i loved Elvis because it wasn't true
on biopics, myth-making, and why it's stupid to look for truth in the irrationality of fame
I’m honestly pretty upset about this upcoming Marilyn Monroe movie.
There is something so skeevy about this messaging from a director. “It’s kind of what you want, right?” Speak for yourself. I don’t need to see (the fantastic, and I’m sure perfectly cast) Ana de Armas enacting a rape onscreen to understand that Marilyn Monroe’s life was mired by pain and sexual suffering. Hasn’t her memory suffered enough? Haven’t we reinvented Marilyn enough times that we understand she was deeply unhappy without having to witness the violence that created the unhappiness?
I just found out that Hugh Hefner insisted on being buried next to Marilyn, a waking joke he made enough times that it came true in death. In this moment where we’re supposed to be reckoning with the way we treat famous women, particularly famous survivors like Britney and Amber — how can we in good conscience continue to profit and get off to the already ubiquitous image of the suffering of someone who’d already suffered enough for 10 lifetimes before her tragic death at 36? Seriously, when does Marilyn get to rest?
Bad biopics try to find truth behind the irrational. Fame is irrational. The way a talented performer makes us feel is irrational. Uniqueness itself is irrational. My well-documented hatred of Bohemian Rhapsody stems from that movie’s pathological desire to show us that Freddie Mercury was the architect of his own suffering. In Bohemian Rhapsody and movies like it, scandal ultimately undermines The Star’s enormous talent and charisma (and makes the other members of Queen look like the truly good and moral parties to sell concert tickets). In an effort to tell the truth and sell the suffering, you’re actually obfuscating the reality of how people responded to immense, indescribable celebrity.
Biopics that don’t understand — or care about — the fact that their subjects were made of magic tend to get bogged down on the dirty details, as if salacious tabloid news is ever what was truly compelling about Freddie Mercury, Marilyn Monroe, or anyone else. Talent, fandom, and timing is the story to me, always. How did this person’s talent make the rest of the world turn? Why did people react so strongly to this unique persona? (This line of questioning is also why I hated Yesterday, by the way — it’s insulting and wrong, actually, to divorce the greatness of The Beatles from the social context that made them into the biggest stars in the world).
Bad biopics also just make me wish I was actually watching the subject perform. We have become so obsessed with physical transformation in our major actors, as if prosthetics and resemblance can turn a mediocre performance into a positively memorable one — as if adhering to resemblance alone can capture the talent, fandom, and timing that made the Biopic Star important. I think range is overrated, and that this recent cultural obsession in our actors “showing range” is why we don’t have movie stars anymore; and I think biopics suffer under the weight of literal, rote emulation when they should be focusing on the feelings these figures inspire.
I return to Rocketman every time I want to watch a biopic that’s actually good. It’s insane to me that Taron Egerton walked away from this movie without an Academy Award nomination the year after Rami Malek won for wearing fake teeth — Rocketman has no delusions about truth because its subject is self-made, self-named. Invented. What’s the use in trying to find the dirty truth behind a person who doesn’t really exist — behind a being of higher power?
Rocketman is framed by Elton John telling his own story in an AA meeting, and he often lies. The things that come out of his mouth directly contradict what we’re being shown onscreen (he says “Bernie and I never fought, not once!” while we watch an enormous argument unfold between the songwriting partners, for one). I think that’s the natural, intelligent result of Elton John being directly involved with production. We’re shown the truth, sure — it’s as true as truth can be coming directly from the person who lived it.
Good biopics have no delusions of objectivity. They don’t need to convince us that their subjects were great; we know that going in. Personally, I’m not there for grittiness and realism. I’m there to celebrate myth-making, like in that incredible scene in Rocketman where an audience feels the power of “Crocodile Rock” so intensely that everyone in the room lifts off the ground. It truly doesn’t matter that it’s not true, that real magic did not really make an audience fly in that room at the Troubadour in the early ’70s. “Did that really happen?” is a boring question. What matters is it felt like it did, and now, thanks to good filmmaking, we will always know how that felt.
I loved Elvis because it was fake, fake, fake, fake. When Austin Butler cries in Elvis, he doesn’t cry. He cries as Elvis, doing a fantastically compelling impression and accessing no truth whatsoever.
I went to theatre school. I know acting is looking for truth in imaginary circumstances. But I don’t mean “fake” or “impression” in a derogatory way. What Butler and Tom Hanks (whose voice should be studied in a lab) are doing in Elvis is creating a sideshow for the ages — the very smoke-and-mirrors “snowing” that Col. Tom Parker conducted throughout the King’s career. It would be impossible to make a ~realistic Elvis movie~ because Elvis Presley, the icon, is what really matters to us. Yes, that’s dehumanizing — but it would be somehow more insulting to claim that Elvis was somehow human, that he didn’t have superpowers, that the way he makes us feel is rational. Elvis is low culture, a celebration of desire set in a Puritanical wasteland (it was refreshing to watch a story that acknowledges that sexuality is innate and irrepressible this Roe-V-Wade-overturning week). Elvis understands that human beings are gross and fallible and easy to trick. The less we know about the person behind the icon, the more we love the icon.
Marilyn Monroe also deserves this kind of vapid onscreen treatment, this uncritical celebration of her je ne sais quoi that doesn’t knock her down a peg — but I don’t expect that we’ll ever be able to talk about a famous woman in this same way.
There are many cancelable things about Elvis (Pricilla was 14 to his 24 when they met, just to start), and on an individual level I think that’s obviously worth interrogating. But I’m kind of fine with a vulgar, overwrought spectacle that places Presley consistently on the right side of cultural and racial history, because American mythology doesn’t exist at all without a great heaping of denial. It’s not good or sensitive or nuanced, but I respect that Elvis doesn’t try to tell us if we should or shouldn’t love Elvis Presley; it simply shows us why we do.
I forced myself to write this because I’ve been so bad at writing recently, so I hope you enjoyed it. I’ve also been spending a lot of money, so if you want to subscribe to the paid version of this newsletter and give me some money to live better in these terrifying times (and read my weird treatise on “Achy Breaky Heart”), I would not be mad.