Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Still the King

Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi, 1956
Photo by Roger Marshutz

I was a just a kid when Elvis Presley blazed across the American cultural scene like a meteor screaming in from outer space. The media soon dubbed him “Elvis the Pelvis,” but being too young to grasp what they were talking about, I couldn't connect with all the hype surrounding this kid from Tupelo, Mississippi. To my eyes, his national debut on the Ed Sullivan show was singularly unimpressive: there on our flickering black and white TV stood a nervous young man with a greasy pompadour, slapping his guitar and warbling “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog.” That this considerably less-than-riveting performance left my older sister giddily euphoric only confirmed my suspicions that here was yet another cultural flash-in-the-pan, a guy with “greaser” hair and swivel-hips enjoying his brief moment in the spotlight before fading back into obscurity.

Wrong. Before I knew it, Elvis morphed into a hugely popular cultural icon as a singer, singing-actor, and celebrity Army draftee. In no time at all, the kid from Tupelo had the world by the tail. That he ultimately wound up a sadly bloated caricature of his former lean and golden self -- sweating and staggering around the glittering stages of Las Vegas in that ludicrous white leather suit – remains a cautionary tale on the double-edged sword of the American Dream: be very careful what you wish for.

I’ve always had a problem with performers who seemed to achieve their greatest success out there in the desert. Las Vegas is an outland planet scorched by a merciless sun, uninhabitable without the modern miracle of air-conditioning. It’s a freak show built on a foundation of sand, a place where entertainment dinosaurs go to die in the sunset of their careers, and thus the unnatural habitat of such quasi-humanoid creatures as Wayne Newton, Siegfried and Roy, and Celine Dion. Like the prostitutes who ply their sweaty trade in the “ranches” surrounding Clark County, these celebrity-performers come to Las Vegas for one reason: the money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with money – without it, we’d all be hunter-gatherers clad in scratchy loincloths, rooting and grunting for survival in some grim post-apocalyptic future – but when it comes to shameless vulgarity and turbocharged, no-holds-barred excess, Las Vegas has no equal. Given that Elvis finished off his career (and his life) suckling on the swollen plastic teat of this neon-lit nightmare in the desert – America’s Adult Disneyland – it was hard for me to accept that he ever represented anything remotely authentic, other than the dark, needy underbelly of our warped communal soul. Everything about Elvis seemed to embody the “I Want More, Bigger is Better” ethos that led our society down a cheap and glitzy road marked by enormous tail fins, padded bras, extra-long cigarettes, and the World of Tomorrow – each promising far more than could ever be delivered. Some of his songs were good, but that wasn’t enough to keep me from viewing him through a jaundiced lens of cultural contempt. That he remained wildly popular until the day he died -- and beyond -- only deepened the mystery. The hysterical idolatry surrounding his image simply didn’t compute. All I could figure was that it had to be about sex: American women all wanted The King in bed, while American men yearned to be just like him. To me, Elvis was just the punch line to a long-running joke.

During my post-college, pre-Industry life, I spent a year-and-a-half working behind the counter of a deli in Santa Cruz. One of our regulars used to sail through the doors almost every afternoon dressed in a white leisure suit, his hair slicked back in a black pompadour, striking a hip-thrusting stance just like his hero, Elvis. Kenny was a cheerful guy in his late-twenties, always wearing the sweet, happy grin of someone we’d now call “mentally challenged.” Still, he was more or less able to get through life under the wing of his spiritual big brother, Elvis. If it all seemed a bit strange, well, Kenny was a friendly guy who never bothered anybody – which was more than I could say for some of our customers.

Kenny was still hanging around the deli late one night when my shift ended. As I headed out the door, he asked for a lift back to his apartment. It was on my way home, so I told him to hop in. Once there, he insisted I come in. All I wanted to do was go home – it had been a long day on my feet, dealing with endless waves of customers -- but Kenny seemed wounded by my reticence, so I agreed to come in for a minute. Only when I stepped inside did I finally grasp just how deeply rooted his obsession with Elvis really was: the interior of his apartment was a shrine to The King: velvet paintings and posters of Elvis lined the walls, with little plaster statues cluttering every horizontal surface. Elvis ashtrays, Elvis table lamps, Elvis everything.

