Sofia Coppola’s newest film Priscilla is a beautiful, quiet meditation on a young woman’s painful journey into adulthood in the gilded cage of one of the most famous people on the planet. Coppola is always keen to peer deeper under glittering surfaces to reveal the darkness lurking beneath, and in Priscilla, she weaves together romance and agony to create a tapestry of feeling – the feeling of love, the feeling of resentment, the feeling of being totally alone. So what is the film really trying to say about Priscilla, Elvis, and their relationship? Let’s unpack the real facts of her real life and the film’s version to get a better understanding of the deeper story Coppola is actually trying to tell. (Plus, we’ll explain the real-life Elvis drama the film came up against.)
CH 1: BECOMING MRS. PRESLEY
Based on the memoir written by Priscilla herself, the film covers thirteen years of Priscilla’s life, beginning the day she met Elvis Presley. At the time he was 24 years old and a worldwide superstar, and had been drafted into service in the United States Army. She was a 14-year-old high school freshman who had lived the entirety of her young life as an army brat, being moved from city to city, country to country, following her father, an officer in the Army. In 1959 Elvis and Priscilla’s father were stationed at the same base in Germany. As we see in the film, they met at a party at his house, when an officer friend of Elvis is going around looking for beautiful girls to bring to him and stumbles across Priscilla. They soon became confidants, the film showing their different but shared sense of loneliness: Elvis feeling removed from others due to his fame, Priscilla never having been able to make concrete friendships due to always moving around. In real life, Priscilla has always stated that the pair were never intimate during this period (or, in fact, at all until they married years later.) But it was only a few short years – when Priscilla was still very much a teenager – that Elvis convinced her parents to let her come stay at Graceland.
In these early years, we see how Priscilla was sucked into this world – to have a superstar pick you out of a crowd and choose you as the girl he wants to be with is literally the plot of more fanfics than one could count. The glitz and glamor, traveling and attending lush parties, the feeling of romance and of being wanted. But Priscilla also begins to show us the other side of the coin, too. Elvis picked her because he wanted to keep her – like a pet, she was expected to stay in his home and be at his beck and call, never thinking or doing anything for herself. Their loving moments are muted and eventually drowned out by his emotionally abusive and controlling behavior. But Coppola’s intention was never to make a hit piece on Elvis and his legacy – she just wanted to portray these experiences through Priscilla’s eyes. Priscilla who has, for so long, only been seen as an extension of Elvis himself – never quite her own person. And so to tell this side of the story meant sharing that things weren’t always perfect. She told Rolling Stone, “I feel it’s only my job to show what her experience is like, and I think you present things to an audience for them to think about and make their own decisions.”
Priscilla’s own personhood was engulfed by Elvis’ fame and the man himself – he had very particular ideas about what his wife should look like, and expected Priscilla to follow them unquestioningly. He dictated pretty much everything about her life, from the colors she was allowed to wear to how she should do her makeup, to what color she should dye her hair. Their relationships at the intersection of multiple uneven power dynamics: him being a grown adult and her being a teenager; him being a rich and power superstar and her being a regular teenager; and, of course, the overarching familial dynamics of the era saying that husbands ran the households and everyone else just had to fall in line. The film shows how all of these forces come together to trap Priscilla in this beautiful, empty gilded cage. Because she has so little power in her own life, she at first tries to gain a feeling of control in small ways, focusing on the few small things she can affect. This is, actually, what we first see in the film – before Germany and the party – Priscilla essentially putting on the public’s idea of her: the lashes, the eyeliner, the bouffant hair. And she does learn to perfect this performance, but as she grows up and realizes how hollow it is, she yearns for something more.
CH 2: PRISCILLA FINDING HERSELF
A main theme of Priscilla is loneliness. Not terribly interested in gossip or, really, celebrity at all, the film instead seeks to unpack the painful solitude Priscilla became trapped in. She is often deserted in the big, beautiful house – he won’t even take her on tours or to film sets with him because he says she belonged at home (and because, allegedly, he would constantly cheat on her while he was gone) And though she at first seemed to be living a fan’s dream, even after she snags the star she still finds herself stuck at home, alone following his whereabouts in the tabloids. After a while, even when they are together, there is such a gulf between them that she still feels totally alone. We see Priscilla engulfed by her surroundings, made small by the objects and the people (or lack of people) surrounding her. As the shine began to wear off, and Priscilla started to cultivate a more full, adult conception of herself as an individual, she started to push back. At first, it was in little ways, like wearing a dress that’s the “wrong” color and features a pattern (which were not allowed, according to Elvis.) But the previously quiet and meek Priscilla also started to speak up for herself more, too. Just as in real life, Priscilla had started cultivating her own interests and hobbies outside of Elvis while living in Los Angeles and raising Lisa Marie. This a pretty normal coming of any for a 20-something, but given that Priscilla had been thrust into adulthood from such a young age, she had essentially already lived one life and was now at the beginning of a new one. And this new one couldn’t happen under Elvis’ thumb.
