Monday, May 20, 2024

The Story of the Two Wolves: How Coppola and Luhrmann Imagined Two Different Elvises

I hesitated for so long before writing this essay, for one, because comparing two performances is a bizarre thing to do, especially without bias. It’s not like science where people can measure quantities and moderate time to create the perfect equation. We are comparing art, performances, and acting, which is always a tricky thing to execute.

The topic has been crossing my mind for a long time, though. See, from 2022 till late 2023, Elvis Presley was everything people were talking about. And for good reason, Presley, like Michael Jackson, galvanized the people of his time but ultimately became a somewhat controversial figure as times progressed. He was a successful rock and roll artist, had a Kardashian-worthy televised real life that added to his brand –Colonel Tom Parker was probably a PR genius before someone laid the rules for PR techniques- and his whole life was a rollercoaster of huge triumphs and disasters. 

To the outsider, Elvis Presley was one of the pop culture images that represented the American dream; a life of excess, sexuality that struggled with expression in light of religious piety, a matriarchy washed in overt masculinity, and flamboyance that insisted on a hypermasculine image. Presley was as polarizing and confusing as America, this dazzling nation, not just to non-Americans but Americans themselves. As far as controversial figures went, he was the typical rock and roll artist; a tormented musician, harboring dark secrets of his own, living a hectic, wild life that ultimately culminated in his early demise.

I fervently defended Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, especially during the 2022 award season. I thought Austin Butler’s performance was brilliant, and he deserved the Best Actor Academy Award despite all the respect I had for Brendan Fraser. That year felt like a fever dream for cinephiles. It reignited my passion and love for cinema, and it allowed me to rediscover Elvis Presley as a singer. I started compiling playlists and listening to them on my way to work or the gym or on busy traffic days. I immersed myself in the Black music that Elvis borrowed –or stole from- in the movie and his life. I remember striking up conversations with strangers on Twitter; film critics, cinephiles, and Elvis fans, and we were all wondering what had happened. Did we succumb to a mass hallucinogenic experience when we went to the movie theater that year? What did Luhrmann give us when he introduced us to this movie?

So, when Sofia Coppola announced she was making Priscilla, I was skeptical, to say the least. I wasn’t familiar with Jacob Elordi’s work beyond Euphoria –although to be honest, I hadn’t even heard of Butler until Elvis in 2022- and I thought it was too early to revisit a character already iconized by one actor in the same decade. But I was excited that there would be another film focused on the woman’s POV. We would finally get Elvis’s ex-wife’s story and see other aspects of this vibrant man’s life, maybe a different aura of his energy.

This was until I watched Priscilla and Elordi exceeded my expectations to the extent of making me hate Elvis. I saw the dark side of him; a spoiled, freaky individual with an Oedipal complex and intense mood swings. In Coppola’s eyes, Elvis was an obsessive man, a groomer, and an insecure artist incapable of making decisions on his own or of listening to people who dared defy him. 

It struck me as odd how I could love both versions of Elvis when they were opposites. I was surprised at how I found that both actors did well with what they were given. Admittedly, Butler was more carnivalistic and exposed, and that garnered him –especially due to the biopic film medium – award accolades and a movie star status. But it should be noted that Elordi benefited a lot from Priscilla as well, and his entry into Hollywood –combined with his careful PR campaigning as the giant sultry seductress in Saltburn– gave him a place among the movie stars he was far away from, trapped in TV land.

The actors’ approaches to Elvis couldn’t be more different. While Butler took the route of studying, dedicating, understanding, and loving the man beneath the sequins and the glitter; Elordi seemed to carefully detach himself from the Presley image, choosing to dismiss the whole thing as a joke, and showing clear disinterest in Elvis as a performer or a rock icon. He was chill and relaxed in playing a dark man, tormented by grief and all the isolation that celebrity life brings. Butler performed from a supra-identity, something above the present, a higher self over the already established star image of Presley. Of course, credit should also be given to both directors because their approaches in structuring both Elvises were polarizing and fascinating to watch.