Truth be told, it was kind of creepy.

Grinning like a fool, Kenny watched me take it all in, delighted to share the temple he’d created to honor his living God. Until that moment, I didn’t realize just how far out on the limb of fantasy he really was.

I excused myself as soon as politeness allowed and drove on home. A couple of months later came the news that Elvis had died while sitting on a toilet in one of his many gilded bathrooms. Kenny came into the deli the next day, a gaunt shell of his once-happy self. With his golden calf having turned to dust in such a brutally public manner, the poor guy was utterly lost. I felt bad for him, but since I never understood the Cult of Elvis in the first place, didn’t quite know what to say. Having lost a few icons of my own during the turbulent 60’s – JFK, Bobby, Martin Luther King, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison -- the death of Elvis came more as a surprise rather than a shock.

Kenny didn’t even want a sandwich -- he just moped around looking miserable. One by one, the swing crew went over to pay our respects, and tell him how sorry we were. Only then did he leave, a forlorn puppy trying to find his way back home. The death of innocence is an ugly thing to see. His sweet, happy grin was gone for good.

Two weeks later, so was I. Determined to give Hollywood a shot, I strapped a bulging pack and sleeping bag on the back of my motorcycle and headed for LA.

Calendar pages fly off the wall as the next ten years slip away. Now working as a Best Boy Electric, I take a job on a movie to be shot in Oxford, Mississippi, a period feature set in the late 50’s, at the dawn of white involvement with the civil right’s movement. Five weeks through our eight week schedule, we finished the daytime filming and went into nights, shooting from late afternoon until dawn, six nights a week.

Working twelve to fourteen hour days is tough enough, but you’re still more or less in sync with circadian rhythms that have governed all of life on earth since it first crawled out of the oceans. Even when working such brutally long hours, going to work at sunup and heading back to the hotel after dark provides the illusion of working a semi-normal life. Switching from days to nights blows that flimsy shield of denial all to Hell, turning everything upside-down: suddenly you’re going to work as the sun sets, and staggering home after it comes up – and that’s just the beginning of the pain. Depending on the circumstances, filming in the daytime is often a relatively simple matter of enhancing and maintaining existing lighting conditions -- balancing the fierce sunshine with artificial light to make each shot look good on film -- but it’s dark at night, which means every bit of illumination required to light each shot must be carefully placed, powered, and adjusted by the set lighting crew. It takes a lot of equipment to make that magic happen, tons of cable and lamps, all of which must be rapidly deployed, then moved and readjusted dozens of times throughout the night to meet the lighting needs of each individual shot. Only when the sky grows bright in the east can any serious thought be given to wrapping all that equipment, and by then -- in the cold light of dawn -- everybody is thoroughly exhausted. 

Night shoots are a bitch.

With the help of three day-players hired out of New Orleans, we ground out the nocturnal cinematic sausage for two weeks, then in our final week, had a big scene wherein Alley Sheedy (portraying the earnest, idealistic young heroine of the story) was to attend an Elvis concert with Treat Williams, our male lead. The scene would be filmed at the Tupelo Fairgrounds, where a young Elvis Presley and his band performed many times during the late 50’s.

We climbed into the vans in front of our hotel for the late afternoon drive from Oxford to Tupelo. It didn’t take long to leave the city behind, and soon we were rolling through red dirt country, a vast rural landscape of lush green jungle rising up from the rusty soil. Narrow dirt roads ran off either side of the highway, disappearing into the dense canopy of trees. Occasionally the trees had been thinned out, revealing a collection of whitewashed shacks against all that greenery. There was a notable absence of pavement or gravel on the driveways, another sign of the poverty in Mississippi. To my eyes, this rural poverty seemed a lot cleaner than what I’d seen in depressed areas of LA, but that was probably just an illusion in the head of an outsider. Poor is poor, wherever you are. Compared to the people who lived in those shacks, I was rich, with a great job – a lucky man indeed. Still, all is relative in this life, and the knowledge of all the work that lay ahead that night thoroughly darkened my mood.

