Elvis Presley: the decline and fall
ELVIS IN HOLLYWOOD: TROUBLE IN PARADISE BY IAN JOHNSTON
John Lennon stated that Elvis died when he joined the US Army, but it was Hollywood that really finished off Elvis Aaron Presley, the ”ËKing of Rock ”ËN’ Roll’.
June, 1967. The Summer Of Love is in full swing. Israel is victorious in the six-day war against the Arab states. ”ËRolling Thunder’, America’s bombing offensive against North Vietnam is at “optimum force.”Â General Westmoreland urges President Johnson to put the US economy on a wartime footing. John Boorman’s Point Blank and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde capture the mood. The Velvet Underground & Nico had been released in March, 1967. The anti-war hippy counter-culture is rallying around The Beatles psychedelic opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
But what of the man who had inspired The Beatles, and the whole white pop culture revolution, with his incendiary mid-1950’s Sun recordings: an iconic sex symbol figure that had indelibly shaped the course of mankind’s affairs in the mid-20th century. The man they called ”ËThe King’. Elvis Aaron Presley is on MGM’s Culver City lot making Speedway, the twenty-eighth motion picture of his career. Elvis is playing Steve Grayson, “a kinda singing millionaire-playboy-race-driver.”Â White mini-dressed I.R.S. agent Susan Jacks, played by Nancy Sinatra, is investigating Steve Grayson. Petula Clark had turned down the role. Steve Grayson sings of the joys of paying taxes and then wins a big race in order to pay off the government. Between incessant amphetamine binges and re-reading The Physician’s Desk Reference and Cheiro’s Book Of Numbers, Presley spends hours ”Ëdry humping’ Frank Sinatra’s daughter in his trailer. To quote the title of Presley’s former bodyguards 1977 book, by Red and Sonny West and Dave Hebler, “as told to Steve Dunleavy”Â; Elvis, What Happened?
Elvis and Hollywood was an accident just waiting to happen. Elvis loved movies, idolising the actors James Dean and Marlon Brando, but he always had trouble distinguishing screen fantasy from reality. “I have always said that it’s lucky he wasn’t around when the movie Scarface came out, or that would have been a really tough year,”Â his half-brother David Stanley has commented. Elvis’ slothfulness and incapability to take control of his own destiny, combined with his prodigious predilections for Dexedrine, Benzedrine, Percodan, hamburgers and young girls, would prove a near fatal combination in the illusion capital of Tinseltown.
In April 1956, the twenty-one year old ”ËMemphis Flash’ came to Hollywood triumphant. Elvis was the undisputed (at least by white society) ”ËKing of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, nearly a millionaire, a national phenomenon who drew an estimated audience of 54 million when he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. Presley was the first white artist to have a number one record on the Pop, Country and R&B charts, simultaneously. The only challenge left was the Silver Screen.
Elvis and his 300 pound carny manager, illegal Dutch immigrant ”ËColonel’ Tom Parker, believed that Rock ”ËN’ Roll was merely a passing fad and Hollywood could provide Presley with career longevity as a big buck star. Elvis had been vilified as a corrupter of youth, a hillbilly freak, but Presley craved respectability and wanted to become an accomplished actor. His idol, Dean Martin, had made the transition from stage to screen, and so would Elvis.
Hollywood wanted a piece of the action and in 1956 Elvis was the only game in town. Elvis held the key to the booming post-war youth markets purse strings. He was also a major weapon with which to fight the dreaded rise of the Lilliputian television screen, which was drawing audiences away from the dream palaces. A deal was struck with the veteran producer Hal B. Wallis, a seven-year, nonexclusive contract which would bring Elvis $100, 000 dollars for his first movie. Not bad for a former truck driver from Memphis. Wallis promised Elvis he would find him dramatic roles, but in a screen test he made sure he performed his hit version of Carl Perkins’ song, ”ËBlue Suede Shoes’. The producer praised his star’s acting abilities in the trade press, but in reality Elvis was just another commodity for sale to the highest bidder in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s America. Wallis, in an obvious moment of madness, even considered pairing Elvis with Jerry Lewis.
