The most-requested photo in the US National Archives is not the flag at Iwo Jima, nor is it the last photograph of Abraham Lincoln, nor one of the iconic Kennedy portraits. It’s, in fact, a photo of a pilled-out, medicated rock star working on about three hours sleep shaking the President’s hand as he receives a badge qualifying him as an undercover anti-narcotics agent. It’s the photo of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon, taken on December 21, 1970. The story behind this deeply ironic piece of American culture, epitomizing the contradictions and odd pageantry in the American character, has already been told in 1997 made for TV movie, which is actually quite good. But now it’s getting the full Hollywood treatment, with Michael Shannon as Elvis and none other than Kevin Spacey as Nixon. The trailer for the film, coming soon to wide release, recently went up on YouTube and it’s worth a look.
The trailer would have you believe that the film is going to be two hours of schoolboy hi-jinx between the King of Rock and that most uncool and awkward of presidents, but the actual story behind the photo is one worth telling. The 1997 TV movie, starring Rick Peters as Elvis and veteran character actor Bob Gunton as Nixon, spends most of its time on Elvis’s machinations behind the scenes to get into the oval office in the first place. The biographical details tell an interesting story: Elvis was fresh from his Vegas comeback, but his marriage was falling apart and he was increasingly aware that he was not, and may never be, taken seriously as an artist by the new generation of rock musicians. While Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, The Band and the Rolling Stones were at or near the height of their powers, and the Velvet Underground and David Bowie were starting to turn rock into daring art, Elvis was performing old standards for the likes of Cary Grant and his party of executives and second wives in Vegas showrooms. The performances that he gave in this period are great — all the new rock and rollers respected the king. But Elvis was finding it harder to respect himself, especially now that he knew he could perform on stage again and didn’t have to make all those “silly movies” (his words) for his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It was an argument with the Colonel in the days leading up to Christmas 1970 that led him to take off on a spontaneous and ill-advised journey from Memphis to Washington, criss-crossing the country on commercial airlines with one opulent change of clothes and very little sense of how things like “money” work. Still, Elvis managed to charm his way onto planes and into hotels, eventually enlisting the help of some friends from L.A., and finally getting into the oval office and meeting a sweaty and nervous Richard Nixon.
What linked Elvis and Nixon at the time was a sense of being out of touch, and being threatened. They were both very paranoid men at times, and Nixon, always paranoid, was feeling the weight of public opinion turn against him, mostly over Vietnam (this was before Watergate). While Elvis blamed his problems on The Beatles (who adored him), Nixon blamed the media, the New England establishment, and basically anyone who ever dared to speak against him. They were united in their resentment about the direction the world was taking.
Which, in a strange way, makes this upcoming film very timely. Who better than Elvis and Nixon to mirror the very real and dangerous forces of reactionary politics, resentment and tribalism now raging in the United States. There was a time when crazy, paranoid people ran the world, and then there came a point where they felt the levers of power slipping away. Nixon and Elvis, like Trump supporters today, saw the future, didn’t like it, and did their level best to put their fingers in the dam. Their pathos becomes ironic, and finally funny, to those of us who have long since accepted change. Maybe we’ll just enjoy having a good laugh at two middle-aged white men, angry at the world, gripping each others’ hands for dear life as time marches on.