By Amy Smith
We are now halfway through 2022, and it has been quite a strong year for the movie industry so far. It is well known to Oscar pundits that a lot of the major contenders do not come out until the second half of the year, but it is always worth keeping an eye out to see what might be able to maintain momentum from the earlier releases. Baz Luhrmann may not have the best record when it comes to award season, but making a biopic of the legendary Elvis Presley may be precisely what the Academy needs to recognize his filmography once again. In particular, there is a case to be made as to why leading breakout actor Austin Butler should receive a Best Actor nomination for his phenomenal portrayal of the King of Rock n’ Roll.
The Musical Biopic Role
Over the past few decades, the Academy has favored acting performances based on real-life personalities. This is particularly true when it comes to some of the most beloved musicians being portrayed on the big screen, showcasing not only the acting chops but an actor’s potential vocal range and musicality. Traditional musical biopics have a range of achievements they can be awarded for at the Oscars, whether it is the recreation of the artist’s costumes and make-up work to the use of sound to bring their discography to life. However, it is the acting categories that have seen the most considerable boost in potential nominations and wins over the past few years.
Only one musical biopic has ever gone on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and that is the 1984 film “Amadeus,” directed by Miloš Forman. It may seem odd to call it a musical biopic to begin with, but the focus on the iconic composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart means that it is easily one of the genre’s best films. “Amadeus” would go on to win eight Oscars out of the eleven nominations it received, including Best Picture, Director (Forman), Actor (F. Murray Abraham), and Adapted Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium (Peter Shaffer). “Amadeus” set the standard of what a musical biopic could be perceived as and the success it can have critically, something that no other film in the genre has reached since.
In the 2000s, three actors won Oscars for a role in a musical biopic: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in “Ray,” Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line,” and Marion Cotillard as Èdith Piaf in “La Vie En Rose.” While that ended up being a solid run of winners for the genre, the Academy would not recognize the musical biopic afterward until 2018, when “Bohemian Rhapsody” surpassed everyone’s expectations. While failing to receive the Best Picture prize, the film walked home with four Oscars, including Best Actor for Rami Malek and Best Film Editing. The success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” ended up overshadowing another musical drama that year, the 2018 remake of “A Star is Born,” which many argue should have been worthy of the praise that “Bohemian Rhapsody” received. The love of the biopic leading roles continued into 2019 when Renée Zellweger swept the entire award season and won her second Oscar playing the beloved Judy Garland during her final years. “Judy” as a film failed to impress critics and Academy members. Still, the one-two punch of a Best Make-Up and Hairstyling nomination and a Best Actress win for Zellweger has created a defining pathway for future Oscar winners, particularly when it comes to biopics.
The King Of Rock n’ Roll
So, how does Austin Butler compare to recent Oscar winners? During the casting process, numerous names were floating around for the role of Elvis. With names such as Harry Styles, Miles Teller, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson all lined up and ready to take on the role, Butler impressed Baz Luhrmann with an audition tape performing “Unchained Melody” and won the role. When watching Butler on screen in “Elvis,” it is easy to see why Luhrmann was impressed with his audition tape. From the outstanding musical sequences to the heart-breaking narrative moments, Butler is able to strike a balance with his Elvis and make him a character that is hard not to be charmed by. In 2022, Butler has been able to recreate a version of Elvis that many women – and men – will swoon over as the original fans did back in the 1950s.
Given that “Elvis” is directed by Baz Luhrmann, this is obviously not going to be your traditional biopic. While that didn’t stop Kristen Stewart from getting a nomination last year for “Spencer,” that film did suffer critically due to the representation of Princess Diana and failed to get any other Oscar nominations. What may hinder Butler’s chance of a nomination the most with this particular film is the narrative structure, which veers away from Elvis himself and instead focuses on the industry’s business side, led by his manager Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks). With so many chances to focus on Elvis’s personal life, his presence on stage, and his discography, “Elvis” is more fascinated by the marketing and the financial struggles of managing a man of his reputation and sex appeal. Suppose the film fails to connect to the Academy as an Elvis biopic with a commanding lead performance. In that case, the narrative structure will be one of the big reasons why Butler misses a nomination.
The Elvis portrayed in Luhrmann’s biopic certainly has his flaws, but he is not necessarily shown in a bad light. Many critics of the singer were wondering how deep this version of the story would go, and while certain things are mentioned in passing, such as Priscilla’s age when she first met her husband, they come with little backlash or questioning. Instead, pushing a lot of the troubles at that time on Colonel Tom Parker gives Elvis an excuse for his actions and makes him a victim of the situation. This sympathetic look of Elvis as a person may make people question the validity of the biopic. Still, it may also, in the long run, help further establish him as an icon of his time and strengthen Austin Butler’s chance at being similarly recognized at the Oscars as Malek or Zellweger.
