Today, Tomorrow and Forever
It’s not difficult to imagine the reaction of Colonel Tom Parker watching the rushes of Viva Las Vegas in early 1964. There he is: Elvis, his only client, His Boy, up there singing and dancing and gyrating as usual. But there’s something wrong. He’s way back in the back of the shot, almost a stick figure back there. Right up in front of the camera, looming in the foreground, taking your eyes inexorably away from him, is Ann-Margret. Or rather, clad in a skin-tight dress and wiggling in unison, Ann-Margret’s butt. I bet the Colonel damn near bit through his cigar.
In fact, Colonel Parker hated Viva Las Vegas. He peppered the MGM front office with complaints: the girl was stealing the picture; she had too many songs and too many close-ups; the director was favoring her and kept adding new material for her; the publicity was all about this great teaming when everybody knew Elvis was the one and only star and doing just fine on his own. Worst of all, the fancy production values and re-shoots were sending the picture over budget, cutting into Elvis’ share: a half-million in salary and 50% of the profits, of which the Colonel was taking 25%.
As usual when it came to anything but cutthroat dealmaking, the Colonel was wrong. Not only was Viva Las Vegas the biggest hit movie of Elvis Presley’s career, but it survives as one of the best of them, and probably the most sheerly enjoyable. It’s not the best movie as a movie (by common consent, that’s King Creole), or the one that presents the essence of Elvis best (that’s Loving You, an under-appreciated minor masterpiece). Vegas’ script is pathetic, its characters one dimensional, its acting perfunctory. Amazingly, it manages to do almost nothing with its ostensible subject (auto racing) or its gaudy setting (despite the title song, performed three times). What makes it great is what the Colonel hated most about it: Her.
What a difference a co-star makes. Unlike most of Elvis’ leading ladies, Ann-Margret doesn’t seem even slightly afraid of him. And she doesn’t make the mistake many of them made, trying to tune into his vulnerable side and get some kind of tender thing going. She’s a tigress. At only 22, she’s a tight little bundle of sheer talent that keeps threatening to burst its seams. She’s so gorgeous she’s like a special effect — days after watching the movie you can’t get her figure or her huge mane of red hair out of your head. Normally Elvis looked at everything and everybody in his movies with the same expression of polite, amiable inattention. But throughout this movie, he reacts to Ann-Margret with something close to astonishment, and his habitual good ol’ boy smirk is replaced by what can only be described as delight. Their chemistry blows the movie to smithereens.
Her energy and his response to it infuse their musical numbers with playfulness and real sexual give and take. The first of them, “The Lady Loves Me,” is set around a hotel swimming pool, as he sings about how hard to resist he is, and she puts him down mercilessly. The lyrics make him out to be pushy and egotistical, qualities Elvis doesn’t project at all, but he makes it work with light self-mockery and the insistence of his attention toward her. By their second number, “C’mon Everybody,” she’s dancing along as he sings, looking up at him undisguised adoration. Her character isn’t supposed to be that much in love with him at this point in the movie, but at this point in the movie, who gives a damn about the script? Not these two, and certainly not us. By the time they dance together near the end — to something called “The Squat” and then to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” — they’re locked in on each other to the exclusion of everything else. The intimacy is so overwhelming you feel like a voyeur.
You feel the same way listening to the two other duets they recorded for the movie. “You’re the Boss” is a great Leiber and Stoller song in which a man and woman trade teasing compliments about each others’ bedroom prowess — the inverse of “The Lady Loves Me.” Leiber was a masterful American lyricist whose style owed something to E.Y. Harburg — both writers were great observers of human foibles, both had sly and witty senses of humor, and both joyfully celebrated the ways sexual attraction makes a person look, act and feel ridiculous. Plenty of Elvis songs simmer with sex, but with Ann-Margret purring and growling along with him, “You’re the Boss” is in a class by itself.
The other duet, “Today, Tomorrow and Forever,” is a love song in standard Elvis ballad style, tremulous and slow. It’s not much of a song, but their rapport lifts it to an almost spiritual level. You can feel the emotion of their real-life love affair in this song, just as you could feel it in the interview she gave Charlie Rose 30 years later, gently but firmly maintaining their privacy as a couple.
You won’t hear either of these performances in the movie, however: the Colonel had the ballad re-done with Elvis singing alone, and the other cut entirely. The soundtrack album didn’t even have Ann-Margret’s name on it. “You’re the Boss,” indeed.
There wasn’t much else the Colonel could do about Viva Las Vegas though; the picture had gotten out of his control and was a total loss as far as he was concerned. However, he had learned his lesson. After shooting wrapped, he signed with Sam Katzman, a producer with absolutely no taste but an ironclad commitment to bringing pictures in under budget. A kindred soul. From now on, Elvis movies would have lower costs, tighter shooting schedules (two weeks, down from the 11 weeks spent on Vegas), hand-me-down songs, no big production numbers, and nobody of sufficient talent to turn the boy’s head. In his next picture, Kissin’ Cousins, he would be his own co-star — he played an Army man who discovers a look-alike hillbilly cousin in the backwoods mountains, tackily re-created on a soundstage. The psychological effect of this doppelganger plot on a man with a dead twin brother and a deep inferiority complex can only be guessed, but it was a glum shoot and there were times Elvis refused to leave his dressing room.
Kissin’ Cousins cost only $800,000 to make, and earned $2 million in profit. Now there, the Colonel must have thought as he fondled his cigar, that’s a picture.