In 1956, the great studio head Darryl F. Zanuck abandoned his wife and rule of 20th Century Fox to live with his mistress in Europe. This was the studio to which Wallis ”Ëloaned’ Presley for his first picture, Love Me Tender. Elvis Presley was the shock of the new, but Love Me Tender was an old-fashioned Western melodrama set in 1865. It was a little better than the rotten pictures other rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis were saddled with, and it recouped its million dollar budget within three days, but the writing was on the wall. For the first, and last time, Elvis died on screen. His character’s, Clint Reno, dying words were, “Everything’s gonna be all right.”Â It was not.
Elvis tried dating his screen sister, Debra Paget, but her mother made sure she kept seeing her other Hollywood suitor, Howard Hughes. Elvis was out of his league, but he still proposed marriage. Elvis would never get over his fruitless obsession with Paget and he would eventually marry a young girl, Priscilla Ann Beaulieu, who could have been her twin.
In 1956 and 1957, while making his second and third films, Loving You and Jailhouse rock, Elvis hung around Hollywood with Rebel Without A Cause stars Natalie Wood, Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams, a former ”Ëroom-mate’ of James Dean’s. Elvis would brag about “eating”Â Miss Wood’s “pussy”Â to his Memphis buddies/bodyguards. Hollywood had introduced The King to oral sex. Wood threatened suicide over the affair. “We started calling her the ”ËMad Nat’,”Â recalled Elvis bodyguard Larmar Fike, who once pulled her from a window ledge. “She was nuttier than a fruit cake.”Â Adams, who died in 1968 from an overdose of Paraldehyde and tranquilizers, would obtain copious amounts of prescription drugs for Elvis. The pattern of Elvis’ twilight Hollywood lifestyle was forming.
In May 1960, a new era was dawning and the Kennedy’s were pursuing the presidency. Elvis was on the Paramount lot making his fifth movie, G.I. Blues, directed by Norman Taurog who won an Oscar for Skippy in 1931. After being drafted into the U.S. Army in West Germany for two years (where he met his jailbait bride to be), coupled with the blow of the death of his beloved mother Gladys in 1958, Elvis sort isolation from the real world. His ”ËMemphis Mafia’ bodyguards would insure he got it. So would Hollywood.
Apart from soundtracks, Elvis’ recording career came to a virtual standstill during the 1960’s. Elvis had to full his contractual obligation for three soundtrack albums per year. It was not profitable to include cover versions of other singers’ hits in films, and Hollywood’s composer’s guild would not allow members to write on spec, so Presley’s Hill and Range Music Publishers would have to deliver the material. Their stable of Tin Pan Alley composers were shown the movie scripts and set to work. The shocking result was that Elvis would be singing such excruciatingly dismal songs, such as ”Ë(There’s) No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car’, ”ËQueenie Wahine’s Papaya’, ”ËA Dog’s Life’, ”ËThe Bullfighter Was A Lady’ and ”ËYoga Is As Yoga Does’, for nearly a decade.
The former ”ËHillbilly Cat’ was fast becoming an all round family entertainer. Even Frank Sinatra, who had spoken publically of his loathing of Presley and his music, had welcomed his return from the army with a TV show Elvis special, which would earn Elvis $125,000 dollars. However, The Chairman of The Board was furious when word leaked out that Elvis was screwing his young girlfriend, actress Juliet Prowse, on the G.I. Blues set.
G.I. Blues would be the first formulaic Presley musical picture, but it would not be the last. The one exception was his following picture, Flaming Star. This was a straight drama directed by the celebrated Don Siegel, featuring Elvis as Pacer Burton, a Red Indian half-breed at the centre of a small town race war in 1878. During filming Presley’s ”ËIt’s Now or Never’ was the number one single for twenty weeks. Eagar to boost box-office receipts, Twentieth Century Fox wanted Elvis to sing four songs in the movie, with one of them sung on horseback. Backed up by Siegel, Elvis refused and delivered one of his best screen performances of his entire career. “God, that boy had potential,”Â Siegel would ruefully recall. It was not realised.
Flaming Star did not lose money, but against the sort of profits the Colonel had become accustomed to it was a flop. Parker had always said that a Presley picture without songs would fail. In 1958, Robert Mitchum had wanted Presley for his classic film Thunder Road, but Parker had decreed that there was no way Elvis would play Mitchum’s brother, a bootlegger evading the law. Mitchum and Presley did meet. Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. “Here’s the fuckin’ script,”Â Mitchum told the teetotal Presley. “Let’s get together and do it.”Â Elvis meekly replied that he could not do the picture without the Colonel’s permission. “Fuck the Colonel. I’m talking to you!”Â bellowed Mitchum. Eventually, Mitchum’s son, Jim, would get the part that might have changed the whole trajectory of Presley’s career and life.
