FYC: Austin Butler for Best Lead Actor

Each year, there’s a performance from an actor that audiences were previously unfamiliar with, and we can’t believe the talent we’re seeing unfold on screen. In a true ‘a star is born’ performance, Austin Butler becomes Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. The young actor, who was previously in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was well-known by name to most, but not as a serious actor in awards conversation. That has all changed with Butler’s performance in Elvis.

Butler beat out multiple big names – like Harry Styles, Miles Teller, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson – for the role of Elvis Presley in Luhrmann’s follow-up to The Great Gatsby. The actor impressed Luhrmann with an audition tape performing ‘Unchained Melody’ which won him the role. Butler was able to tap into a personal connection between himself and Presley as they both lost their mothers at the age of twenty-three. Watching Butler on screen in Elvis, it’s hard to believe we haven’t discussed him in the awards conversation before. He not only disappears into the role, but he is able to make audiences understand the feeling Presley brought out during his prime. Butler is so charismatic as he transforms into Presley, but the performance never feels forced. He has perfect control over his mannerisms, voice, and vulnerability he brings to the screen. 

Working with perfect costumes, designed by four-time Oscar winner Catherine Martin, Butler seamlessly appears as Presley throughout the film. With a first glance at Butler, some may not see the resemblance between him and Presley, but that truly doesn’t matter once you watch the film. Butler’s performance never falls into an impersonation, he plays Presley with such conviction and heart you truly believe you’re watching Presley in the moment. Not only the voice Butler utilizes when both speaking and singing, but his movements are exactly like Presley’s. Luhrmann had initially intended to have an impersonator perform as the young Elvis because he didn’t have the rights to use those original recordings. However, the director asked Butler if he could sing. Luhrmann told Deadline in an interview, “Austin said, ‘Well, I don’t really sing but I’ve practiced one Elvis song…’ and I’ve still got it on video. I mean, when you hear him sing, it’s crazy. You cannot believe. It’s spine-tingling. We just started riffing, and hours would go by.” Butler is able to portray both the flashy stage presence of Presley, as well as the more subtle complexities that made Presley the man he was off stage. 

Butler has such respect for Presley, you can feel it radiating through the screen. He brings so much joy and passion to the role that you can sense why he beat out such big-name performers for the part. The magic Butler brings to the screen is enough to make a Presley fan out of someone who wasn’t a fan before. Butler was able to record all songs in the film and for the later years when Presley is older, the crew blended his voice with Presley’s. This brings a sense of realness to the film and Butler’s performance as his appearance always fits the voice we hear.  Butler’s voice has been an internet topic for over six months, but it truly works so well in the film and is a large part of what makes Butler’s performance so powerful. When you watch Butler on stage, you can’t help but truly feel transported to a different era. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is the ‘Suspicious Minds’ performance at the Vegas show towards the end of the film. Butler commands the stage and transports the audience back in time with his performance. While the vocals here are Butler’s blended with Presley’s, the charisma, charm, and stage presence Butler brings to the performance are undeniable. Without having ever seen a clip of Presley, you can understand exactly what it must have felt like to be in the audience watching Presley perform his hits in Vegas. 

What Elvis is able to pull off is something you can perhaps say happens with every musical biopic, the subject matter trends on the charts again. Not only has Presley’s music seen a resurgence, but the number of visitors to Graceland, Presley’s home, has increased. Another Presley related film will drop next year in Sofia Coppola’s Priscila, and Presley himself is constantly trending on Twitter. Butler’s performance has been praised by the Presley family, including by Presley’s ex-wife, daughter, and granddaughter.  Priscilla told Luhrmann after watching the finished film, ‘My whole life I’ve had to put up with people impersonating my husband, and I don’t know how that boy did it, but every move, every wink… If my husband was here, he’d say, ‘Hot damn, you are me.’ With that kind of legendary support behind the performance, Butler’s path an Oscar nomination seems stronger every day. 

While Luhrmann doesn’t always direct his actors to Oscar nominations or wins, the director is largely respected in the industry. What Luhrmann did for Leonardo DiCaprio decades ago in Romeo + Juliet, he has done again for Butler in Elvis. Austin Butler may have been a name many in the punditry game were unaware before this year, but it will be a name towards the top of their Oscar predictions for the next few months. 

You can read our review of Elvis here.
Elvis is currently available to stream on HBO Max or watch on demand.

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