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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Screen kings of rock ’n’ roll: The best and worst actors to play Elvis

Kurt Russell as Elvis in the 1979 TV movie of the same name.

By Sarah Bahr

Kurt Russell had the hip swivel down cold. Val Kilmer nailed the sincere, soulful voice. And Michael Shannon … well, the credits identified him as Elvis Presley, so that was the character he must have been playing in “Elvis & Nixon,” right?

Since the King’s death in 1977, at 42, more than a dozen actors — and one space alien — have portrayed his walk, talk and famous charm in dozens of films and TV shows. Now one more has joined their ranks — Austin Butler, whose on-point hip gyrations are at the heart of Baz Luhrmann’s new “Elvis.”

So how does Butler’s sultry, baby-faced King stack up against Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Golden Globe-winning crooner or Harvey Keitel’s over-the-hill rocker? We offer our rankings.

Kurt Russell, ‘Elvis’ in 1979 (5 guitars)

The perfectly coifed pouf, the raw, emotive voice, the frenzied hip thrusts, the gleaming, skintight rhinestone jumpsuit … blink, and you could easily believe, thanks to this near-flawless portrayal in a 1979 TV movie, that Kurt Russell is Elvis. Sure, Russell doesn’t actually sing — that was all country artist Ronnie McDowell — but that speaking voice is spot-on.

Buy it on Amazon.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in 2005, ‘Elvis: The Miniseries’ (4 guitars)

The two-part show, which tackles Presley’s rise from high school in Mississippi to international superstardom, is a showcase for Rhys Meyers’ heart-pounding leg pumps (with memorable supporting turns from Randy Quaid as Col. Tom Parker, Presley’s manager, and Rose McGowan as the actress Ann-Margret, with whom Presley was rumored to have had an affair). Like Russell, Rhys Meyers doesn’t do his own singing, but he lip-syncs flawlessly to an even better option: the real thing. (This was the first biopic that the Presley estate allowed to use the master recordings.)

Rent it on

Tyler Hilton in 2005, ‘Walk the Line’ (4 guitars)

Hilton pops up in four scenes of this Johnny Cash biopic as a young Elvis, opposite a young Joaquin Phoenix as Cash. It was one of Hilton’s first forays into acting — he considered himself more of a musician at the time — but he nails Presley’s slurred vocal style and the deeply felt conviction of his singing.

Stream it on Tubi; rent or buy it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu or YouTube.

Val Kilmer in 1993, ‘True Romance’ (4 guitars)

This romantic crime drama written by Quentin Tarantino centers not on the King, but on an Elvis fanatic (Christian Slater) and his new wife on the run from mobsters. But Kilmer’s apparition of Elvis, complete with gold lamé suit, might just be the most memorable part. (That’s saying something in a film that also featured Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson and a young Brad Pitt.) Kilmer’s appearance tops out at around 2 minutes and he’s credited only as “Mentor.” But the suave voice whispering murderous thoughts into Slater’s ear is unmistakably intended to be the King’s, and Kilmer aces it.

Rent or buy it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu or YouTube.

Harvey Keitel in 1998, ‘Finding Graceland’ (3 guitars)

OK, so strictly speaking, Harvey Keitel is not Elvis but “Elvis,” a fictional older — and very much alive — version of Presley who faked his death in 1977 after becoming overwhelmed by the pressures of fame. Keitel nails the melted-chocolate quality of the rocker’s voice and delivers a full-throated portrayal of an over-the-hill King, complete with hip thrusts and shoulder shimmies. (The film was produced by Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, and scenes were actually filmed inside the Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee.)

Buy it on Amazon.

Bruce Campbell in 2003, ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ (3 guitars)

In this R-rated comedy-horror flick, Bruce Campbell is an aged Elvis impersonator in a nursing home, Ossie Davis is a fellow resident who claims to be President John F. Kennedy, they fight an Egyptian mummy sucking out residents’ souls through their butts, and, just trust us, it works. Campbell brings an endearingly crusty charisma to the part, and his self-deprecating hospital-bed monologues about growing old are surprisingly moving.

Stream it on Tubi or Amazon Prime; rent or buy it on Apple TV or Vudu.

David Keith in 1988, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (3 guitars)

“Heartbreak Hotel” sounds, from the title, like an Elvis-adjacent chick flick, but it’s actually a comedy written and directed by Chris Columbus about a teenage boy who kidnaps Elvis as a present for his mother when she’s recovering from a car crash. (Elvis happens to be his mom’s favorite singer.) Critics — and the public — gave Keith’s portrayal a rather tepid reception, with Rita Kempley of The Washington Post concluding in her scalpelesque pan that “Playing Elvis is like playing a Kennedy, nearly impossible.” At least someone liked it: Keith’s King, who was fatherly, clean-cut and drug-free, did get the blessing of the Presley estate and Elvis’s national fan club.

Buy it on Amazon.

Don Johnson in 1981, ‘Elvis and the Beauty Queen’ (2 guitars)

This made-for-TV movie focused on the end of Elvis’ life and his relationship with the beauty-pageant contestant Linda Thompson, whom he was romantically involved with after the end of his six-year marriage to Priscilla Presley. To judge by YouTube clips, Johnson rocked a jumpsuit as a zonked-out Elvis, yes, but his high-pitched speaking voice was better suited for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch than a seduction scene, and his bushy black wig was downright hokey — and that was before the heavy eyeliner and mascara.

Michael Shannon in 2016, ‘Elvis & Nixon’ (1 guitar)

If you didn’t hear a security guard say, “It’s Elvis Presley!” you wouldn’t know Michael Shannon’s careworn, sullen Elvis was supposed to be the King. His craggy face is at odds with the King’s smooth features, and, combined with a voluminous black wig, his Elvis smacks of Michael Crawford in “Dance of the Vampires.” The film, a historical comedy, focused on a 1970 meeting between Presley and President Richard Nixon (played by Kevin Spacey, who also does not resemble his real-life counterpart). Shannon is a great character actor, but he can’t overcome this confoundingly bad casting, despite the gleaming gold belt buckle, tinted glasses, high-collared shirt and flashing rings.

Stream it on Amazon Prime; rent it on

Bonus: Stitch in ‘Lilo & Stitch’ (2002)

He ain’t nothin’ but a hound alien. In this animated comedy, Experiment 626 — aka Stitch — uses a black wig, white jumpsuit and ukulele to indulge Lilo as she tries to teach him to be a model citizen. And honestly, based on the number of beachgoers who swooned when they got one of his flirtatious winks, we’d have to crown him the hip-swivel champion.

Stream it on Disney+; rent or buy it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu or YouTube.

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