The Colonel knew what the public wanted: bright colours, exotic locations, cute animals, big breasted girls clad in bikini’s doing the Go-Go and Elvis incessantly dancing and singing novelty numbers. In 1961, the public got it. In Blue Hawaii Elvis was cast as Chad Gates, singing heir to a pineapple fortune who wants to prove he can make it on his own as a Hawaiian tourist guide. The soundtrack, featuring such execrable fare as ”ËIto Eats’ and ”ËKu-U-I-Po’, shifted three million units. In the last six weeks of 1961 the film Blue Hawaii made two million dollars. Through 1962 the total gross was 4.7 million dollars. The colossal success of Blue Hawaii spelt the end of Presley’s hopes of a serious acting career for good. The course was now set for Elvis to continue appearing in such rank cinematic atrocities as Tickle Me (1965), Harum Scarum (1965) and Live A Little, Love A Little (1968). “There were never any story conferences,”Â admitted Gerald Drayson Adams, the man who wrote both Kissing Cousins and Harum Scarum. “They consisted of money ”â the first act, the second act, the third act, money. They were all conducted by Colonel Parker.”Â
To the outside world gazing at Follow That Dream (1962), Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), Fun In Acapulco and Kissing Cousins (1964), it appeared that a once potent sex symbol of the 1950’s had been castrated by Hollywood. Elvis looked stiff, trapped by celluloid. All his famous eccentricities had been reduced to prescribed features. His skin had a synthetic texture. His hair, once his Samson ”âlike crowning glory, glistening thick pomade raked into thick locks, now looked like poured tar. In the increasingly bland movies Elvis would be the man who acted as a chaperon to pretty girls, who would firmly tell wanton teenagers; “I don’t rob cradles.”Â That was the Presley Hollywood image. The City Of Angels appearance was a lie.
If Elvis could not make the films that he wished to, then he was going to have a riot making those he was ordered to make. With Priscilla hidden in waiting within the secure confines of Graceland mansion by 1963, Presley and his Mafia would begin travelling in a continuous circle from Memphis to Hollywood to Palm Springs. Elvis was charging through a seemingly endless series of movies as a pill-guzzling somnambulist, quite literally speeding through one scene to the next; possibly disgusted with himself and what he had to do, anxious to escape as soon as he could.
Elvis may have hated the films, but Girls! Girls! Girls! made 2.6 million dollars within four weeks. The Presley films were aimed at a family audience. The man who made them, together with his dark suited companions and servants, who attended his every need and whim, were living a decadent life of wild parties, continuous sex, pill popping and over eating. Elvis Presley’s retinue were practicing barbaric vulgarism on a scale of which even Hollywood had never seen before. Elvis’ life was an X-rated version of his celluloid output that should have been filmed by Russ Meyer.
Elvis and The Memphis Mafia had already been asked to vacate their first Hollywood base, the Beverly Wilshire hotel. A crazed Elvis had thrown a guitar at bodyguards Red and Sonny West, missing an elderly resident of the hotel by inches. The Colonel was furious; “You want to kill off your career? Do you want your fans to think you’re some kind of wild man?”Â
The Colonel demanded that Presley and The Memphis Mafia move to a more secluded location: 565 Perugia Way, Bel-Air, Elvis’ home from home for most of his Hollywood years. The house, once owned by the Shah of Iran and Rita Hayworth, was furnished with deep white carpeting, a low red bordello-style lighting system, a jukebox and a large two-way mirror, behind which The King could enjoy his voyeuristic masturbation sessions watching his men fornicate with an endless succession of teenage girls. Elvis seldom left the house. He did not need to. The women, including stars such as Tuesday Weld, Joan Blackman and Connie Stevens, would come to him.
“We would have parties seven nights a week,”Â Mafia man Richard Davis would recollect. “There were seldom less than one hundred girls in the house. It wasn’t uncommon for some of us to sleep with five women in a night. We were all very young, and Hollywood had a bad influence on us. You gotta remember, we were all country guys.”Â
A star performer at these sessions was Scatter, a pet chimpanzee that Elvis had taught to drink Scotch and lift up girl’s skirts, sticking his head into their crotches. When Scatter was in the mood, he would spin on his stool at the bar and start furiously masturbating into some unsuspecting girl’s face. Elvis would encourage frequent party visitor Brandi Marlo to role around on the floor with Scatter, pretending to have sex with the ape. Elvis would cry with laughter. Most nights at around 2.00 A.M Elvis would sidle away from the throng to his regal master bedroom. Two or three girls would follow, eager to indulge in any sex game fantasy he wished to enact. Now, thanks to Hollywood, they were a reality.
