Cassian Elwes sat down at the bar, offered to buy me a drink and with an I-know-something-you-don't look in his eye said, "Let me tell you a story."
Keep in mind, Elwes is a master storyteller. He's the award-winning producer of Dallas Buyer's Club, Blue Valentine, Frozen River, All Is Lost and Lee Daniels' The Butler—he has shepherded Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams to Oscar-nominated performances. Elwes and I had just wrapped up a public salon conversation as part of the 2016 Sun Valley Film Festival and retired to the bar. "Have you ever heard about the time Elvis Presley met Richard Nixon?" he asked. Of course I had. The confab is urban legend. All I knew, however, is what most Americans know: "The King" had somehow finagled his way into the Oval Office to meet President Nixon and, to this day, the Dec. 21, 1970 black-and-white photo of Elvis and Nixon is the most requested photo from the U.S. National Archives. The meeting was made public a year later and there have been two memoirs chronicling the event, Me and a Guy Named Elvis (written by a friend of Presley) and The Day Elvis Met Nixon (written by White House aide Egil "Bud" Krogh), and a 1997 made-for-TV mockumentary, Elvis Meets Nixon. But this story has been ripe for a film adaptation for some time.
"Well, we did it," said Elwes. "We got Michael Shannon to play Elvis and, get this, Kevin Spacey to play Nixon. We were wracking our brains last night, trying to develop a catchphrase for the poster, and it came to me this morning: "On Dec. 21, 1970, two of America's greatest recording artists met for the first time."
I'm happy to report the film, Elvis and Nixon, is absurd, delicious and historically accurate.
"Mr. President, from noon to 1 p.m. you have an open hour, and we thought that would be a good time to meet with Mr. Presley," says Krogh in the film's opening moments—Krogh would later serve time in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal.
"Who the fuck set this up?" screams an irate Nixon. "And during my nap hour."
Krogh and other Nixon aides thought it was a swell idea for Nixon to meet with Elvis after the King showed up unexpectedly that morning at the White House gate, insisting he had a special mission to "save America" but only if Nixon would christen him "federal agent at-large." For the record, there is still some debate over whether such a role exists.
"I've been in 31 major motion pictures, and that makes me an expert in costumes and disguise," says Elvis, played to understated perfection by Shannon. "When I walk into a room, people think of their first kiss. They don't really see me."
Elvis couldn't have been more wrong. Donning a shirt with ear-hugging lapels and a belt to beat the band, Elvis was about as conspicuous as the American flag on the Fourth of July. One hilarious scene at the White House has a Secret Service agent asking Elvis for some identification. Elvis promptly pulls out his collection of honorary law enforcement badges from various local police departments, believing they make him qualified to help protect America.
Instead of flashing his many badges to the Secret Service, Elvis was promptly ordered to surrender his multiple weapons hidden in various spots on his person (no one searched his hair).
"I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques," wrote Presley to Nixon—the letter is in the National Archives.
I won't tell you what happens between the time Elvis arrives at the White House and when he leaves the Oval Office. Cassian Elwes is a much better storyteller... and what a story.
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