In the opening moments of the Oscar-nominated film “Elvis,” Col. Tom Parker collapses in a room somewhere surrounded by kitschy memorabilia. The camera looms over a skyline image of the Las Vegas Strip, then pans down over the Bellagio and its iconic fountains. We see an IV of morphine being put into Elvis’s manager’s limp hand by a paramedic as they roll past the dancing waters in the background en route to a hospital.
Next, there’s a shot of a marquee of the International Hotel promoting Star Trek: The Experience that then dissolves into one from 1973 promoting the fourth year of Elvis Presley’s residency there.
We’re not even three minutes into the movie and they’ve already lost me. Over the next couple of hours, there’s a dazzling performance by Austin Butler as the King, a distractingly dreadful one from Tom Hanks as Parker, and some wonderful music.
But all I can think of is: Parker died in 1997. Neither the Bellagio nor Star Trek: The Experience opened until 1998. The International became the Las Vegas Hilton in 1971.
Why, I wonder for the umpteenth time, can’t Hollywood get even the smallest details about Vegas right?
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Hollywood gets gambling wrong in TV too
A few weeks later, I check out a hot new Peacock show – a phrase I never thought would ever make sense – called “Poker Face.” It stars the earnestly quirky Natasha Lyonne as a Columbo-type crime solver whose superpower (literally) is that she can detect when someone is lying.
Much of the 10-episode series is actually very entertaining. Like in “Columbo,” the audience sees the murder first and then watches Lyonne’s Charlie Cale figure out who did it. You have to go along with the absurdity of the truth-detecting thing, but doing so is often pretty satisfying.
But it’s the set-up of the show that baffles me to no end. In the pilot episode, we find out that Cale was using her gift to rake it in as a poker player and, for some reason, this deeply offends a criminal syndicate that owns a major casino in some Vegas-like Nevada city where they still bust your kneecaps over debts. In one crucial scene, Cale is being watched as she wins big at a casino table.
None of this makes any sense. Casinos don’t win or lose big money on poker. They get specific shares of what is wagered regardless of who wins or a buy-in fee. Casino owners aren’t preoccupied by the successes or failures of poker players in other places, as they are on “Poker Face,” because it has no bearing on their lives. And there are no poker tables in casinos where you play against the house unless it’s like a live version of five-card-draw video poker. If so, it doesn’t matter whether someone can detect truth or lie because nobody is bluffing in such a game. The cards are what they are.
Nonetheless, this is the underlying premise of the show, that Cale is being chased by a casino hitman and, thus, must live on the road out of her 1969 Plymouth Barracuda popping up in town after town to solve murders.
Why, I wonder for the umpteenth time, can’t Hollywood get even the smallest details about gambling right?
TV writers create a different Vegas
In the Emmy-winning show “Hacks,” Jean Smart plays Deborah Vance, a stand-up comic and stand-in for Joan Rivers and other women groundbreakers. The plot is driven whether Vance gets to keep her contract at the fictional Palmetto resort-casino on the Strip; the owner is antsy to find a new act to compete with Steve Wynn after Wynn signs Pentatonix to a residency.
The first season of “Hacks” premiered on HBOMax in 2021. It is clearly intended to be set on or near that year, given the phones the actors are using among other evidence. And Steve Wynn? Well, he was run out of town in 2018 in a #MeToo scandal in which he was credibly accused of a long pattern of sexual harassment.
Why, I wonder for the umpteenth time, can’t Hollywood get even the smallest details about the gambling industry right?
Does anyone care about Hollywood’s Vegas inaccuracies?
In each of these cases, the inaccuracies or outright fabrications were choices.
Someone consciously decided for “Elvis” that it was important to show the Bellagio in 1997 or to pretend the International still existed in 1973. But why? What does that add to the story?
Somebody decided they wanted a show called “Poker Face” about a vagabond truth-detecting savant and then created an entirely fictional situation to make that happen. They couldn’t think of any other reason she’d be on the run from thugs? Nobody among the gazillion people involved says, ‘Uh, this makes absolutely zero sense”?
And somebody believed that the only way to infuse the Vegas-set story of “Hacks” with some well-known names was to pretend Steve Wynn is still a respected and feared figure on the Strip? The folks at HBO weren’t aware he had become a disgraced figure who couldn’t even get a gambling license these days if he tried?
Years ago, I used to have a good time pointing out how screwy Vegas geography was in TV and movies. They’re going north on the Strip and turn left and, uh, they’re at the airport? They veer away from Fremont Street and suddenly they’ve emerged from a magic tunnel at the Luxor? It’s 2013 and the Stardust is still gleaming in an aerial shot? Wacky!
But with “Elvis,” “Poker Face,” and “Hacks,” we have something different. These aren’t minor details or a geographic lie that makes a car chase more colorful. These tidbits add up to a film and TV industry that can reconstruct antebellum Savannah or trench warfare of World War I or 1960s Manhattan in painstaking detail – but can’t check Wikipedia on some basic Vegas factoids.
Most people won’t care, of course. Most people won’t know, either. But you know who must know? The folks who made these things. They can’t be this ignorant. They do know. They just don’t care.