The parties became the focal point of Elvis’ life and they were not always confined to Bel-Air. Filming It Happened At The World’s Fair during 1963, Elvis and his men bivouacked in the penthouse suite of Seattle’s New Washington Hotel. The hotel management were told to open the doors, letting hundreds of girls who had been waiting outside run in. “ Then the guys would walk around and choose the beauties, “ remembered It Happened At The World’s Fair co-star, Gary Lockwood. “I’m not saying every girl who went up there got laid. But there’s no question that some of them might have to do some tall fucking during the night.”Â
Though thousands of young girls were guests at the parties throughout the Hollywood years, there was never one who would recount her experiences to the press. Their parents would have been horrified and no reporter or editor then working in Hollywood would risk his job publishing any scandalous stories during this period. The Colonel would see to that. Elvis’ reputation was safe.
Elvis turned thirty in 1965. He could command one million dollars a film, plus 50% percent of the profits. The King would earn five million dollars for his three movies that year. Presley’s eighteen films to date had made $150 million dollars. His 1965 picture, Tickle Me, concerning the exploits of a rodeo rider at an all female beauty spa, Lonnie Beale, who marries a physical instructor (British starlet Jocelyn Lane) and finds a billion dollars worth of gold, was appalling. Yet Tickle Me saved production company Allied Artist’s from complete collapse. Despite MGM’s claims that his films would sell, even if they were just numbered, Elvis knew they were getting weaker.
In June 1965, while the U.S. 173d Airborne Brigade launched a major offensive northeast of Saigon, Elvis was busy cutting ”ËPetunia, The Gardener’s Daughter’ for the Frankie And Johnny soundtrack.
Elvis Presley’s debauched lifestyle was beginning to show on screen. He looked chubby, which did not escape the notice of the press. The more depressed Elvis became the more he ate. He would then seek solace in a cocktail of Dexamil, Percodan, Placidyl and Seconal. The party was inexorably coming to an end.
“Hell, I don’t want to meet those fucking sons of bitches!”Â screamed Elvis, when the Colonel informed him that The Beatles were to visit 565 Perugia Way. By 1965, The Beatles had sold 19 million singles. Elvis felt threatened. He had seen this so-called ”ËBritish Invasion’ on TV and he did not like the look of it. “Look at that motherfucker,”Â Elvis had exclaimed, as he watched Mick Jagger performing on The Dean Martin Show. “Doesn’t he look like a faggot?”Â
On 27th August 1965, two weeks before the Watts riots, The Beatles arrived at 565 Perugia Way. As always, Elvis had acquiesced to the Colonel’s wishes. The atmosphere was tense. The Beatles were so in awe that they just sat in silence, until Elvis told them that he was going to bed unless they spoke. After a half-hearted jam session, John Lennon had the temerity to ask The King why he did not go back to making his old style of records. After a long silence, Presley said he was going into the studio “to do something really interesting.”Â In fact, he was recording the diabolical ”ËA Dog’s Life’ and ”ËSand Castle’ for the Paradise Hawaiian Style soundtrack. When The Beatles left, Elvis said nothing. Years later, he would tell President Richard Nixon that The Beatles had corrupted the youth of the nation.
September 1966. U.S.B-52 bombers were carpet-bombing North Vietnam for the first time. On the set of his twenty-third film, Easy Come, Easy Go Elvis’ weight was the subject of alarmed memos between Hal Wallis, the Colonel and Paramount. “The clothes keep getting tighter and tighter, and our hero fatter and fatter, “ remarked Easy Come, Easy Go director John Rich. “Navy men aren’t supposed to be fat,”Â opined Paramount executive Paul Nathan, referring to Elvis’ character, a Navy frogman called Ted Jackson, who was hunting for sunken treasure, being confused by counter-culture activities such as body painting, saving a community art centre and singing at the Easy-Go-Go club in his spare time.
