Cailee Spaeny Gives a Performance of Profound Maturity in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla

Arguably, Sofia Coppola’s films are at their best when dealing with the weighted expectations of growing up for young women. Coppola is a genius at creating what appears to be dappled and dreamlike weightlessness but is in fact a kind of airless claustrophobia. The mysterious Lisbon sisters who are looked in on by neighbourhood boys and locked in by their religious parents in The Virgin Suicides. The strange and disconnected floating life of eleven-year-old Clio (Elle Fanning) dealing with her mercurial father in Somewhere. The immense loneliness of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, not quite an adult at the time of filming). The isolation of the young students leading to repressed desire coming to the surface (and their older teachers) in the remake of The Beguiled. Finally, the candy-coloured world of Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) wherein a child bride becomes a woman and creates her own enclosed paradise in Versailles to compensate for the fact she is unloved in her organised marriage. Desire, power, and agency for women are where Coppola excels.

It’s little wonder that when Coppola re-read Priscilla Presley’s 1985 autobiography ‘Elvis and Me’ she felt she landed on a story she was suited to tell. The journey of fourteen-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu who met and fell in love with the already world-famous Elvis Presley while he was stationed in Germany, who then at the age of twenty-seven chose to leave the Rock and Roll icon in a bid to own herself and experience womanhood through her own agency.

Immediately Coppola sinks the audience into Priscilla’s (Cailee Spaeny) point of view. Bare feet sink into plush carpet, bric-a-brac sits side by side with framed hit records a famous piano, lights glittering on a chandelier, luxurious cars. We are in Graceland before it became a palace of tackiness, when it was still a hazy dreamhouse. Mirrors reflect cosmetics, hairspray, a famously winged eye framed by false lashes. Priscilla puts on a pair of shoes and the audience is walking with her. This is the Priscilla we know from photographs, but as we learn, also a Priscilla who was constructed. Groomed by a man far older than herself who loved her deeply – as best he could in many ways, but a man whose darkness and insecurity rained down on those he felt he could control.

Coppola flashes back to 1959 in West Germany on an airbase where the young Priscilla sips on a soda. She is approached by a man who is friends with Elvis and invites her to a party at Elvis’ home. Priscilla is already bored and feeling dislocated. A military waif who has been taken from one base to another for as long as she can recall, she is aching for some connection to the wider world that isn’t going to be severed by moving again and losing whatever friends she makes in any given place. Allowed to attend the party, she is immediately star-struck by Elvis (Jacob Elordi) as almost any young woman would be at the time. What she doesn’t expect is for Elvis to single her out for attention – especially once he realises she isn’t even a junior at high school. A man of his experience and fame wanting to talk to a Texan teenager and confide in her his loneliness and need for a home is strange. Her mother Ann Beaulieu (Dagmara Dominczyk) laments why a grown man would choose a teenager to be his confidant and eventually her beau. The audience is naturally asking the same question. Yet the courtship between Elvis and Priscilla is not presented as inherently threatening. Elvis consistently tells her “You don’t have to be scared, baby. I’d never do anything to harm you,” and in his own way he means it. She dreams that she has in some manner soul-twinned with the twenty-four-year-old superstar and expects the moment not to last as he returns to America and his adoring fans, but it does even if it takes months of mooning over him and writing him letters in her unformed cursive before her calls.

Elvis organises through his father and manager Vernon (Tim Post) who promises to act as temporary guardian to have her flown to Memphis. Her parents seem powerless to stop her as she is resolute that Elvis is what she wants. Presley, ever the charmer, has convinced Captain Beaulieu (Ari Cohen) that his intentions are indeed honourable. To the extent that he refuses to have sex with Priscilla they are. But Graceland is a clamorous place filled with the ‘Memphis Mafia’ and their wives. A place where Priscilla can’t quite fit in. Too sophisticated and fast moving for the young woman she is pliantly guided by Elvis. By the time she is relocated to Graceland permanently to finish high school there Priscilla is hooked by the man who makes her believe at moments she is the only person in the world, and at darker moments that she can be replaced in a second. Already the drugs are by the bedside. Already Priscilla has to balance the wildness of Graceland nights with days assisted by uppers at high school. She is his perfect doll dressing up in clothes he has chosen and choosing outfits to match the handguns he gives her