The Campaigning Has Begun
Suppose you want to start an Oscar campaign on a good note; what better way to do it than to make a big impression at a prestigious festival? While it played out of competition, making Butler ineligible to grab a Best Actor win, “Elvis” premiered at the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival. Slots at the premiere and the few available screenings were hard to come by, with only one press screening scheduled at the festival, but word of mouth was strong. “Elvis” received the most prolonged standing ovation at this year’s festival, clocking in at twelve minutes. The film maintained its buzz throughout its premiere night by having an after-party featuring live music from artists on the soundtrack for the film, including Måneskin. With it releasing worldwide over the past week, “Elvis” is currently Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and was able to come out on top for the box office, making $31.2 million domestically on opening weekend.
Several celebrities have already mentioned their love and support for Austin Butler, particularly pushing for him to come out on top this award season. Carrie Hope Fletcher, a musical theatre performer who recently played the titular role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cinderella,” posted a photo on Instagram of her and Butler when they were teenagers. The post was captioned: “Was incredible to see him shine in #ElvisMovie the other night! If he doesn’t win an Oscar for that performance, I’ll eat my glass slippers!” Additionally, actress and director Riley Keough (who just so happens to be the granddaughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley), has been sharing her love for Butler’s performance. Priscilla, Riley, and other members of the Presley family have been seen touring the country in support of the biopic, including the Graceland premiere.
Austin Butler himself has also made some headlines during the publicity run of “Elvis,” seemingly taking a lesson from Lady Gaga’s “House Of Gucci” campaign last year. In an interview with GQ, Butler stated that his body began to shut down less than 24 hours after the film wrapped on set, and he was rushed to the hospital, diagnosed with an appendicitis-like virus. Additionally, Butler has been on record to show his dedication to mastering Elvis’s accent and vocal range, with the accent still slipping out of his mouth during recent interviews. Whether this was solely to help maintain word-of-mouth during the film’s initial release or something we will see later in an Oscar campaign run for Butler, we will have to wait and see.
The Long Road Ahead
While things might be looking strong right now for Austin Butler to secure his first Oscar nomination, it is still very early days in the race. When looking at other biopics in recent years that struggled to maintain momentum in the final stretch, we only need to look at Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman” from 2019. Released in May, the film capitalized on the buzz from “Bohemian Rhapsody” and had a more untraditional structure for the biopic, using fantastical elements and blending the songs within a musical genre format to tell the story of Elton John’s troubled past. Many critics praised Taron Egerton for his committed leading performance, as he trained professionally to sing Elton’s songs on the screen instead of just lip-syncing. Despite winning a Golden Globe for Leading Actor in a Musical/Comedy and receiving a SAG nomination, he could not keep the momentum to earn a nomination at the Oscars. The film walked away from the Academy Awards with a win from its only nomination: Best Original Song for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.”
Baz Luhrmann’s filmography has not had the most incredible reception regarding the Academy Awards, with only “The Great Gatsby” and “Moulin Rouge!” taking home prizes. When it comes to the technical achievements, Luhrmann’s work has been most appreciated for the Production Design and Costume Design, something that could once again be up for grabs with “Elvis.” Of Luhrmann’s five previous feature films, only Nicole Kidman scored an acting nomination for “Moulin Rouge!.” With even Leonardo DiCaprio failing to charm the Academy with “The Great Gatsby,” it will be interesting to see if Butler can maintain momentum and be the first male performance in a Luhrmann film to receive an Oscar nomination.
Austin Butler may be ahead of the game due to the early release, but he will face some tough competition in the Best Actor race from especially more well-known faces. Another film that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, “Broker,” walked away with a Best Actor win for Song Kang-ho, who is also riding on the coattails of the “Parasite” wave from 2019. A lot of the potential contenders for this year’s Best Actor line-up are sight unseen, and there are chances that some of these performances may either be pushed to 2023 or slip into the Best Supporting Actor race. If Butler wants to make it into this year’s race, though, he will be going up against Colman Domingo in George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin,” Hugh Jackman in Florian Seller’s “The Son,” Brendan Fraser in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” Jesse Plemons and Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise.” And that’s only beginning to scratch the surface for the young 30-year-old actor with other potential contenders still to come along over the long road ahead to the Academy Awards.
Have you had a chance to see “Elvis” yet? Do you think Austin Butler deserves to get an Oscar nomination for his performance? Is there any other aspect of the film that deserves recognition? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account, and be sure to keep an eye on the Next Best Picture team’s Best Actor Oscar predictions coming soon!
You can follow Amy and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @filmswithamy