Hal Wallis objected to Presley’s hair (“It’s beginning to look like a wig”Â) and the very poor box office receipts for Frankie And Johnny. Wallis would not renew his producers contract. Further humiliation would follow, as the Presley pictures budgets were slashed by a succession of hack producers.
1968. The Viet Cong Tet offensive erupts throughout South Vietnam, Andy Warhol is producing Blue Movie, Robert Kennedy is assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan and the Elvis picture Speedway is released.
The same month as the My Lai Massacre of 102 South Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops, March 1968, Elvis was discussing his twenty-sixth movie, Stay Away , Joe. “He’s part Hud, part Alfie,”Â he said of his Red Indian character, Joe Lightcloud. Elvis was deluding himself. This was a picture in which he would sing to Dominick the bull, a pet that would be eaten by drunken Indians who mistook him for a cow. A subsequent movie, Live A Little, Love A Little, in which he was pursed by a man-hungry and deranged Michele Carey and her Great Dane, was only notable because Elvis uttered ”Ëdammit”Â on screen and for the original song ‘A Little Less Conversation’. Live A Little, Love A Little appropriately contained a cod-psychedelic rock number entitled, ”ËThe Edge of Reality’.
Even the Colonel realised that the formula Elvis picture was over. In desperation, Charro!, an imitation Spaghetti Western melodrama, started shooting in July 1968. The finished picture, with its Z-grade production values, nonsensical plot and scenes of violence that made The High Chaparral TV show look like The Wild Bunch, Charro! was another cinematic catastrophe. Though two more 1969 musical films would come after Charro! -The Trouble with Girls (and How to Get Into It) and Change Of Habit ”â Elvis’ Hollywood career was finished in an ignominious fashion.
Hollywood had made The King Of Rock ”ËN’ Roll a total anachronism, “the Bing Crosby of The Sixties.”Â Elvis had not had a number one record since 1962. His 1967 movie Clambake, in which Elvis played a wealthy young man pretending to be an ordinary Miami Beach ski instructor and Flipper the dolphin had a cameo, made only 1.6 million dollars. It had cost 1.4 million. Ingesting massive amounts of pills during filming, Elvis had fallen and cracked his head on a bathtub. Out cold, he was only just received by a doctor with an oxygen machine. Due to Hollywood, Elvis’ entire career, even his life, balanced on a knife-edge.
Salvation for Elvis came from an unlikely quarter. In January 1968, the Colonel had decided that Elvis should return to television, for a Christmas Special to be shown at he end of the year. The Colonel thought the NBC Show, to be filmed in June, should be called “Elvis and the Wonderful World of Christmas.”Â Wearing a tuxedo, Elvis would sing carols centre stage, while a procession of gleeful Santas and elves would prance around him. Fortunately for Presley, the show’s producer and director, Steve Binder, had a very different concept.
Steve Binder wanted to rejuvenate Presley and show the world he was still a potent force in popular music. He firmly vetoed the Colonel’s “Elvis and the Wonderful World of Christmas”Â idea and showed Elvis was fame was fleeting by walking him down Sunset Boulevard. Elvis thought he would be mobbed. Not one passer-by acknowledged The King.
Spurred on by Binder, Elvis for the first time in his life stood up to the Colonel. Presley embraced Binder’s vision that he should return to his roots, with a performance in front of a live audience, based upon blues, rockabilly and gospel. Dressed in tight black leather suit, cheered on by a near-hysterical crowd, Elvis would give the performance of his life for Binder’s cameras. Jamming with Scotty Moore and friends, through old hits such as ”ËOne Night’ and ”ËLawdy, Miss Clawdy’ in the NBC Burbank studio, Elvis regained the animal magnetism and power that had seemed lost for ever. The show would be the most watched TV Special of 1968.
In an up beat mood after the show, Presley gave Binder his personal number and told him to keep in touch. Later, when Binder tried to call Elvis, he could never get past the Memphis Mafia who answered the phone. Elvis had withdrawn from the world once more.
Elvis’ television success had acted as a launch pad for his reincarnation as a Las Vegas performer. At first, the move produced many of his finest recordings and concerts. Then, as this Vegas circuit turned into an even more gruelling routine than his seemly perpetual cycle of movies, Elvis would lapse back into an almost pathological course of self-destruction. In leaving Hollywood for Vegas, Elvis had merely exchanged one city of false illusions for another. Only this time there would be no further resurrection for Elvis Aaron Presley, the sad embodiment of the Hollywood American Dream.