Austin Butler’s hips don’t lie. He becomes the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, possessing all of his signature quirks and emotional inflections in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” Standing tall as the single best performance from the first half of 2022, Butler’s moves have thrust him into the Oscar race for best actor. However, his road to a nom won’t be easy, with a total miscast of his co-star Tom Hanks, who’s thrown into a fat suit with a questionable accent, and an overbaked runtime. The biopic’s awards success will be contingent upon the movie’s overall box office and possibilities in other Oscar categories.
Something dawned on me attending the screening of “Elvis” leading to its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May: There’s nobody who hasn’t heard of Elvis. Still, as time moves further away from his era, ending with his death in August 1977, he’s become more of a myth than a person, especially among millennials and younger generations. As a cinephile and eclectic music fan myself, I’ve been very familiar with Elvis’ hit songs, especially after watching them tackled multiple times during seasons of the singing competition show “American Idol.” It can be argued that due to social media influencers and the changing landscape of entertainment consumption, songs like “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” are well known but may be associated with other artists who’ve covered them. For example, they could associate it with the British reggae band UB40 from 1993 (featured in the movie “Sliver”) or Haley Reinhart’s killer rendition from 2017, featured in commercials.
Curiosity about the famed musician could help “Elvis” box office, both from younger people who want to know who he was and older people who want to see if Luhrmann got it “right.” The same curiosity helped Dexter Fletcher’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) secure four Oscars, including best actor for Rami Malek, who portrayed Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.
Observing how Butler controls his mannerisms and vocal inflections throughout the film, every movement is intentional, showcasing the musician’s vulnerability. Reminiscent of Oscar-nominated roles like Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” (2005), there’s so much for the viewer (and eventual awards voters) to latch onto. However, the film will need to be an all-around awards player for Butler to break into the actor lineup.
Also, like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the final scene of “Elvis” is what gets the tear ducts open and brings the thoughts of “what could have been” as Butler unleashes every ounce of his fiery soul in a recreation of the musician’s final public performance of “Unchained Melody.” The quintessential “Oscar clip” stays with you long after the credits roll.
Butler, who turns 31 in August, could be perceived as too young to win best actor, since voters often want them to “pay their dues.” While many can point to actors such as Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me by Your Name”), the third youngest nominee in history who was 22 at the time, or a winner like Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” (2014), several below the line categories and/or a best picture nomination is often required for such a feat, something “Elvis” may have trouble nabbing.
Standing as one of the sole noms for a film in the best actor category is hard to achieve (unless the actor is well-established, like Antonio Banderas in “Pain and Glory”). Even with a Golden Globe win, BAFTA and SAG nominations, Taron Egerton’s work as Elton John in “Rocketman” (2019) failed to make the lineup for the 29-year-old actor. However, his film did go on to be nominated and win the Oscar for best original song (“I’m Gonna Love Me Again” by John and Bernie Taupin).
What helps Butler’s quest for recognition is many of Luhrmann’s previous movies have found love from the artisan branches of the Academy. Luhrmann’s adaptation and remake of “The Great Gatsby” (2013) netted two Oscar statuettes for production design (Catherine Martin and Beverley Dunn) and costume design (Martin), while “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” (1996) landed a still very impressive mention for production design (Martin and Brigitte Broch). Luhrmann’s masterpiece “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) is his only film ever to be nominated for best picture, and since then, he has n’t come close. It should be noted that “Moulin” is also the only one in his filmography to get a nomination for acting — Nicole Kidman, who had a one-two punch alongside “The Others.”
The four-time Oscar-winning Martin delivers stunning production design (with set decorators Beverley Dunn, Shaun Barry and Daniel Reader) and could find her way to a double nomination once again. The recreation of ’70s Las Vegas, featuring a tremendous musical sequence of “Suspicious Minds,” will keep the film in the discussion. All melodic elements bode well for recognition for best sound, a category that has been very kind to musical biopics such as “Ray” (2004).
Regarding makeup and hairstyling, the branch can often reward “most” rather than “best.” The crafts accomplished with Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla (who is exceptional despite limited screen time) and Kelvin Harrison Jr as BB King are exceptional. However, it’s hard to decipher where Hanks’ mutation into Elvis’ longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker goes off the rails. While he has become one of our most cherished actors, this stands as one of the most bizarre outings in his long career.
The vigorous runtime and the failure of the film’s storytellers to address the influence of the Black community and its musicians on Elvis doesn’t suggest that an editing or screenplay mention is in its future. But, people may be able to simply look past that omission.
“Elvis” is at its best when focused on the love between the King and his wife Priscilla and the foot-tapping hits he churned out during his career. What is most apparent is Luhrmann’s respect for his surviving family, giving Priscilla, and his daughter Lisa, a tearful goodbye they never had. We’ll see who agrees down the Oscar line.
“Elvis” is distributed by Warner Bros and opens in theaters on Friday.