Elvis Presley is seen having little chats with his shadow in "Elvis!," the 3-hour ABC Sunday Night Movie, and viewers expecting all the gritty truth behind the pop legend will find that they are given little more than shadows to contemplate themselves. Unsatisfactory and unsatisfying, the film still has a built-in curiosity value that keeps it timidly entertaining.
ABC hopes to blow away "Gone With the Wind" and find out if one can tip over the "Cuckoo's Nest" with this attractive and shallow production, airing at 8 p.m. on Channel 7. It will be one of those nights when no network can really lose, however; with three tempting choices among them for once and with the weather Februarily abominable in much of the country, network TV can expect one of the hugest aggregate audiences in its history.
My inclination, all things being equal, would be to opt for CBS' "Gone with the Wind" again, partly on the grounds that the inevitable bowdlerization may be almost as injurious to NBC's premiere of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" as it was to ABC's vivisected "Taxi Driver" on a recent Sunday night.
But once having tuned in "Elvis!" one may be coaxed into staying with the show: not because it is well written and directed, since it emphatically is not, but because actor Kurt Russell in the title role seems practically possessed by Presley.
From the tentative sneer-smile to an occasional rolling shrug of shoulders to the brash, I-dare-you stance he strikes on stage, Russell has got Elvis down with uncanny accuracy, and what's more, makes the character vulnerable and dimensional despite all of writer Anthony Lawrence's efforts to stay regimentally reverential.
As a psychological study, this ragtag collection of real and imagined anecdotes has about as much depth and capacity for revelation as those tunechocked composer bios Hollywood turned out in the '40s. Elvis pouts, or has a tantrum, or misses his mama after she dies, but the script is at a loss for motivations or explanations. It's strictly mannequin characterization and doodle history.
Lawrence fabricates a few scenes that are meant to illuminate Presley's peculiar variety of cornpone angst, but these touches are hilariously amateurish and pat. One of the few scenes of his childhood shows Presley being taunted by another tot with "Crazy crazy mama's boy," to which Elvis responds: "I ain't! I ain't!" Then the kid gives him a preposterous slug to the chops -- a real Woody Hayeser that leaves him lying in the grass. When Presley comes to, he is an adult, still heavily into mother-love, but so what? As in most TV movies, the details accumulate but amount to a heap of nothing.
The film opens and closes with Elvis attempting his 1969 Las Vegas comeback, though Russell shows no signs of paunch, facial puffiness or tendency toward pill-popping, said to have plagued Presley at that point in his moribund career.
Certain scenes have poignance and electricity. Elvis tries on his first pink suit for a girlfriend and assumes the pose that became an icon just the way Marilyn Monroe did when she stepped onto an air shaft and her dress blew up to publicize "The Seven Year Itch." Rejected by a porky impresario in his bid to sing at the Grand Ole Opry, Presley's exhiliration at performing turns to despair; he runs back to his dressing room, smashes his guitar and rends his pretty-boy shirt. Russell brings every bit of power and conviction to these scenes that any imaginable actor could.
Season Hubley, as Priscilla, the girl Presley finally marries, has little to do but stand around and ask him not to go on tour again. After Elvis becomes a movie star, Lawrence inserts one outlandish exchange in which the couple is sitting in the front seat of a Cadillac and Elvis, turning soulfully toward Priscilla, murmurs an intimate: "You know, I really wish I'd get better scripts." The dialogue is littered with intimacies we doubt ever got intimated.
But in the first half of the film, Shelley Winters helps Russell carry the impossible load afflicted by the filmmakers with another of her performances so exposed and insistent that you have no choice but to embrace it. Though not the gosh or golly type, Winters brings a certain sparkle to cries of "Oh, Lordy, Elvis!" when he presents her with jewelry and Cadillacs and says things like: "You're the finest lady God ever put on this earth." And when he enlists in the Army and is about to be sent to Germany, she asks with striking pathos: "Germany? Where's that?"
The director of the film is John Carpenter, who made the profitable thriller "Halloween," a movie that America's smarter film critics tended to dislike and the dumber ones to adore. He does bring something approaching a flair to this project, but it approaches at the speed of mush. The narrative repeatedly bogs down in long, long, languid pans across rooms or from a mirror's reflection to the person who is sitting in front of it.
Carpenter tries primitively to suggest that Elvis was lonely and that all his riches and success only made him lonelier. It's the standard Hollywood "too much, too soon" cliche. What lurks beneath is a notion "Elvis!" doesn't dare entertain -- that this was a case of too much, too soon for too little. Elvis Presley had a minor talent at best, but he was lucky enough to come of age in a time of television, rock 'n' roll and mass mediamania, when sexual charisma could propel one to unprecedented celebrity.
Nor do the showbiz types who made "Elvis!" (Dick Clark -- ugh! -- was the executive producer) investigate the hype machinery that turns mortals like Elvis into pop gods. The hovering-spectre of Col. Tom Parker, played by Pat Hingle, really doesn't do much more than hover; he is never really shown pulling a single string, yet we know he was one of the craftiest merchandisers of them all.
"Elvis!" can't trash the merchandisers because it's a calculated piece of mercantilism itself. It fills its three network TV hours dutifully and with occasional glints of passion and insight, but it's as emotionally and dramatically credible as a bubble gum card, and with those you get more to chew on.