Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Nobody in Hollywood is what they are; they’re always something else.
Waitstaff are actors, security guards are screenwriters, guys who set up shop in diner booths aren’t oddballs, they’re agents. The street dancers, the buskers, the living statues, all living on “donations” from passers-by, they’re all in the business. “You have to remember that show business is all a show and it’s all business,” says Sal-the-Agent (Clu Gulager) to one of his many fresh-off-the-bus prospects. “It’s both a show and a business. I tell all my clients that. I’m an agent but I’m also a professional communicator.”
All across the world, people have that famous HOLLYWOOD sign in their eyes, and the sign is surrounded by stars, literally and figuratively. The Muppets called it “The Magic Store”. It’s where dreams come true. Where beautiful girls are discovered at soda fountains. But the further down the hill you get from those famous white letters, more litter is visible, and those names on the stars on the Walk of Fame become less-familiar as you go. The most-devoted can be found hosing condoms off of Ann Sheridan’s star. And, in an image that sums up the primary theme of the film, our title hero brushes cigarette butts of the star belonging to Elvis Presley. Where once were legends, today nobody gives a damn. It’s worse for the has-beens, but not as bad as the never-weres have it. At street level, that dream Hollywood’s been pitching for a hundred years—that anyone with talent and heart can be a star—is as faded and tattered as its namesake boulevard. It’s a town of dreamers and ghosts. 
Eddie Presley (Duane Whitaker) is not just a down-on-his-luck security guard living out of a van parked behind the Frederick’s of Hollywood building. He’s lounge star waiting for his comeback: an Elvis impersonator who got into that game before there was even a demand for it. He played all the big rooms. “Okay,” he amends. “Maybe not the big rooms, but small-to-medium rooms all over the country. All over the country!”
In recent days, he pumps his breakfast money into a pay phone to check an empty answering service, stuffs the junk mail in his PO Box into the holes in his shoes. Whatever’s left, he gives to a homeless guy, out of kindness and sympathy, only to have the bum throw it back at him in outrage: “What am I supposed to do with a fucking quarter?”
Eddie’s girlfriend (Stacie Randall billed here as Stacie Bourgeois), who goes by the stage name of Tyranny, works double and triple-shifts as a diner waitress. Everyday she dodges the regular human debris—a goggle-eyed maybe-biker, maybe-skin head named Ace; Sal the Agent set up in his office in his regular booth, taking calls on the diner’s payphone. On her breaks, she sits with a lesbian friend (Julie Rhode-Browne ) who is trying to convince her to “make her start” in porn. “A lot of actresses do it that way,” she insists. 
To make ends get slightly closer every month, Eddie works graveyard security shifts at a warehouse, but the supervisor has it in for him. He’s already on probation for taking a shower on the job at 2am. For the most part, his co-workers like him, particularly female guard Becky, who practically throws herself at him, though he barely notices. Eddie’s too preoccupied with a call that never seems to come, something that will usher in his comeback Elvis act. 
Eddie’s dying for that call, a little more every day. His old friend owns a club called “Doc’s Back Door”, and he’s always looking for new acts. Doc spends his days auditioning an endless parade of hopefuls alongside his even more critical Mexican bartender, Smokey. First there’s the horrible ventriloquist who berates the dummy when the lines don’t come out right. There’s the performance artist whose schtick involves a cockroach representing Iraq and a knock-off brand of RAID representing U.S. involvement. (Doc: “You get out of here, you commie bastard! We kicked ass in the Gulf!”) The only act Smokey likes is a shock comic (played by Tim Thomerson—“I went to a very sexually-liberated college. It was called ‘Fuck U’!” (“Hey, I do some clean material, too. I once opened for the Cowsills.”) The only act Doc likes is a smarmy cruise liner agent named “Keystone the Magnificent” (played by Daniel Roebuck)—“I taught Doug Henning my best stuff. He stole ‘em, that bastard!”  
Meanwhile, Tyranny’s own bitter frustration—“Serving shit food to shit people all day long!”—is sucking him dry. “My life is out of synch,” she tells him. Becky shows her interest in him by trying to relate to his act: “I’m a singer. Kind of an easy-listening type,” she says. “Maybe I could be your… backup singer?” At the end of a long day, Eddie doses off at work and Supervisor West (Lawrence Tierney) captures the moment on Polaroid. And why the cruelty from him? “Because I don’t like you, Presley! You’re one of those wanna-be Hollywood faggots. You’re a loser and you’ll always be a loser.” Maybe West had a dream deferred himself some time ago, so he does his best to revenge it by stomping upon the dreams of everyone around him, even those just trying to get by.
When Eddie finally gets that call from Doc (the wonderful Roscoe Lee Browne), his security guard buddies couldn’t be more supportive. Nick and Scooter (Willard Pugh and Ted Raimi) raise money to get him a stretch limo for the big night. Becky plans to get all dolled up for the occasion. The humiliation continues to pile up, though. He hands Sid his mock-up flier, invites him to the show, only to have to ask for it back so he can make copies. Tyranny can’t get off work and won’t be there. His dry cleaner agrees to come so long as he can get in for free. Worst of all, he’s billed beneath Keystone on the slap-dash marquee.
