The King and His Court
Elvis Presley was the King of Rock’n’Roll. But he was also pioneered bad rock’n’roll movies. This article from the Jan/Feb 1992 issue of Movieline wasn’t credited, but the writing style is certainly that of Joe Queenan. The author establishes Elvis’ record for starring in movies that are as successful as they are bad and then runs through a list of rockers-turned-thespians who could give the King a run for his money.
There are certain records in the fields of entertainment, sports, finance and mass murder that are probably never going to be broken. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in a single basketball game, Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters, Joseph Stalin’s making millions of Russians disappear without anyone noticing and Steve Ross’s 1990 salary all fall into this category, as do sales of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, and Fritz Mondale’s amazing feat of capturing just one state out of 50 in the 1984 presidential election…
True, a Pete Rose, Michael Jordan or Michael Dukakis may from time to time come within striking distance of the accomplishments of Joltin’ Joe, The Big Dipper or Flailin’ Fritz, and an enthusiastic whippersnapper like Pol Pot may occasionally give Uncle Joe a run for his money, but when the dust has cleared, the records of the immortals are still pretty much intact. And so it is with Elvis Presley. Between 1956 and 1969, Elvis Presley, in his spare time while being the biggest rock ‘n’ roll star of all time, managed to make 31 of the worst movies in motion picture history, not counting two pretty dreary concert films. Even if we go easy on the guy and give passing grades to King Creole (Elvis as a druggist’s son), Flaming Star (Elvis as a half-breed) and Jailhouse Rock (Elvis as a guitarpickin’ convict), we are still face to face with an oeuvre staggering in its awfultude: Elvis as a racecar driver, Elvis as a water-skiing instructor, Elvis as a sheik, Elvis in a double role as an Army officer and his redneck cousin, Elvis as a sensitive doctor working in a free clinic in the ghetto.
A betting man would have to say that Elvis’s record for cinematic woefulness is unassailable, but what is even more astonishing about this score-and-a-half of egregious Elvisisms is that virtually all of the King’s movies made lots and lots of money. Bearing in mind how big these bad films were, it is probably safe to say that no one alive today will live to see another great rock star capable of making this many unredeemably horrible, money-making films in his lifetime, nor will his children, nor will his grandchildren, nor will his great-grandchildren. Nor will their grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
This will not, however, keep people from trying. Even as the rest of us sit around, waiting for that fourth Boston album or wondering whatever happened to Anson Williams, there are several rock stars on this very planet who are still young enough, rich enough and conceited enough to mount at least a modest threat to Elvis’s record–chillingly unaccomplished thespians who have killed before and will kill again unless the public musters its resources to stop them. If it is true, as the English essayist Edmund Burke once said, that evil prevails when enough good men do nothing, then it can be said with equal certainty that evil occurs in motion pictures when enough so-so people pay enough good money to see enough bad movies. Actually, this happens all the time.
The goals of this article are modest: first, to explain why rock stars almost without exception make such terrible movie stars, and second, as a kind of pro bono publico service to unsuspecting Americans, to identify the living rock stars who pose the most serious threat to the King’s extraordinary record of generating cinematic solid waste. Proceeding directly to the question of why rock stars so regularly bomb out as actors, one may advance two explanations: the charitable one and the uncharitable one. The charitable one is that rock stars generally are only offered roles that stink to high heaven, and are the victims of cynical manipulation by oligopolistic, money-grubbing studio chiefs who seek to cash in on the stars’ fleeting popularity (Frankie Avalon in The Alamo, Vanilla Ice in The Secret of the Ooze). A charitable corollary to this charitable explanation is that rock stars are often preyed upon by unscrupulous directors (like, say, Ken Russell) who feel that they can get the naive rock star (like, say, Roger Daltrey) to make an even bigger fool of himself in public than would an established movie star (like, say, Ryan O’Neal).
