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‘Elvis & Nixon’ recalls a bizarre moment in history

This we know: On Dec. 21, 1970, Elvis Presley showed up bright and early at the White House gates, delivering a barely legible note he’d scrawled on American Airlines stationery to President Richard Nixon.

Presley said he’d love to come by and meet the president, and that he was also seeking a badge to be a federal agent, so he could help combat the drug culture and the “hippie elements” ruining the country.

What the movie, directed by Liza Johnson, lacks in factual material it replaces with whimsy and quirky humor, helped greatly by the casting of Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. — PHOTO: Courtesy
What the movie, directed by Liza Johnson, lacks in factual material it replaces with whimsy and quirky humor, helped greatly by the casting of Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. — PHOTO: Courtesy

And though the initial reaction of Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was “You must be kidding” — scrawled in the margins of a memo — that meeting did take place, hours later. It led to an awkward Oval Office photo that the National Archives says is its most requested image, more than even man walking on the moon — which probably was a more predictable sight than Elvis Presley standing next to Nixon.

What exactly did the two men discuss?

No transcript exists, just a memo describing it.

That’s where “Elvis & Nixon” comes in, filling in the blanks in a dramatization of what has to be one of the odder White House encounters on record.

What the movie, directed by Liza Johnson, lacks in factual material it replaces with whimsy and quirky humor, helped greatly by the casting of Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as Nixon.

The problem is that other than the meeting, which is fascinating indeed, there’s not much of a story.

We hear a lot about the quest of Presley’s good friend, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to get back to Los Angeles and see his girlfriend. It’s not clear why we need to know all this. It certainly bogs down the proceedings.

We begin with Nixon’s aides proposing the meeting to their skeptical, cranky boss. “Who the (expletive) set this up?” Nixon asks.

Flashback to 36 hours earlier. Presley is watching news footage at home in Tennessee, and doesn’t like what he sees. He takes out a gun and shoots the TV set to smithereens.

Soon enough, he’s on his way to Washington, via Los Angeles. En route, there’s an amusing scene where some Elvis impersonators approach him in an airport lounge. They think he’s one of them, and want to compare notes.

Speaking of impersonation: Both Presley and Nixon are such larger-than-life characters that any actor playing them seems likely to teeter on the precipice of mimicry. Shannon, a terrific actor whose features don’t resemble Presley’s at all, does a nice job of avoiding the cartoonish, finding a way to explore the essence of his character, physically and vocally (that slurred “thank you very much.”) And Spacey, who by the way is one of our finest impressionists, avoids mocking; he’s quite funny as a grumpy, profane man who is deeply uncomfortable in his skin.

Presented with Presley’s childishly scrawled note, Nixon’s young aides like the idea of their very square boss engaging with a pop legend — good for the youth vote. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) reluctantly approves. Nixon at first objects — it’s his nap hour! — but then the aides enlist his beloved daughter Julie, who wants a signed photo.

And so Elvis turns up in his black cape-like suit and huge gold belt buckle — and loaded with his prized handguns. Once disarmed, he’s ushered in, with strict instructions not to touch the president’s M&Ms or his Dr. Pepper. He ignores both. “You got a bottle opener?” he asks.

And so this fascinating encounter goes, combining things we know happened (the photo, the hug Elvis offers) with things we don’t (did Elvis really demonstrate karate?)

By the way, Presley gets his official agent badge that very day, from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. (Actor-playwright Tracy Letts has a truly fabulous cameo as the stunned official who issues it.) Fiction? Nope.

As Haldeman said so succinctly: You must be kidding.

“Elvis & Nixon,” an Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for some language.” Running time: 87 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

Elvis tops British charts for 2nd week with ‘If I Can Dream’

King of rock and roll Elvis Presley topped the British album charts for a second week with his 12th UK Number 1.

Nearly 40 years after his death, Elvis became the male solo artist with the most UK Number 1 albums last week with “If I Can Dream,” a collection of his classics featuring orchestral reworkings by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The album notched up over 88,600 combined chart sales, giving him the second-fastest selling album of the year behind Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ “Chasing Yesterday,” the Official Charts Company said.

New entries Little Mix’s “Get Weird” and Ellie Goulding’s “Delirium” took second and third place in the album chart, pushing Rod Stewart’s “Another Country” down from second to fourth place.

There was another trip down memory lane this week with a deluxe reissue of the Beatles’ album “1” entering at number five.

In the singles charts, Adele was top for a third week with Britain’s fastest-selling record of 2015 “Hello,” which also topped Britain’s weekly streaming chart with 4.7 million listens.

Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” was number two in the singles charts, followed by 2014 X Factor runner-up Fleur East with her debut single “Sax”.

Nun who kissed Elvis helps save abbey

Mother Dolores Hart finds it miraculous that she was able to turn one kiss with Elvis Presley into the spark that helped save an abbey.

