The best actors to play Elvis on screen

The best actors to play Elvis on screen

Kurt Russell rotated the cold hip. Val Kilmer nailed the heartfelt and soulful vocals. And Michael Shannon… well, the credits identified him as Elvis Presley, so that was the character he was supposed to play in “Elvis & Nixon,” right?

Since King’s death in 1977, at age 42, more than a dozen actors – and an alien – have portrayed his walk, conversation and famous charm in dozens of films and TV shows. Now another has joined their ranks – Austin Butler, whose pinpoint hip movements are at the heart of Baz Luhrmann’s new “Elvis.”

So how does Butler’s sultry, baby-faced king compare to Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Golden Globe crooner or Harvey Keitel’s wacky rocker? We offer you our rankings.

1979

The perfectly styled beanbag, the raw, emotive voice, the frenetic hip thrusts, the shiny, form-fitting rhinestone jumpsuit…blink, and you could easily believe, thanks to this near-perfect 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.

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

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2005

Hilton appears 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 it nails Presley’s scrambled vocal style and deeply felt conviction in his singing.

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

This romantic crime drama written by Quentin Tarantino doesn’t center on the king, but on an Elvis fanatic (Christian Slater) and his new wife on the run from gangsters. But Kilmer’s appearance of Elvis, in a gold lamé suit, might just be the most memorable part. (That’s saying something in a film that also starred Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson and a young Brad Pitt.) Kilmer’s appearance ends at about two minutes and he is uncredited that as “Mentor”. But the suave voice whispering murderous thoughts in Slater’s ear is undeniably meant to be the King’s, and Kilmer succeeds.

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

1998

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

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2003

In this R-rated horror-comedy film, Bruce Campbell is an elderly Elvis impersonator in a nursing home, Ossie Davis is another resident who claims to be President John F. Kennedy, they battle an Egyptian mummy aspiring residents’ soul through their butts, and, trust us, it’s working. Campbell brings an endearing, crisp charisma to the piece, and his self-deprecating hospital bed monologues about aging are surprisingly moving.

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

1988

“Heartbreak Hotel” sounds, from the title, like a chick flick next to Elvis, but it’s actually a comedy written and directed by Chris Columbus about a teenager who kidnaps Elvis as a present for his mother while she is recovering from a car accident. (Elvis happens to be his mother’s favorite singer.) Critics – and audiences – gave Keith’s portrayal a lukewarm reception, with Rita Kempley of the Washington Post concluding in her scalpel pan that “Playing Elvis, c It’s like playing a Kennedy, almost impossible.” At least someone liked it: Keith’s King, who was fatherly, clean and drug-free, got the blessing of the Presley estate and the national Elvis fan club.

Buy it on Amazon.

nineteen eighty one

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

2016

If you haven’t heard a security guard say, “It’s Elvis Presley!” you wouldn’t know Michael Shannon’s brooding, concerned Elvis was supposed to be king. His steep 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 encounter between Presley and President Richard Nixon (played by Kevin Spacey, who also bears no resemblance to his real-life counterpart). Shannon is a great character actor, but he can’t get over this insanely bad casting, despite the shiny gold belt buckle, tinted glasses, high-necked shirt, and flashing rings.

Stream it on Amazon Prime; rent it on DVD.com.

2002

It’s nothing but an alien dog. In this animated comedy, Experiment 626 – aka Stitch – uses a black wig, white jumpsuit and ukulele to please Lilo as she tries to teach him how to be a model citizen. And honestly, based on the number of bathers who passed out when they received one of his flirtatious winks, we should 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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