The uncharitable explanation, of course, is that rock stars suck. Rock stars, unlike movie stars, are usually not especially pleasant to look at, so they can’t get away with being terrible actors for as long as Lou Diamond Phillips or Don Johnson have. Moreover, they rely on broad, vulgar, exaggerated gestures designed to transfix the very last drug-crazed teenager in the very last row of the very darkest multipurpose civic center, gestures that work well in Yankee Stadium and the Grand Canyon but which look ridiculous in closeup. This is the reason Morgan Freeman, and not Axl Rose, got the chauffeur’s part in Driving Miss Daisy. Honest.
But don’t take my word for it; let’s go to the videotape. In recent years, we the people have been treated to the very short, bug-eyed Roger Daltrey (of Ken Russell’s refreshingly insane Tommy and Lisztomania), the anorexic, simian Mick Jagger (of Performance and Ned Kelly), the emaciated, bug-eyed Robbie Robertson (of Carny), the slightly less-anorexic, somewhat more bugeyed, totally simian David Johansen (of Let It Ride), and the phantasmagorically unattractive Ringo Starr (star of films too repellent and too numerous to be cited this early in an otherwise wholesome article).
All of these rockers are either famous (Daltrey, Starr, Jagger) or influential (Johansen was the lead singer in the Godfathers-of-Punk band the New York Dolls, and Robertson wrote most of The Band’s golden greats and big hits), and all of them are complete duds as actors. Okay, now it’s time to name names in the cinematic career of Ringo. He’s a double talent–he cannot play the drums, he also cannot act–but in Caveman, Two Hundred Motels, Sextette, The Magic Christian and many other forlorn projects, John, George and Paul weren’t there to bail him out. Roger Daltrey has nice hair, nice teeth, and that’s it. (Actually, Tommy seems to have been a deliberate cautionary tale on the part of Ken Russell–a gauntlet thrown down to his audience. “Think the ’60s were fun?” Russell seems to be asking. “Watch this movie and refresh your memory, asshole!” After all, how could a decade have been that much fun if The Who were in it?)
David Johansen does not have nice teeth or hair and he cannot act. Ditto Robbie Robertson. People who think that Mick Jagger was acting in Performance just because he toned down his spastic campiness a notch or two are the kind of people who think Geraldo Rivera is intelligent because he now wears a tie. If Mick Jagger was so good in Performance, why was his next starring role as an Australian cowboy? And why was his next job after that a mysterious role in Werner Herzog’s narcissistic, fatality-inducing, ecosystematically discombobulating Fitzcarraldo? Does anyone seriously believe that gifted actors end up spending a year in the Amazon jungle with Werner Herzog? Klaus Kinski excepted? Now here’s something to look forward to: 1992 brings a new Jagger flick, Freejack, following on the heels of the Rolling Stones concert movie in IMAX.
The list of great rock stars who make bad actors is not long, but it is impressive: John Lennon as an infantryman in How I Won the War, Michael Jackson as a plump Scarecrow in The Wiz (and as a thin Robert Preston in the 3-D Captain EO), Keith Moon as an untalented Ringo Starresque drummer in That’ll Be the Day and its sequel Stardust (and as the perverted Uncle Ernie in Tommy, and as a campy fashion designer in Sextette). They all pale in comparison with Bob Dylan, who has already logged in with three genuinely hair-raising performances during his career. Dylan, who is not at all good-looking, first reared his ugly head as the laconic sagebrush nihilist Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s depressingly unbuckarooish Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, then directed himself in the unforgivable Renaldo and Clara, a kind of bloated, over-the-top, outre Heaven’s Gate, and was last seen in Hearts of Fire, playing a rock star who has retreated to self-imposed exile as a chicken farmer in Pennsylvania. It is a chilling commentary on our times that the greatest songwriter of his generation should end up making movies with people named Fiona.
All of Dylan’s movies have a disturbing editorial history. Pat Garrett was first released in a studio-mandated, savagely truncated version in 1973, but under pressure from French film aficionados and other sadomasochists, the director’s cut was reassembled in 1988, and the movie was rereleased in its original 37-week form. Renaldo and Clara first appeared in a 232-minute form in 1978, but, under pressure from French Dylan fans and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, it was later trimmed to a marginally less sociopathic 122-minute version. Hearts of Fire was briefly released only in England, has never been trimmed to a shorter form, and is only available in the kind of video stores that carry all of Dyan Cannon’s movies. So far, no word from the French.
