CW: This article references emotional and sexual abuse. Please refer to the end of the article for on- and off-campus resources.
Priscilla Presley pads across the plush pink carpet of Graceland, setting her 1960s beehive with Aqua Net hairspray and filling in her iconic thick eyeliner.
The opening scene of Sofia Coppola’s biopic “Priscilla” (2023) acts as a visual metaphor and a hint to audiences of the emotional, mental and physical coercion and abuse that unfold in the following scenes. After a title card of shiny blue satin and curling pink cursive letters, the film flashes to an American-style diner in Germany, 1959, where a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu is asked if she likes Elvis Presley.
“Of course,” she said, her wide, unlined eyes and schoolbook marking her youth and innocence. “Who doesn’t?”
This simple question, one that millions of girls across the world undoubtedly answered at the height of the global Elvis Craze, acts as the catalyst for Priscilla’s transformation into a Presley. Coppola’s film, based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, showed that what happens in Vegas (or Graceland) doesn’t always stay in Vegas.
Parts of the script are ripped right off the page, just as Priscilla remembered them — highlighting the fact that what audiences are seeing is not necessarily an objective survey of the facts of Elvis and Priscilla’s marriage, but rather an account of the relationship from Priscilla’s perspective.
Coppola uses lighting, color, angles and pacing to create a stark contrast between Priscilla’s life with her family and her life with Elvis. Her life in Germany, where her stepfather is deployed, is desaturated and dark. Priscilla sits at the table in her small kitchen, her mother leaning against the counter, the angle awkward and their conversation stilted. Long, slow shots of Priscilla walking through her all-girl school hallway highlight the monotony she feels.
Then, a party at Elvis’ house gives her a taste of the other side of life. The setting is still dark but in a sensual, dramatic way. People are milling about, laughing, while Elvis plays a fast-paced tune on his piano, deftly saving a whiskey glass from smashing on the floor as the song ends.
The scenes at Graceland and Vegas with Elvis, or even just thinking about Elvis, are filled with light, color and movement. Priscilla, still in Germany after Elvis heads back to the States, sends and receives postcards and letters. Coppola curates the props and shots masterfully, using objects and color to tell the visual story of a schoolgirl’s crush, rosy and idealized.
However, later parts of the film drag along, forcing viewers to wonder if this slowness was what Priscilla felt, simply sugarcoating her loneliness in the bright lights of fame and melodious words of the King.
In addition to the shift in colors after Priscilla meets Elvis, her appearance changes as well. Instead of a gradual change taking course over months or years, the shift to her iconic look — typically defined by a black bouffant hairdo and dark mascara — happens almost immediately after Elvis suggests it.
The film’s script is also an important tool, powerful in its simplicity and realistic in its plainness. Elvis’ abuse and violence are not coyly covered up by suave smiles or charming laughs but starkly set out by Coppola’s writing. Elvis screams, berates Priscilla, manipulates her, puts her down and lies to her, all in the bright light and beautiful colors of Graceland and Los Angeles.
Despite the quixotic cinematography that evokes a sense of reverie, audiences soon realize Priscilla’s dream is a nightmare. However, the heroine does not seem to have the same revelation until the very end of the film, filling the viewing experience with anxiety and concern for Priscilla.
Coppola’s biopic reads like a horror movie: Elvis’ harmful actions are crystal clear, right from the beginning when he — a 24-year-old man — kisses a 14-year-old girl just starting her first year of high school. Later, during his bout of investigation into spiritualism and abstinence, he chastises Priscilla for wanting to act on her sexual desires, making her seem like the depraved partner in the relationship despite his laundry list of infidelities.
The film evokes the 1944 classic “Gaslight” in its structure and characterization. “Gaslight” features a young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, who is manipulated and abused by her much older husband, a murderer and criminal pursuing her wealth.
While Priscilla has no wealth for Elvis to steal, her resources are still drained. Throughout the film, Elvis taps into her youth and naivety to strip away her autonomy and sense of self. The only independent decision she makes is her final one: to divorce Elvis. After this choice, Priscilla drives through the gates of Graceland with her daughter Lisa Marie, and the movie ends.
The abrupt ending is sure to leave some viewers dissatisfied, wondering what becomes of Priscilla after her life with Elvis ends. However, “Priscilla” does not set out to tell her life story, but the story of a failed marriage and a young woman clouded with young love being thrown around like a doll. When the marriage ends, so does the movie. Priscilla Presley is still alive and still telling her own story.
Coppola’s “Priscilla” is a love letter to a woman too often shoved to the side, well representing Priscilla’s struggles in her marriage to Elvis. It rips away the rose-colored curtain that shrouded Elvis in charm and talent and won the affection of America for decades and hands the microphone to the woman who endured the truth of Elvis. Coppola chooses to cast Priscilla not as a helpless victim but as a complex young woman manipulated by an abusive, grooming Elvis.
Resources: On-campus resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949) and Counseling and Psychiatric Service (202-687-6985)); additional off-campus resources include the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (202-333-7273) and the D.C. Forensic Nurse Examiner Washington Hospital Center (844-443-5732). If you or anyone you know would like to receive a sexual assault forensic examination or other medical care — including emergency contraception — call the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. (202-742-1727). To report sexual misconduct, you can contact Georgetown’s Title IX coordinator (202-687-9183) or file an online report here. Emergency contraception is available at the CVS located at 1403 Wisconsin Ave NW and through H*yas for Choice. For more information, visit sexualassault.georgetown.edu.