I’m not here to bore you by regurgitating what a Wikipedia article or a Google search can tell you about the root of the word “geek”. Geeks were a freak show attraction in a time when there were even less resources than we have now for people to find the help they needed. You see, a geek was typically someone struggling with addiction – be it alcohol or drugs – that was taken advantage of by a grifter. These grifters were people with more power exploiting anyone desperate enough with hopes and dreams of something more. While this dynamic was brushed upon in Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis frames the entire biopic of one of the most notable musicians of all time around it.
Early into the film, there is a shot where Elvis’s (Austin Butler) face is framed running parallel with a poster for a Geek at the carnival he is traveling with, under Colonel Tom Parker’s (Tom Hanks) employ. It’s placed early into the film while Elvis is still a young man on the precipice of the next step in his life. Up until that point of the film, we’ve seen him growing up and learning about black culture and sound, all while painting him in a positive light. But Elvis lacks a sense of direction. He is nothing more than a young man in contemplation of the talent that his mother insists is “God-given”, and unsure what to do with it. Without a sense of direction, it’s very easy for a manipulative older person to put their hand on your shoulder and guide you where they want you to go. Enter, Col. Tom Parker. The snowman. The devil in disguise.
Col. Tom Parker called himself the snowman which the film itself doesn’t delve too deep into. It’s a reference with two sides to the coin. This name in itself is a reuse as all things are with a grifter. Colonel Tom had a long standing joke of his own private club named “The Snowmen’s League of America ” which was a pun at the expense of the real (and still existing) Showmen’s League of America. The group is a fraternal organization for carnival, circus, and outdoor entertainers which Tom himself joined after World War 2. The reason he would call it the Snowmen’s league and himself the Snowman, because snow was slang for pulling the wool over someone’s eyes. It was about making someone believe what you wanted them to believe, to have them blinded to everything but the world you present and to control the narrative and in this case, their mark. Tom Parker made a geek out of Elvis Presley, controlling his life almost entirely in the film after the loss of Presley’s mother. But it all started with that geek poster. We see it all laid out in front of us.
Moments before Tom can place his cane over Presley’s shoulder, Elvis’s friends break him away into one of the carnival’s attractions, which we will get to in a moment. The cane is something Colonel Tom Parker has with him through the entire film for mobility, but to me it says more than that. It’s never a plain walking stick, it always has some beautiful adornment on the top. In this case, it’s a clown topper to his cane. A cane is most often seen as a symbol of power, most often in a masculine light. It’s a sign of pedigree which Col. Tom Parker has none. As it hovers over Elvis’s shoulder, it’s used as a symbol of power, as if he is being knighted. It designates him as the carnival man’s clown to be taken possession of by the grifter as his sideshow attraction, his geek to draw in the crowd for eyes to ogle and dehumanize to nothing more than a creature. In Elvis’s case though, there’s less disgust but a feral sexual desire for the man known as the King.
Elvis enters a fun house of mirrors. For those unfamiliar, it’s a labyrinthian attraction made of halls of mirrors to twist and distort your perception in ways that make it hard to find the exit or in this case, to escape. Elvis finds himself cut off from his friends, but he sees himself in the mirror and behind him, Col. Tom Parker. When Elvis first turns toward him, it’s nothing but a reflection of Parker rather than the true him. A mirage, a farce, and simply someone who is just not there. You see, reader, Colonel Tom Parker isn’t real. He’s a character created by Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk as a new identity after illegally immigrating from the Netherlands. The colonel title was an honorary rank given by the Governor of Louisiana. He never served anywhere and he never served anyone but himself until the day he died.
The two men look at each other in this hallway of mirrors, Elvis completely lost in the amusement but also in life. He’s looking for meaning, he is looking for someone to guide him in life. He is looking for someone to give him the world he yearns for. What Tom Parker is looking for is a geek. Someone who he can control by any means necessary to get the money and adoration that he never could get otherwise. A grifter looking for an easy score on an impressionable man with far more talent than he even knew what to do with. So what does Tom do? He shows him an “Employee Only” exit from the hall of mirrors. Not a true exit, just a door into the cage where Elvis would spend his life until the day he died.
Films have a tendency to stretch stories and exaggerate the things that happened in real life. The closest affiliation I have to the real story of Elvis Presley is that we were in the same Fraternity, that’s it. I am not a lifelong fan nor do I know the truth of this story. What I do know is every step after leaving that house of mirrors, Elvis’s life was twisted, distorted, and altered to fit what Tom Parker wanted. Elvis wanted nothing more than to travel the world and play every city. But those wings were clipped by Tom Parker, who couldn’t leave the country on account of having no passport. In reality, this information wasn’t learned until after Elvis’s death, which hurts even more than him finding out in life as he does in the film.
There is something about the idea of a geek that Elvis begins to become more like as the film progresses. While in the first shot I described, he runs parallel to the geek banner, as his life went on, those paths became one. I say that because one major way that carnivals and grifters kept geeks under their thumb was by giving them enough drugs and alcohol to push them furthest from the people they once were. As Parker pushed Elvis further and further, the more drugs he would be prescribed by Dr. George Nichopouls aka Dr. Nick. By the end of his life, Presley was prescribed over 12,000 pills by Dr. Nick. The doctor did a similar thing with Jerry Lee Lewis, but was stripped of his medical license for his conduct.
During the film, all of this comes to a head when Elvis nearly dies. He fully collapses in the center of a hallway surrounded by people. Every one of them is benefiting from him. Someone pleads that he be brought to rehab; instead Tom Parker has him pumped full of drugs by “Dr. Nick” to get him back on stage that night to perform after dunking his face in a bowl of ice to resuscitate him.
The people paid to see their geek, didn’t they? Stuck on the same stage for multiple years, despite his dream of traveling the world. A geek stuck in his cage performing the same act, night after night in a drug induced stupor. Elvis never did see the world; Elvis died unceremoniously with a list of complications. Colonel Tom Parker died just as unceremoniously, in disgrace after losing his cash cow. The grifter worked his geek to death, both losses in the sea of manipulation. But only the King remains.