As Elvis Tribute, Film Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog

Love him tender.

The Elvis business--and it's big, big business--is ripe for ridicule, on its best days burgeoning with excess that is anything but tasteful or pristine.

Even in death, the King remains more than a mere cash cow. He's an entire herd, resonating posthumously not only as a pop culture and music icon but also as a vast, eclectic, hugely profitable merchandising sprawl of movies, books, tapes and other mementos that naturally has metastasized to the Internet.

It's there where the truly devout can learn of such $10 collectibles as one-inch squares of bedsheets said to have been slept on by you-know-who and find supposedly genuine Elvis pillowcases being sold for $10,000.

What's more, there are 32 pages of kitschy bargains in the latest official catalog from Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., located at 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd. in Memphis, where Elvis lived most of his life. Items range from a gold lame 3-D magnet--cited as a "shining example of Elvis Presley's pull"--to a swinging Elvis wall clock whose "legs actually rock as the clock tells time." Shelling out a little more gets you the Elvis "dancing telephone" that sings and plays "Jailhouse Rock" when it rings.

One of these days, you'll probably see an ad selling Elvis' DNA.

Free enterprise will always be free enterprise. But art should be art.

So the garishness of his life and legacy notwithstanding, the King probably would put a bullet through "Elvis Meets Nixon."

The usually capable Bob Gunton should also, given his impersonation of Richard Nixon in this Showtime movie--a Nixon (body hunched and rigid, head and jowls shuddering) so exaggerated and bloated beyond parody and even camp that it makes Dan Aykroyd's rendition in "Saturday Night Live" seem relatively minimalist.

Moreover, the lip-curling Elvis played by lanky Rick Peters is not simply a gunslinging, immature man/child who visits Nixon on a lark after years of being hermetically insulated from the world that adores him. He's an absolute idiot, offering no hint of the qualities that have so many worshipers groveling at his feet. He is so stupid that when a Washington cabby, who is black, announces to the King that they've arrived at the White House, that brick Elvis earnestly responds: "Let's don't make this about color."


Elvismania lives even if he doesn't, and Memphis is not alone in pumping pomp this month for the master of Graceland. Television is holding its own candlelight vigil for Elvis in the days preceding Aug. 16, the 20th anniversary of his death.

The biggest splurge is on cable, with next week's tributes to include VH1's "Elvis Lives," with its chatting up of lost recordings, and "Elvis From the Waist Up," a medley of nostalgic home movies and TV clips. Then on Friday comes TNT's 30-hour Kingathon, featuring the Hollywood Elvis singing and gyrating for transfixed beauties in his look-alike movies, capped by a 1970 documentary, "That's the Way It Is."

And this week has already brought the 1981 pseudo-documentary, "This Is Elvis," on Showtime and Cinemax, and a feting of the King's music on the Nashville Network, paid for by commercials that included one for an Elvis-style "Taking Care of Business in a Flash" solid-gold pendant, available for three easy payments that also buy you a certificate of authenticity.

No such certificate is possible for "Elvis Meets Nixon," a fact/fiction hybrid that tries futilely to be a witty docudrama sendup while recalling and thickly embellishing an actual summit between the chief executive and the president of rock 'n' roll in 1970, two years before Watergate, which ended with a famous photo op in the Oval Office.

Elvis Presley's oft-noted exotic passions and eccentricities are nothing if not grist for farce: Witness last year's hilarious BBC documentary, "The Burger & the King: The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley," that opened on Cinemax with a camera slowly panning a table d'hote of Elvis impersonators gorging themselves at a last supper for the King to background warbling of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"

Overacted, overwritten (by Alan Rosen) and misdirected (by Alan Arkush), "Elvis Meets Nixon" haplessly goes for its own smirky resonance. That extends to Dick Cavett's narration and eyewitness cameos from the likes of "legendary journalist" Edwin Newman, "Las Vegas legend" Wayne Newton and Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon deputy who told the Watergate committee about those legendary tapes.

These commentaries are woven through a story that begins with Elvis storming from his Graceland mansion after a tiff over money with his father and his wife, Priscilla, and embarking on a bicoastal crusade to become an agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency.

As always with Elvis, fact and myth blur. Yet the outlines of the story, however improbable, are confirmed in other accounts, with Elvis--smitten with law enforcement and Nixon--requesting a visit with the president in a letter he scribbles to him on a jet and delivers to a White House guard. "Elvis Meets Nixon" tediously wades through endless comic-book-level setups en route to the confrontation.

At last, Elvis and Nixon keep their date with low burlesque in the Oval Office. And in advance of that meeting, narrator Cavett says: "If what you are about to see didn't happen exactly this way, it should have." Well, perhaps not.

After chatting, Elvis and Nixon sing "My Wild Irish Rose" and "My Way" together, as Bob Haldeman lurks outside. Following their duets, Nixon asks: "By the way, Elvis, did you ever mess around with Marilyn Monroe?"

"No, sir," Elvis replies.

"The Kennedys did, you know," Nixon tells Elvis. "Hoover played me the tapes."

The attempted satire at times sinks even lower. The reality of a caped, high-collared, hair-bubbled Elvis and the dark-suited Nixon even sitting in the same room is so bizarre on the face of it that the scene can work comedically only if underplayed, with actors employing subtlety, not the grossly overplayed caricatures used here.

As to how much of "Elvis Meets Nixon" actually happened? If you buy the bulk of it, you might also be interested in some bedsheets on the Internet.

* "Elvis Meets Nixon" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may not be appropriate for children under the age of 14).

For the Record Los Angeles Times Saturday August 9, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Sports Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction Death anniversary--The date of Elvis Presley's death was incorrect in some editions of Friday's Calendar. Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977.
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