Then comes the big night and out comes Eddie Presley—King of the Kings—opening with a Southern medley and killing. Then the club’s cassette player eats his back-up music tape. At a loss, on the verge of panic, Eddie sits down with his accoustic guitar and opens up to his dwindling single-digit audience, and he lays bare the story that up until now we’ve only gotten glimpses of: a son he never sees, a business he no longer owns, a nightmare asylum where he lived after hearing the news that his hero—his Messiah—died in 1977. On stage, Eddie Presley becomes who he really is.
And anyone who has ever undertaken some sort of public art—musical performance, art installation, stand-up, film screening, play premiere—will for a few minutes share that space with Eddie. Anyone who has ever given voice to their art to a near-empty room, leaning solely on the support of the handful of family or friends who have come out of whatever—respect, love, pity—you’ll recognize that lonely spotlight and the agony of never giving up and never knowing why.
Whitaker opened up his original one-man play with director Jeff Burr to create this tone poem ode to disappointment. Described by The Quentin Tarantino Archives as “the story of a man who didn't make it back up after he fell down”, Eddie Presley is about the potential danger of following your dreams without a plan. By his own admission, Eddie gave up his family and lucrative career because he “wasn’t happy”, and took that unhappiness to its most illogical of conclusions. But since Hollywood is filled with the shattered remains of ill-conceived dreams, he’s lonely but never alone. His tunnel-vision is no different from anyone elses “out there”, which is why he focuses on his distant girlfriend with “attainable beauty” and cannot see the genuine affection his plain “friend” Becky has for him. He sees just how empty Doc’s room is during his act, but doesn’t really see the standing ovation he gets from two friends. Raimi and Pugh give beautiful if wordless performances as they watch Eddie on stage—in their eyes, he is living a dream they don’t dare pursue.  So many people around Eddie call him a loser behind his back but who are they to judge? Who is Sid the Agent who “handled them all” (from Freddie Bartholomew to Anne Francis)? Who is Keystone the Magnificent who sets his glove on fire on stage and gets savaged by the rabbit within his hat? Who is Smokey the bartender to have such disdain towards those, in his vast esteem, “suck”? Indeed, who are any of us to judge anyone following their dreams, however misguided they may be? The irony in the film is that Eddie, like Rupert Pupkin or Mickey One, is actually a pretty good performer, but the fates are not on his side. Kim Kardashian has never done one thing of note during her entirety of her existence, but she stands far above this broken dreamer alone on a dive-bar stage. 
You don’t need a Ph.D. in Jeff Burr to be able to see Eddie Presley for the personal project that it is. First came Whitaker’s play, where he poured out his own personal pain. Then Burr’s adaptation, which came on the heels of a creatively-disappointing string of franchise sequels—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Stepfather 2—where he had no control over the final cut nor the wishes of those “suits” above him. “[The Offspring, Straight into Darkness and Eddie Presley] are more representative of what I want to do and am capable of doing,” Burr told Icons of Fright. “The frustration for me is to not be able to be allowed to put the creativity you know you have on the screen, for various reasons. That’s the frustration.”
But with all the pathos and desperation in the movie, you can tell from the cast how much the principal creators were and are. Browne, Tierney, Gulagher, Thomerson, Roebuck, Raimi, Kitten Natividad—even very brief cameos by Bruce Campbell and soon-to-be-legend Quentin Tarantino—all appeared for very little money. Michael Varrati (Master of the Massacre: An Interview with Filmmaker Jeff Burr ) asserts that Burr “somehow managed to put together this “Ocean’s 11 of cult” ensemble”, to help Burr and Whitaker get their 16mm epic off the ground. and at no point does the story take the easy way out. you know very well that at the end of his performance, Eddie’s existence will probably not change. there won’t be a rush of agents or even a steady gig to come of it all. But that time in the spotlight may very well have been worth it all in the long run.      
Bill Gibron, a critic I respect immensely, wrote in his review, “Eddie never really gets a transcendent moment, a chance for the film to combine its incredible elements to lift you out of the story and into something more special. We keep waiting for it to come and it never quite does. The movie pushes it, though. It comes awful goddamn close, so close in fact that you could get confused and claim to experience the inspirational, when in reality it was all a ruse, a cinematic sham caused with jumpsuits and jokes. Indeed, what Eddie Presley may need is more proof of our hero's music and mimicry.”
It’s a valid criticism, but it’s not one that I share. To tip its hand and show Eddie as a competent Elvis would have undercut the film’s third act punch (and just because I’ve told you about it won’t lessen the squeeze upon your heart during viewing) With Eddie Presley you have a movie that, like the dead talent on the Walk of Fame, you don’t see much of these days. And to give Eddie’s story a moment of inspiration would be grossly disingenuous. This isn’t a larger-than-life story; it’s one that’s actual size, far too intimate for gross grandeur. It’s a story that’s sensitive without sentiment; cynical without cruelty. Even though it’s set in Hollywood, don’t expect a Hollywood ending. 

[Special note for Pittsburghers: Eddie Presley is playing on a double-bill with Henrique Couto's Depression: The Movie, Friday, December 7 starting at 7pm at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont.] 

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