By Anne T. Donahue
On Tuesday, Austin Butler won a Golden Globe for his role in Elvis (as Elvis!), and while I did not watch the awards in their entire, I certainly watched a million clips, scrolled a billion feeds, and watched several hours of Chopped while the Golden Globes aired because I don’t get Peacock, and I had to do a lot of laundry at the same time.
But I digress.
The thing about Austin Butler is that he did a terrific job of being Elvis. First, this is why he was given the award, and second, he did! I know this and I say this as someone who certainly did not see the movie, but has seen enough to know that he meant business and committed to his bit and kind of became Elvis, minus all the very problematic things that embodied The King™. (I hope and I assume.) “What a wonderful young actor who was once on The Carrie Diaries and is from Anaheim and, while his voice was certainly not high-pitched, certainly didn’t seem like it was from the south” is a thought I have definitely had, and is one that is becoming increasingly invasive as the days go by. Particularly because last night, our boy Austin accepted his Golden Globe award speaking in his Elvis voice. Despite not being Elvis. Despite being a man who got paid a lot of money to pretend to be Elvis in the movie, Elvis.
That said, he dove deep into the realms of Sir Presley while preparing and playing the role, at times revealing that he didn’t talk to his family for three damn years and made his entire identity Elvis because that’s what serious actors do, I guess? That’s method? And method is how people win awards? I don’t know, I don’t act, and the world is better off because of that, believe me. But here’s what concerns me: is he trapped in the voice? Is the voice bigger than what we can possibly understand, and is Austin desperate to regain the sound of himself, but is currently being possessed by something he stumbled upon while playing one of the most tragic pop stars of our time? (Or our parents’ time?) Is he going to phase out of it slowly like Ross tried to with his British accent in that episode of Friends? Are any of us allowed to ask questions about the voice? I mean, he said it in his speech himself:
“There’s people out there who say ever since I played Elvis, my voice has changed. That it got deeper, more Elvis-y. But that’s not true. I’ve always sounded like this.”
The thing is, we’ve all been there. We have all watched too much Downton Abbey and tried to sneak in a few Mary Crawley-isms while ordering McChickens at our local McDonalds. We know people who lived in England and came back more committed to a new voice than Madonna was once upon a time, and we’ve nodded politely and thought, “Well good for them!” (Or at least hoped that’s what they thought because some of us couldn’t afford a ticket to England, so we did exactly the same thing after streaming too much BBC Radio 1.) After Laguna Beach, my friends and I morphed into Orange County kids who stretched out certain words like Kristin and Steven, and hoped everyone we rang through at American Eagle would ask when we’d moved over from California. So I promise I’m not stranger to commitment. The thing is, we never made the jump in real time on large public forums, so we could escape our own trappings before anybody really noticed. (I mean, our parents did. But they don’t count because it’s their job to critique us and everything we choose to do, which is why I got super angry with any and all questions that sounded like, “Why are you speaking like that?”) Austin has. He acknowledged the voice while accepting a Golden Globe award. The voice has him. He is screaming for help. And the problem is, whenever he opens his mouth to say, “Please assist me,” it comes out as “I always talked like this.”
We love an Austin Butler. He’s good at his job, he’s yet to do anything I hate, and he’s a wee, tall young man who’s prompting the same reaction I had when I heard David Beckham speak for the first time. (I thought he’d sound more like Jason Statham, and he doesn’t! And that’s a me-problem for projecting in the first place!) But I’m scared for him. I’m scared that he desperately wants to sound like he’s from Anaheim again, and I’m scared that deep down, he knows he’s in the clutches of a poltergeist who promised international stardom in exchange for always being called out for sounding very different in a very short period of time. I’m scared that this is a Little Mermaid/Ursula situation where we need to kiss him to free him of a beautiful voice so he can return to his, well, beautiful voice. Sing for us, Austin. Hold up a sign.
So we shall see. We shall see if in the next role he takes on, he sounds like a man who grew up in the southern U.S. of A., even if he’s playing James Bond or voicing a Disney character modelled in the spirit of Eliza Doolittle pre-Henry Higgins. We shall see if when and if he accepts an Oscar, he looks directly into the camera and mouths out, “Please kiss me and set me free.” We shall see if he begins flashing the hang loose sign as a way of telling us that the old voice is still there, it will never give up, it will never stop fighting.
But in the meantime, I’m still scared.