The former starlet who walked away from Hollywood in 1963 to become a nun spun her tale into a fundraising campaign for her crumbling monastery in rural Connecticut. 

But the pot boiler about Presley’s first on-screen kiss and the girl who turned from the screen to sisterhood has done more than keep open the doors of Abbey of Regina Laudis. It has inspired new interest in its monastic work. Now she and the other nuns hope to raise up to $9 million to restore the order’s former brass factory for future generations.

Mother Dolores, now 76, first shared her story with The Associated Press in 2011 as she and about 40 other members of her Benedictine order faced the possibility that their abbey in Bethlehem would close

Fire officials had found numerous fire code and safety issues in what was a ramshackle collection of factory buildings, barns and sheds that were linked together in 1947 after the nuns purchased the old industrial site. 

Mother Dolores went on to write an autobiography, embark on a speaking tour, and make TV appearances. In 2012, she returned to Hollywood to attend the Academy Awards when a documentary short about her life, “God is the Bigger Elvis,” was nominated for an Oscar.

“Of course it was only a nomination,” she joked. “I’m still waiting for the real thing.”

But the bigger reward, she said, came as an answer to her prayers for the abbey.

Shortly after her autobiography was published, the monastery began receiving letters and donations from across the world. One man began sending $100 a month. A woman in New Zealand sent $3,000.

“The Elvis fans didn’t have a lot of money, but they sent quite a few dollars and all their love,” she said. 

The nuns quickly raised more than $1 million. The abbey’s main building now has new alarm and sprinkler systems, an elevator and other safety improvements. 

What was once a project designed to keep the abbey from closing has become a fundraising effort to renovate the abbey for a long future. 

The most recent version of the renovation plan, dubbed New Horizons, calls for a new chapel (the ceiling is sagging), housing and other environmentally friendly and disabled accessible spaces to live and pray. 

Among other things, the nuns need to install new wiring and insulation to prevent the constant freezing of pipes in the winter, fix the falling gutters, replace rotting wood and get rid of the black mold that can be seen growing on the ceiling of the former barn that now houses the print shop, bakery and sewing room. 

More than anything, they need more space — common areas and places where people can reflect without bumping into one another. They have no conference room and currently no way to walk inside from one end of the monastery to the other without going through the chapel and disturbing those who are praying there.

The nuns estimate the work will cost between $7.5 million and $9 million. They have so far raised more than $3 million.

“That first phase was more of an urgency, a survival thing,” said Sister Angele Arbib, who serves as the abbey’s spokeswoman. “But this is all needed. We have to continue, because we aren’t going to be in a position to do this ever again. We are doing this for the future.” 

Mother Abbess Lucia Kuppens said it has been hard for the nuns, who were used to living a cloistered life, to reach out to the public and ask for assistance. But with Mother Dolores as an inspiration, they have all found a way to help, each using her unique talents.

They have set up a website, organized fundraisers, begun speaking to the media and increasing sales of their handcrafted pottery, artisan cheeses, and choir recordings.

“We now know we can do it,” the mother abbess said. “We’ve gained courage and confidence.”

Mother Dolores’ story has attracted more than money, Mother Lucia said. Other professional women have connected with the idea of leaving their hectic lives for the monastery. Some come to the abbey to visit, working in their dairy and learning how to live a more self-sufficient life on the abbey’s organic farm.

Judith Pinco, a former singer from Hollywood, read about Mother Dolores and decided to visit the abbey. She ended up joining the church and now serves as Mother Dolores’ assistant and liaison to the outside world.

“I thought I was coming here for a contemplative life, but this is my way of giving back,” she said.

There has also been a steady stream of young people, many inspired by Mother Dolores’ story, showing up and looking for direction. Every room where the novices live is currently filled.

“So there has been more than just donations,” Mother Lucia said. “People have really been finding spiritual renewal.”

That has put even more strain on the abbey already cramped housing, helping make the planned renovations a necessity, Mother Lucia said. 

The changes will make it possible for the abbey to grow and continue its service, she said — like a movie with a happy ending.

“I couldn’t ask for a better legacy,” said Mother Dolores.

School play edited over ‘sexually suggestive’ Elvis song

A Utah school district will require the editing of a high school play that uses Elvis Presley’s music after a complaint about a “sexually suggestive” song.

Jordan School District officials announced plans on Jan. 2 to scrap Herriman High School’s production of “All Shook Up,” saying it could be offensive. Then the district announced the play would be edited, including removing the play’s title track from the script, and other tweaks.

District spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf said a person approached the district before Christmas break and complained about the play, which is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

Riesgraf said district administrators reviewed the script over the break and determined it didn’t meet new district standards put in place in August after a South Jordan high school’s play came under fire.

The Deseret News reported students have already started rehearsing the play, which is scheduled for February.