Coppola approached Elvis and Priscilla through an ultra-feminist lens. She hated Elvis and didn’t show him in any positive light. Her lighting and camera angles shot this giant beast who snatched the delicate dove Priscilla from her young, sheltered life. She saw him from an unsympathetic lens –no matter what she said, sorry Sofia, babe- and created a sinister presence that made me delete all his songs from my playlist. After Priscilla, I realized I wasn’t keen on watching any of his clips or his interviews. I wanted to get this man out of my head.

Luhrmann, on the other hand, molded an enigma of Elvis through Austin Butler. He wasn’t interested in giving Elvis darker dimensions as much as he was interested in deciphering the code of what makes an average man a star. What drove women wild after a man, chasing him wherever he went, going crazy over his tiniest bits, and obsessing over boring stuff like what he ate for breakfast, and who his parents were? He was trying to uncover one of the universal secrets. He needed an actor he could build his fascination over, thus came Butler and he was the perfect vessel for this transcendence. To make that movie, Luhrmann glossed over many of Presley’s shortcomings. He portrayed Elvis and Priscilla as two love birds when they were not. He didn’t dig deep at the creepy Gladys-Elvis relationship that Coppola masterfully showcased in Priscilla through Elvis’s brief hints at his mother, and her domineering photos all over Graceland. 

Instead of analyzing both perspectives, the media turned the ordeal into a bloodsport, pitting both actors against each other, but rarely making the comparison of seeking what the directors –the real masterminds behind both images- wanted to say through their movies.

The question that irked me after all that was whether I loved one movie over the other. Whether Elvis Presley still had a place in my heart after watching nauseating scenes of him seeking a child and grooming her later to be his wife in Priscilla, then rewatching Baz Luhrmann’s film and realizing it was so naïve and silly to show them as two same-age individuals, using Butler’s baby face features to match Olivia DeJonge’sdocile beauty. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint where things go wrong. I know Baz Luhrmann’s film will always be in my heart. The “Trouble” and “Baby Let’s Play House” performances, in particular, were electrifying, and watching them in the movie theater was almost psychedelic. I can’t say the same about Sofia Coppola’s film that I found thought-provoking and scary, like all her other saccharine-poison movies about women coming-of-age. I thought about Priscilla for hours and hours after finishing it and found it brilliant. It hurt my feminist soul to watch a young woman make her ultimate dream come true, only for her to realize that a dream involving a superstar would ultimately end up as a nightmare. She loved an image, not knowing she was marrying a whole system operating on storytelling, brand management, and spoiling a young man beyond recognition so that he becomes a ghost of a human being, a shell that will always feel empty, no matter how many pints of water are poured down his throat.

I will always love both films, and I find both actors very in command of what their roles demanded them to do. As I said goodbye to them, though, I realized what Elvis and Priscilla did to me. They turned me off biopics. For good!

Biopics are a tricky territory; for one, actors have to be faithful to the character they’re playing. Then, the director has to have a deeper message beyond outlining someone’s life from cradle to grave, to evade the “too boring, too archival” booby trap. Then, there’s the worry that the script cannot simply be faithful to the reality of things but also must be innovative. Additionally, there’s the landmine that actual people –the subject’s family or past lovers- might get hurt when the nature of their relationship is exposed. Biopics are a lot of work, and they are even more tiresome when people spend so much time promoting them based on the fact that the leading actor or actress embodied or became the character. It drives people, like me, insane, and somehow after the Elvis and Priscilla discourse, things have gone more sour, like they used up whatever remaining energy to enjoy a biopic without thinking too deeply about whether an actor truly got it or not. Not to mention how disappointing it was to shift camps from “Elvis the bird who was forced to fly forever, and whose marriage to Priscilla was like any other failed marriage culminating in jealousy and infidelity” to “Elvis the creep who groomed a 14-year-old girl to be his wife, preserving her virginity so that he would be the first one to touch her.” Vacillating between these two mindsets was truly exhausting and, as a cinephile, both experiences put out the fires in each other, even when Butler was brilliant in Elvis, and Elordi was convincing and menacing in Priscilla.

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