scene I love where Elvis makes a quick come on to Mary Tyler Moore and gets rebuffed. He expresses his embarrassment by rapping his pen on the table. That's a nice little actor's bit.

Looking back at Elvis' film performances you have to wonder what happened to Hal Wallis between 1958 and 1960. In 1958, he cast Elvis in a gritty star-filled adaptation of a seedy novel. There was every reason to think he could be a musical James Dean. Two years later, he wanted a new Bing Crosby. Were "King Creole's" box office numbers that much of a drop-off from the first three films? The positive reviews alone should have been enough to merit more experiments. Perhaps he had negotiations with Parker about making Elvis the All-American Boy.

Parker must bear the ultimate blame though for Elvis' artistic demise. He was offered many, many interesting roles and Parker turned them all down including L&S's "Walk on the Wild Side" proposal (Elia Kazan and Bud Schulberg and an L&S score oh my gosh), "Midnight Cowboy", "West Side Story" and "The Defiant Ones".

Part of me thinks Parker wanted Elvis in bad movies because

A) He saw Elvis' public as cattle that wouldn't respond to a quality product or would respond equally to cheap junk as it would to quality

B) It made him look better as a manager.

After all if he was selling junk and it was selling big, he could take all the credit.


This Spotlight written by EIN contributor Harley Payette.
-Copyright, June 2006

Click to comment on this article.

Also check out Harley Payette's other fascinating spotlights.
Click here for . .

The Real Failure of Elvis' Movie Career

'Love Me Tender' Special Edition DVD review

'Blue Hawaii' the movie, an in-depth review

Elvis' Musical Legacy, A Complete Body Of Work

Elvis That's The Way It Is - the original vs the recut.

Burning Love - Classic or Parody?

The Schism Between Elvis' Stage & Studio work.

A Kick Upwards for Elvis' Movies

Thoughts On Elvis in Vegas

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Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
Elvis Presley, Elvis and Graceland are trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises.
The Elvis Information Network has been running since 1986 and is an EPE officially recognised Elvis fan club.

EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
Elvis Presley, Elvis and Graceland are trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises.
The Elvis Information Network has been running since 1986 and is an EPE officially recognised Elvis fan club.















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