Sofia Coppola Sanitizes Elvis’ Cruelty Towards His Young Bride in ‘Priscilla’

Compared even to Priscilla Presley's own memoir about her tumultuous courtship and marriage, the biopic gives Elvis a good edit.

Sofia Coppola Sanitizes Elvis’ Cruelty Towards His Young Bride in ‘Priscilla’

Framing Priscilla Presley as a cinematic hero poses a certain challenge in 2023—at least the version of Priscilla Presley that features in her 1985 memoir Elvis and Me. At age 14, she was plucked from a soda shop near a U.S. army base in Germany and thrust into a life that she barely had tools to understand as the girlfriend and eventual wife of Elvis Presley. In her telling, the star plied her with the uppers and downers he took, told her how to dress and do her makeup, forbade her from pursuing any kind of career (“When I call you, I need you to be there,” is her recollection of his rationale), denied to her persistent gossip that he was romantically involved with peers like Nancy Sinatra and Ann-Margret, and lashed out—sometimes physically—when she expressed opinions he didn’t like. To stay with him, she kept her head down and went along for the ride. In all, they were together for roughly 12 years, having met in September 1959 and separated in February of 1972.

Simply withstanding, even in a dream world curated by the once most famous musician in the world, doesn’t make for a visually thrilling story. It’s easier to compensate for this narrative sparsity in a memoir, where impressions and opinions help shape the story. It’s much harder to do this in an externalizing medium like film, and Cailee Spaeny’s blank performance as Priscilla, appropriate as it may be as a way of conveying that social armor, is just one of the issues with the slog that is Sofia Coppola’s biopic Priscilla.

The movie was adapted by Coppola from Presley’s memoir and is playing this year’s New York Film Festival. But Priscilla is missing Coppola’s typical visual flair. It’s drab and washed out, with so many of its scenes backlit as if Coppola was determined to use the same lighting as in her 1864-set film The Beguiled. Then it made sense; here it just cakes everything in murk. The film falls into the biopic trap of trying to do way too much in such little time—the entirety of the Priscilla-Elvis relationship is compressed into less than two hours. It feels less like an auteur’s vision than a TV movie—Elvis and Me was already adapted into a TV movie in 1988, which makes Priscilla effectively a remake.

To her credit, Coppola shrewdly lays a lot of the facts bare, allowing us to draw our own conclusions. There are whispers about Priscilla’s age when she first starts hanging out with Elvis, who was 10 years her senior. The King himself, played competently by Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi, seems taken aback and tickled when he learns of her age: “Ninth grade? You’re just a baby.” The scene in the soda shop in which a friend of Elvis’ approaches a young Priscilla to invite her to a party at Elvis’—which to some in less sensitive times may have come off as one of those lucky moments of being discovered in public (à la Lana Turner)—is presented matter of factly so that we can see it for what it is: grooming. In contrast to Baz Luhrmann’s hagiographic Elvis from last year, there’s no mistaking Elvis for anything but flawed and exploitative. The characterization is striking enough that it prompted the New York Times to write, upon its Venice Film Festival premiere, “This is no puff piece: It’s a warts-and-all portrayal of a charismatic man who pulled a young girl into his orbit and then wouldn’t let her out.”

But Priscilla simply does not have all the warts—not all that were included in Presley’s memoir, which itself contained an ambivalence that made its writer’s own handle on her situation hard to grasp. While Presley wrote that “living the way I had for so long [with Elvis] was very unnatural and detrimental to my well-being,” she also ended the book lauding the “the magic, sensitivity, vulnerability, charm, generosity, and greatness of this man who influenced and contributed so much to our culture through his art and music.” She maintained that they didn’t consummate their relationship until their wedding night in 1967, with a huge asterisk—that all depends on how one defines sex. Of a visit to him in Los Angeles in 1962, at age 16, she wrote, “Elvis wasn’t going to let me go home without my taking a little of him with me. He didn’t enter me; he didn’t have to. He fulfilled my every desire.” When she was 17, “he began teaching me other means of pleasing him. We had a strong connection, much of it sexual. The two of us created some exciting and wild times.” There’s no sense of this underage sexual contact in the movie, which certainly would have underlined the extent to which the situation was fucked up.


Similarly sanitized is a scene in Las Vegas, just before Priscilla leaves Elvis for good. In the book, Presley wrote about visiting the gambling mecca to see her husband’s live show. Once there, she was invited up to his hotel room, and about the scene that unfolds, she wrote:

I went upstairs, filled with curiosity, and when I arrived in the suite I found Elvis lying in bed, obviously waiting for me. He grabbed me and forcefully made love to me. It was uncomfortable and unlike any other time he’d ever made love to me before, and he explained, “This is how a real man makes love to his woman.” This was not the gentle, understanding man that I grew to love. He was under the influence, and with my personal growth and new realities he had become a stranger to me. I wept in silence as Elvis got up to dress for the show. In order for our marriage to survive, Elvis would have had to take down all the artificial barriers restricting our life as a couple.

In Coppola’s movie, though, we see him lunge at her on the bed, saying, “I’ll show you how a real man makes love to his woman.” “Stop,” she says. After some struggling, he gets up and we hear him offscreen in the bathroom. The camera stays trained on a crumpled Priscilla. The screen fades to black. The wariness filmmakers feel about putting rape onscreen (especially women filmmakers) is understandable. But in this case, in addition to respecting the sensitivities of the audience and avoiding the risk of entertaining people with depictions of sexual assault, Coppola’s decision serves Elvis himself, who comes off looking, well, not like a rapist.

That scene aside, there’s another half-portrayal of one that Presley described in her book. She had been listening with her husband to some demos of songs for him to potentially record. When she said she didn’t like one, “To my horror, a chair came hurtling toward me. I moved out of the way just in time, but there were stacks of records piled on it and one flew off and hit me in the face.” We see this play out in the movie sans the flying record—it’s merely a close call without injury.

These changes suggest a muddled objective—Priscilla is gritty but not too gritty. It wants to show you the truth behind the legend but is ultimately uncomfortable with all that entails. Perhaps it’s in line with Presley’s own apparent ambivalence. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Presley described meeting with Spaeny, and of the actor who was to play her onscreen, she recalled: “She asked what I could tell her, and I said, ‘Just be sensitive to him.’” Coppola, it seems, got the memo.

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