We hit the ground running, working fast and hard through the twilight, and by the time night fell, had the lights more or less roughed in. The grandstands were packed with extras dressed in 50’s garb, mostly Tupelo residents who'd responded to extensive radio promotions the production company had run the week before. These good people were being paid exactly nothing for the privilege of being in the movie --  a box lunch at midnight was all they'd get -- but this exercise in recreating history would be a labor of love, their own personal act of fealty to the dead King.

The poor bastards had no idea what they were in for.

We did the master shot first, a wide, sweeping vista with the camera rising up on a crane to show the young Elvis (portrayed by one of the many Elvis impersonators-for-hire in and around the Tupelo area) kicking his band into song in front of a rabid crowd. The director wanted to shoot this from the front, but when dealing with an icon like Elvis – and really, there are no others quite like him – one must contend with those who legally own and control his image. That spells money. At the time, the going rate for a frontal shot of The King’s impersonator in action was five thousand dollars, while filming from the back only cost fifteen hundred. Being that this was a low-budget production, you can guess where the crane went – carrying the camera smoothly up to reveal the stage, band, and Elvis from the rear, with the screaming crowd of extras facing the camera.

I watched from well behind the camera as the shot unfolded, taking in the whole scene – the stage, the band, the wildly cheering crowd packing the grandstands – and much to my surprise, chills ran down my spine with the sudden realization that this is how it was. We’d recreated a moment from history, in the very spot where these concerts took place thirty years before, and here were the sons and daughters of those who had actually been there in the grandstands, reliving a moment many of their parents had experienced. This kid from Tupelo – a young truck driver with a guitar and a dream – had risen up from that red Mississippi dirt determined to do something, to be somebody, and succeeded beyond his or anybody else’s wildest dreams. At long last I began to understand what made him so great, so admired, so loved – what made Elvis the King. It was an epiphany unlike any other in my life.

And when I think about that moment, I can still feel those chills run down my spine.

Unfortunately, that was the high point of the night. Once we finished all the shots featuring Elvis and the band, we went in for dialog and “coverage,” and the dull routine of tedium returned. Move the lights here, do the shot, move the lights there, do another shot: repeat ad nauseam. By the midnight, half the crowd had drifted away, their enthusiasm drained by take after repetitious take. Civilians are invariably disappointed by the mechanical reality ofmaking movies – the scales fall from their eyes as they realize it’s not all thundering rock and roll, thrilling car chases, spectacular explosions, or dramatic gun fights. It’s mostly a long slog though the night, waiting for someone else to do their job before you can do yours, followed by a few minutes of action. In this case, once the band was gone, the action was over -- the rest was listening to the same dialog over and over again as the camera moved from one character’s perspective to another, which was deadly dull as the night ground on. I’m sure none of those first-time extras realized that working in a movie all night long could ever be so boring.

Welcome to the Dream Factory, folks, and another fist-in-the-face tutorial from the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education...

By three in the morning, most of the unpaid extras were gone. The second AD and PAs kept herding the stragglers tighter and tighter, cramming them in to the background of each shot, until only the paid extras remained as the Eastern sky morphed from black to gray. We got the last couple of shots just before the sun rose, after which the actors and director were driven back to the hotel.

Our job wasn’t over. With the sun climbing steadily higher, we had to wrap all of our cable and lights, carry the gear to the truck, then pack it full before crawling into the van for the hour-long drive back to the hotel. Fortunately, there was cooler of beer on the floor of the van.

The pain from that miserable night has long since faded away. What lives with me still, twenty-plus years later, is that truly magical moment when I finally came to appreciate Elvis Presley for what he was and all he meant to the people from whence he came – and by extension, to the rest of my generation. To hell with Las Vegas -- most performers end up there sooner or later, so I can forgive him for that. In a hundred years, people will still know who Elvis Presley was: The King.

Elvis Presley, Jan 8, 1935 -- Aug. 16, 1977

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great story. I chuckled many times. You've inspired me to rent *Heart of Dixie* at Le Video.

Man. You're a brilliant story teller.