Lisa Marie Presley apparently died hating the way Sofia Coppola’s new film, Priscilla, portrays her parents’ relationship. Variety obtained email correspondence between Presley and Coppola where Presley expressed concern over how her father was portrayed and what that would mean not only for his legacy, but for the relationship dynamics within the family and the continued scrutiny of the family by the public.
Priscilla tells the story of how a young Priscilla Beaulieu, only 14, met 24-year-old music superstar Elvis Presley in Germany in 1954 while Presley was stationed there with the U.S. Army. They begin a courtship in spite of her parents’ concerns over their age difference, though once Presley’s service is up, he goes back to the U.S. and they are separated.
They are reunited in 1963, when Elvis reaches out and asks her parents to allow her to move in with him at Graceland in Memphis and complete her senior year of high school there. This leads to their eventual marriage in 1967, after four years of Priscilla being maintained at Graceland while Elvis spends a majority of his time traveling to Los Angeles shooting films and engaging in alleged infidelity. Priscilla files for divorce in 1973.
The film is an adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s memoir, Elvis and Me, and the timeline described above features the simple facts of their relationship as given in Priscilla’s own account of those events. On their own, these details might already cause concern for a modern audience, even as the age difference between Priscilla and Elvis already caused concern back then.
Nevertheless, before her death by cardiac arrest in January of this year, Priscilla and Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie, was hugely concerned that these details were relayed in a script that was “shockingly vengeful and contemptuous” of her father. She sent two emails to Coppola in September of last year, before production had even begun on Priscilla. In one of her emails, 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. I don’t read this and see my mother’s perspective of my father. I read this and see your shockingly vengeful and contemptuous perspective and I don’t understand why?”
Is there a way to portray a 24-year-old dating a 14-year-old in a way that doesn’t make the older person look bad? Perhaps there is, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a responsible, or even honest script. Presley went on to write that she would “be forced to be in a position where I will have to openly say how I feel about the film and go against you, my mother and this film publicly.”
So, she didn’t “see [her] mother’s perspective of [her] father,” and yet she felt the need to “go against” her mother in speaking out against the film based on her mother’s version of events?
Coppola shared her responses to Presley with Variety. She wrote:
“I hope that when you see the final film you will feel differently, and understand I’m taking great care in honoring your mother, while also presenting your father with sensitivity and complexity.”
Priscilla Presley herself supported the film, whereas Lisa Marie was responding to a script that hadn’t yet been finalized or filmed. What’s more, her relationship with her mother was already strained for reasons unrelated to the film. And yet, in her emails to Coppola, she claimed a need to be protective of her mother, too. She wrote:
“I am worried that my mother isn’t seeing the nuance here or realizing the way in which Elvis will be perceived when this movie comes out. I feel protective over my mother who has spent her whole life elevating my father’s legacy. I am worried she doesn’t understand the intentions behind this film or the outcome it will have. I would think of all people that you would understand how this would feel. Why are you coming for my Dad and my family?”
She expresses a lot of concern about how Elvis will be perceived, but less concern about Priscilla’s own account of events. Variety reports that Presley copied her mother as well as her daughter, actress Riley Keough, on the emails sent to Coppola, but did she even talk to her mother about what she thought about the script’s accuracy before going right to the film’s director?
Presley talked about her 78-year-old mother (who’s lived almost her entire life in the public eye) as if she’s a child who couldn’t possibly understand the potential effect of a film’s narrative on public opinion. As if Priscilla’s relationship with Elvis didn’t already raise concerns at the time, both for the age difference between them, and for Elvis’ treatment of Priscilla when she was at Graceland. At best, there are conflicting narratives of their relationship from those adults who were there, sharing their lives.
Priscilla herself has stated in interviews and in her memoir that she and Elvis were not sexually intimate before they were married. On page 130 of Elvis and Me, Presley writes that it was Elvis who said they should wait until they were married before having sexual intercourse. However, she writes that he said, “I’m not saying we can’t do other things. It’s just the actual encounter. I want to save it.”
Never mind that “other things” can be sexual in nature, that this is a heteronormative view of “virginity,” and that virginity as a concept is ludicrous anyway—sexual grooming doesn’t require sexual activity. Grooming in a sexual context simply means intending to prepare the way for future sexual activity by first gaining a young person’s trust, and sometimes the trust of their family. It seems that in this case, Elvis gained both Priscilla’s and her parents’ trust by reassuring them that everything that was happening was “above-board” simply because “no sex” was involved.
Even if Priscilla herself had conflicting feelings about what she experienced with Elvis, the details she revealed in her memoir already paint an unflattering picture of him on their own, even without deeper context, explanations, or disclaimers. Whether Priscilla identifies what happened in their relationship as grooming, it was. It’s textbook grooming. Just because it happened at a time and in a place where there wasn’t a name for it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look at it through that lens now. It isn’t just that “times were different then” either. Flags were being raised then, too.
Priscilla Presley is an adult woman who wrote a memoir detailing her life with her famous ex-husband. Lisa Marie Presley was an adult woman who loved her family, and seemingly wanted to keep her famous father’s legacy as pristine as possible, despite contradictions from the woman who knew him better. Sofia Coppola is an adult woman who wanted to tell another woman’s story in a medium that could illuminate some of the larger issues encapsulated within one famous relationship, allowing for conversations that stretch beyond celebrity gossip.
That’s what art is for. We don’t watch biopics for mere facts. If we wanted nothing but facts, we’d read books (or at least a Wikipedia page) and leave it at that. We turn to art to process those facts. We watch biopics to either to be inspired by someone’s life, or to re-contextualize someone’s life as our culture shifts. Because hearing stories helps us navigate the world.
Understandably, Lisa Marie was uncomfortable with the portrayal of her father in Priscilla. It can’t be easy hearing unpleasant things about your parent. But being The King’s daughter didn’t make her the authority on how to interpret his life, or the relationship he had with her mother. Certainly not while her mother is still alive and has written about it herself.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the work being covered here wouldn’t exist.
(featured image: A24)
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