Rumor has it that the late Lisa Marie Presley was so incensed by the characterization of her father in Sofia Coppola’s PRISCILLA that she vowed to actively denounce the film. This despite the cooperation of her mother, who is also the film’s subject, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley. Further, Elvis Presley Enterprises did not sign off on the film, which explains why there are none of Elvis’ songs in the film, but rather two brief musical interludes of “Love Me Tender” with no vocals. Certainly, if you take away the gloss of fame and glamor that Elvis brings, what you have here is a discomfiting story of a powerful man grooming an innocent and love-struck minor to be the perfect non-entity of a wife with no identity of her own beyond being arm-candy and a bed warmer. That Coppola cast an actress (Cailee Spaeny) who is at least a foot shorter than the actor portraying Elvis (Jacob Elordi) plays up that fact visually, as does the baby-faced Spaeny, who gives a heart-wrenching performance of innocence and disillusionment.
Spanning the 14 years between their first meeting and when Priscilla walked out on Elvis to lead her own life, the story is told episodically in intimate, finely observed terms that use signs rather than rank exposition. Reading the Prisicilla’s book, Elvis and Me, co-written with Sandra Harmon, fills in the details of why we see childlike feet on a scale during Priscilla’s pregnancy, and the significance of carefully gluing false eyelashes in place before leaving for the hospital to give birth. Years fly by with the ripping away of a calendar’s dates, someone mentions the year in casual conversation to orient us in time and space, pages from fashion magazines enthusiastically proclaim the latest styles in a foreshadowing of what Prisicilla will become under the male gaze of not just Elvis, but also of his entourage, of her schoolmates, and of the world at large.
Coppola succeeds mightily is framing events from Priscilla’s point of view, the sensory overload of first love, Vegas excitement, and endless luxury even while allowing the audience to see the red flags involved when a 24-year-old shows an intense interest in a lonely 14-year-old ill-equipped to see beyond his good looks and celebrity. Yet, she also creates a tension of juxtaposition by also showing us the reality to which the smitten girl’s mind is oblivious in its stew of hormones and the insecurities of puberty. When her parents wonder aloud why he doesn’t pursue someone his own age, it becomes a question never answered, at least not in a way that removes, or even lightens, the ick factor with which the film is suffused.
That starts with how they meet in Germany where Elvis is stationed after being drafted, and she is a shy, quiet girl from Texas newly arrived in Germany without friends. An acquaintance of Elvis spots her at the military base and invites her to a party at Elvis’ house where he is getting together with other Americans. The world pimp comes to mind, but this is no tawdry hook-up in the works. Elvis is a gentleman, who does invite her up to his bedroom, but only plants a chaste kiss on her lips while holding her hand. It’s obvious what she sees in him, but what draws him to her, well, perhaps it’s her undivided attention, the lack of worldly cynicism, and the unbridled hero-worship. He is charming, putting her at ease in the adult world in which she finds herself. He talks about himself, and she listens. Granted, in 1959, this was a woman’s role in a relationship, but the key word there is woman.
How Elvis talked her parents into letting her visit him at Graceland without them, and then, later, convince them to let her spend her senior year of high school there after returning her from a visit there dressed as a worldly 30-year-old, is not covered beyond a promise that she would be well-chaperoned. Which she was, even as she first took up residence in Elvis’ bedroom on the first night of her visit at 16, the which raised nary an eyebrow among Graceland’s staff, nor Elvis’ grandmother, nor the Memphis Mafia that surrounded Elvis. Not even after Elvis gives her a sleeping pill that knocks her out for two days.
It is made abundantly clear that there was no technical coitus between them until their wedding night, but again, that ick factor as they cuddle and caress in silken night ware. A factor made even ickier by Priscilla’s obvious longing to go all the way, which Elvis exploits by making her feel guilty for normal, if misguided, instincts. Elordi does much to mitigate that ick factor with a child-like quality. He is a walking definition of the Peter Pan Syndrome who means well but is a narcissistic product of his time telling Priscilla that she can’t have a part-time job because it’s her duty to be available whenever he wants, and to meekly accept his comings and goings as well as his affairs. When he re-invents her with dyed hair in a towering beehive and heavy eye-makeup, she is giddy to please him despite the whisperings of her schoolmates as she walks the halls of her Catholic School alone and ogled. Priscilla shows some spirit from time to time arguing over a glittery dress she likes but that Elvis doesn’t, asking him to put down a book and pay attention to her (he doesn’t), but she also shrugs off him throwing a chair at her, and forgiving him with tears in her eyes when he rescinds a demand that she pack up her things and leave. It provides us seeds of her eventual liberation in the early 70s.
PRISCILLA does more than show us how a girl fell hard for a star, it is a précis on a time when girls, and women, were fed the fairy tale of submission to a Prince Charming as the means to a perfect life. That fairy tale is all in Priscilla’s head as we observe the isolation Priscilla felt even when surrounded by people, the awkwardness of growing up too soon and all too willingly, Coppola finds tiny moments that convey the inner life and the growing inner conflict in her protagonist. Alone at Graceland, newly arrived and sitting the way she imagines a grown-up would in one of the living room chairs, to the wide shot of her holding baby Lisa Marie in her arms as Elvis leaves her behind once again for Hollywood, we come away less wondering how Priscilla fell for it, than admiring the way she coped with the excesses and microaggressions (some not so micro) before rejecting the fairy tale. Embracing a radical (for the time) paradigm, breaking out of her gilded cage, scared and heartbroken, but now free from the male gaze on which she had relied for identity and self-worth. It’s a tale of triumph that can’t quite make up for that ick factor that taints even the most courageous moments.