The now raven-haired beauty is the mistress of a mostly empty house when Elvis leaves for a movie or tour. When he is away, she is kept in a gilded cage and controlled by Vernon’s venality and her otherness to teenagers of her own age. She’s an open secret, but a secret, nonetheless. The spectre of Colonel Parker bares down as he controls Elvis’ public persona. Elvis lies to her about affairs with his co-stars (specifically Ann-Margaret and Nancy Sinatra), but Priscilla has had the scales removed from her eyes. She loves him, adores him, and lives for him – but the home fires are burning low. Nevertheless, it will be a long journey until she realises that the broken man she married cannot be adored enough by her.

Coppola recreates famous moments from their lives but recontextualises them. The wedding photograph we know is not a triumphant moment for the couple. The shot of Priscilla and Elvis holding baby Lisa-Marie outside the hospital was proceeded by Priscilla putting on false eyelashes to give birth. Coppola is a director who works a lot like a photographer, and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd reflects the “kodak moments” memories aesthetic the film evokes. There are gaps, huge gaps. We don’t see Priscilla giving birth, we don’t see her struggling with a crying baby. We see glimpses of Elvis disintegrating but never the full picture. We don’t see Elvis sing an Elvis song. The comeback special is relegated to Elvis asking what Priscilla thinks of his outfit and then them watching parts on the television. The Vegas residency is a bunch of signatures on contracts and a quick montage of the back of Elvis as he takes the stage over time.

Instead, what Coppola is doing is getting to the core of Priscilla’s story through gestures and symbolism. Cailee Spaney’s performance is one of profound maturity. We believe that we are watching a girl become a woman because we see it on her face, through her innocent then melancholy then steely eyes. We see it as she changes clothes, refuses to be dressed by Elvis, lightens her hair, and leaves him to live in California for a while (it must be noted that both Stacey Battat’s costumes and Tamara Deverell’s production design do a lot of the narrative work). By this stage Elvis himself is no longer fully comprehending that he is losing his wife. The wife he would withhold sex from. The wife who he told “Things will never work out between us, Cilla, because you don’t show any interest in me or my philosophies,” as he experimented with mysticism. The man who was her “personal Jesus” who needed to be universally worshipped.

Jacob Elordi is also giving a stunning performance. The towering actor uses his height as part of his presence as a larger-than-life figure, but also to dwarf Spaeny. He isn’t so much a “Perfect Elvis” impersonator (the way Austin Butler inhabited The King’s shoes in Baz Luhrmann’s film) but an avatar of what made Elvis so desirable and also so difficult. It isn’t an easy tightrope for the actor to walk to be both desired hero and at times repellent villain and still manage to retain a modicum of audience sympathy.

If anything, the sympathy comes from Priscilla’s memoirs and the real role she played in producing the film and advising Coppola on the script. The book was published almost forty years ago, and Priscilla isn’t concerned with digging up new dirt on Elvis, a man whose life has been combed over numerous times. It is Coppola and Priscilla’s elegy to lost love and innocence, but more than that it is about a woman learning to be herself by walking out of the dollhouse and into the light of an unknown future. Priscilla’s love for Elvis was never going to save him, nor would it save her.

As Priscilla closes the gates on Graceland and drives off into a new life the strains of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ play. A song Parton refused to sell Elvis and the song he sang to Priscilla on the day they were divorced and left the courtroom hand in hand. Priscilla might feel at times like too impressionistic a biopic, but that is how memory works. Few stories can be told in encompassing detail and Coppola uses restraint tell of Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s time with a world beating idol who fades in relevance over time and into bitterness, not with sensationalism, but with intimacy. Priscilla is a film about choosing which love is more important: being in love with an intoxicating damaged and damaging man, or preferencing love for oneself. Priscilla chose herself.

Director: Sofia Coppola

Cast: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen

Writer: Sofia Coppola, (based on Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley & Sandra Harmon)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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