In one sense, Dylan’s acting career bears a tragic resemblance to the King’s.
Apparently, for a short period in their lives, each of these men entertained dreams of being taken seriously as actors. Dylan and Presley were encouraged in these wild hopes by the legendary availability of powerful hallucinogenic drugs throughout the 1960s, and by the kind of addlepated movie critics who said things like, “If it hadn’t-a-been for that son-of-a-bitch Colonel Parker, Elvis could have become a great actor!” and “If Dylan had only been able to get his hands on a good script, he could have developed into a lion of the screen.” Gosh, just think what we missed: Elvis as Henry V and Dylan as Henry Hill in GoodFellas. Or Elvis as Mozart in Amadeus, and Dylan, instead of George C. Scott, in Patton. Jesus, why can’t anybody in Hollywood think?
One of the oddities about pop stars who try their hands at films is that the very worst rock stars often make the very best movie stars. Cher has always been a pathetic excuse for a rocker, an Ethel Merman in fishnet stockings who has attempted to compensate for her borderline vocal skills with sheer brass and bluster. The result? More than 20 years of songs that sound like Journey out-takes, plus “Half Breed,” the national anthem of all those Designer Victims who had to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and racial prejudice while growing up in Malibu.
Despite this, Cher has developed into a very fine actress who has turned in exemplary work in everything from The Witches of Eastwick to Suspect to Silkwood, and who has also performed credibly in several lackluster, generally overpraised films whose titles begin with “M”: Mermaids, Mask, and Moonstruck. In fact, it is by no means inconceivable that Cher could one day make more movies than Elvis Presley. But that would still leave the King’s record intact, because anyone can make 31 movies that make money, but the King got away with making 31 bad movies that made money. Elvis got away with making 31 atrocious movies that made money. Thus, the Guinness Book of World’s Records would still read:
Most Good Movies by a Really Bad Rock Star: 400, Cher.
While Elvis’s entry would read:
Most Bad Movies by a Really Great Rock Star: 31, Elvis.
Elvis still wins in a walk.
First Runner-up in the Dean Martin Memorial Sweepstakes for So-So Singers Who Make Decent Actors is Diana Ross, whose looks, not her voice, won her the lead vocalist spot in The Supremes. An average singer fortunate enough to work with Motown’s great songwriters, Ross was good in Lady Sings the Blues, okay in Mahogany, and no worse than anybody else in the nightmarish The Wiz, the most uninterruptedly cheerless musical ever made. In the latter, it should be noted, Ross made the fascinating choice of wearing both the hairdo and the dour facial demeanor of Clarence Williams III. But the hands-down winner of the Golden Deaneroonie is Bette Midler, who started out singing Barry Manilow’s arrangements in New York’s gay bathhouses, and who probably got her acting career off the ground after patrons of those very same bathhouses raised enough money for her to switch genres. (Bathhouses are bad enough without live renditions of songs like “Hello In There.”) Like Cher, the Divine Miss M has labored long and hard to divert attention away from her wafer-thin cabaret voice by developing a screamin’-heebie-jeebie stage show, which worked well until her screen debut in The Rose, the Janis Joplin gagathon which demonstrated that, while Midler couldn’t really sing, she could actually act. End of that career.
On the other hand, being a bogus or second-tier rock star who can’t sing like Elvis Presley or Little Richard will not automatically guarantee success in the movies. Paul Simon’s hair-in-the-electric-socket sidekick was never entirely convincing as a rock star back in the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme era. But Art Garfunkel has been pretty much of a Johnny One Note as an actor, getting cast as a schmuck in Carnal Knowledge, as a schmuck in Catch-22, and as a schmuck in Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, while Simon himself, too short to rock and roll but too young to die, made his acting debut as a schmuck in Annie Hall, and then inadvertently came off as a complete schmuck in his own production, One-Trick Pony. Proving that the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and the words are: Fuck you, schmuck.