The film ends on the day that Priscilla finally leaves Elvis. She’s no longer the starry-eyed girl we first met, now she’s a grown woman who is ready for the next phase of her life. And we can see that she’s finally taken control through her wardrobe, too. Costume Designer Stacy Battat told Vulture, “Sofia did say to me, ‘At the end, she’s wearing pants, she says good-bye in pants.’ It was always decided.” Just over 13 years after they met, their divorce was finalized on October 9th, 1973 – Priscilla was only 28. She opened a clothing store with her stylist and friend Olivia Bis, and had new relationships filled with the passion she had been missing while with Elvis. But while she had to move on from the relationship to truly begin living her own life, she and Elvis remained friends. After his father passed in 1979, Priscilla became the executor of Elvis’ estate and Graceland. At the time, it was a money sink, draining daughter Lisa Marie’s inheritance and racking up tax bills. So Priscilla decided to open it to the public. She had spent so much time watching how much the world was obsessed with Elvis, so she knew there was a good chance that people would pay to finally have the chance to step inside his home. And she was right! The tourist attraction has made millions of dollars and continues to draw in Elvis fans to this day.
While, after decades of Priscilla being pushed to the side, most might see this film’s desire to put her feelings front and center as a good thing, not everyone agreed.
CH 3: THE FILM’S REAL-LIFE ELVIS DRAMA
Coppola had a difficult line to walk when creating this film, trying to tell something true about a difficult situation while simultaneously trying not to upset any of the very real people involved in the story. While Priscilla and Elvis’ relationship might have been seen as aspirational at the time, obviously nowadays we see a relationship between a 14-year-old and a 24-year-old very differently. Priscilla has always been adamant that theirs was a love story, and so this film that is based off of her memoir does showcase that side of things. But Coppola also wasn’t afraid to show the darker side of their story – and, in fact, it would have been impossible to avoid. Coppola told Rolling Stone, “I try not to be judgmental of any of the characters and really be as sympathetic as I can to each of them. And I’m really focused on her perspective, but even with the parents, you’re like, “How can anybody let their kid go live with Elvis that young?” The film doesn’t shy away from these kinds of issues. If she was going to showcase any level of truth in Priscilla’s story, that meant she also had to be truthful about Elvis’ bad side – not to disparage him, but so that the audience could more completely understand the life Priscilla was trapped in. But not everyone was happy about this, apparently. Coppola said, “I think it’s sympathetic to see his struggles and the human side, but definitely there’s so much folklore of him as this god. There was someone that was trying to get me to take out all the dark stuff.”
That someone was likely Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie, who unfortunately passed away in January of 2023. In recent months it has been revealed that, before filming began on Priscilla, Lisa Marie had read the script and became enraged, emailing Coppola to try to get her to change things. She was concerned that the film would hurt his image – and seemed convinced that since he had never done any of that to her that he couldn’t have possibly ever done it at all. In one email, she wrote: “My father only comes across as a predator and manipulative. As his daughter, I don’t read this and see any of my father in this character.” It can be incredibly difficult to accept the fact that someone you love could have treated others poorly, and abusers often hide their nefarious nature from others around them, which can make it even more difficult to accept as real. The National Domestic Violence Hotline notes, “People with controlling, unhealthy and abusive attitudes know their behavior is not okay. That’s why they don’t show it to most of the people in their lives or treat others with the same level of abuse.” So it’s not at all surprising that Lisa Marie’s memories of her father don’t really align with Priscilla’s. For her part, Priscilla has said that she thinks the film is great. Elvis Presley Enterprises, the company that controls Elvis’ estate, also wouldn’t let Coppola use any of his music for the film (but she had always planned for that eventuality from the very beginning of the project.)
While Lisa Marie and some die-hard Elvis fans might be unhappy with his portrayal, at the end of the day, the film isn’t about him. It’s about Priscilla finally getting the chance to tell her story on the big screen, to have her name in lights, to show people what living in that gilded cage so many aspired to be in was actually like. Like nearly every Sophia Coppola film, Priscilla reminds us that there’s always more going on under the surface than meets the perfectly lined eye.
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Buchanan, Kyle. “Priscilla Presley’s Emotional Reaction to Sofia Coppola’s New Elvis Film.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Sept. 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/09/04/movies/priscilla-presley-elvis-sofia-coppola-venice-film-festival.html.
Donnelly, Matt. “Lisa Marie Presley Slammed Sofia Coppola’s ‘priscilla’ Script as ‘Vengeful and Contemptuous’ for Elvis Depiction before She Died (Exclusive).” Variety, Variety, 4 Nov. 2023, variety.com/2023/film/news/lisa-marie-presley-slammed-sofia-coppola-priscilla-script-1235777982/.
Hadadi, Roxana. “‘She Says Good-Bye to Him in Pants.’” Vulture, 15 Dec. 2023, www.vulture.com/article/coppolas-priscilla-costumes-tell-a-story-in-3-parts.html.
Hiatt, Brian. “Is Elvis Presley a Monster in ‘Priscilla’? Sofia Coppola Wants You to Judge for Yourself.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 30 Oct. 2023, www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-features/sofia-coppola-priscilla-interview-elvis-presley-taylor-swift-twilight-1234859000/.