Last year, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis became quite the hit, receiving several Oscar nominations and taking in nearly $300 million at the box office. The film attempted to show the whirlwind of money, music, and mischief that made up Elvis Presley’s existence, filtered through Luhrmann’s hyperactive and bombastic style. I was, to say the least, not a fan, apart from Austin Butler’s fantastic performance in the lead role. Despite the myriad flaws, the basic issue I had when it was all said and done was that the movie was all style, no substance. We didn’t learn anything about Presley that we didn’t know before, crucial aspects of his life were omitted, and the whole thing set him up as some sort of Icarus-like mythic being who flew too close to the sun.
So when it was announced that Sofia Coppola was essentially going to do the opposite, I was intrigued. With Priscilla, the aim was to take a more subdued approach, showing the life of Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, and giving us all the drama of their fraught relationship. Unfortunately, the film suffers from the same problems as the previous one, albeit for different reasons. Like Elvis, Priscilla is also much more style than substance, and sadly, that style is “Lifetime Movie of the Week.” There are some positives to take away, again oddly paralleling last year’s higher-profile entry, but the result is the same, an effort that scratches the surface and offers a fantastic title performance, but ultimately gets bogged down by the framing. And this one arguably suffers more from its own shortcomings, because at least in the case of Luhrmann’s movie, the spectacle was memorable.
Cailee Spaeny (Bad Times at the El Royale), like Butler before her, lends the proceedings far more credibility than they’d otherwise have due to her stellar performance. As the sheltered yet expressive Priscilla, she’s able to convey a lot with just her face, which becomes thematically pertinent when she’s asked to start donning fake eyelashes, thus dulling their effect. Her early shy demeanor goes a long way towards demonstrating the age/maturity gap between Priscilla and Elvis — an often harped-on note of their coupling — that the casting itself muddies, as Elvis was 10 years older than Priscilla (she was 14 when they met), but the actor playing him, Jacob Elordi, is only one year older than Spaeny, and apart from a drastic difference in height (he’s 6'5″ and she’s 5'1″), you wouldn’t be able to guess they weren’t peers. There’s a meekness to her performance that evolves into weary wisdom by the end, showing the difference in age far better than the demographics and appearance would have you believe.
Spaeny also portrays an unexpected side of Priscilla given the film’s framework. Despite her youth and conservative lifestyle, she’s quite sexually assertive. For how often people bring up the age difference and the associated creep factor of a man in his mid-20s pursuing a teenager, the movie itself, which is adapted from Priscilla Presley’s own memoirs (she also serves as an Executive Producer), shows her as the one trying to initiate most of the sexual encounters, with Elvis often kiboshing the moment for various reasons.
To Spaeny and Coppola’s credit, this behavior is part of a larger characterization that gives the story what little nuance it has. Elvis introduces Priscilla to various drugs (mostly sleeping pills and a brief aside with LSD), but it’s Elvis himself that serves as the drug she can’t kick. She’s not some fangirl hoping to meet the dreamy rock star and gush over him. Instead, either by conditioning or her own personality, she finds herself addicted to Elvis the man. The fact that Spaeny can handle these dramatic swings is what makes this such a good performance.
It’s everywhere else that things fall short. Elordi is a fine actor, and he’s gotten some high praise for his performance in Saltburn, which I’ll be seeing and reviewing in due course. But here, sorry, Butler spoiled me on the matter, and Elordi’s turn is more comical than anything else. His impersonation of Elvis sounds like exactly that, a bad Elvis impersonation. The voice is about as lazy and forced as someone trying to mimic Arnold Schwarzenegger, and half his dialogue consists of “Hey, baby,” like he’s a live-action Butt-Head. He’s a caricature, whereas Spaeny plays a fully-realized character, and it shows in just about every interaction, which sadly makes up the bulk of the picture.
The rest of the cast fares no better. Ari Cohen and Dagmara Domińczyk play Priscilla’s parents, but they’re completely one-note protective types. Tim Post as Elvis’ father Vernon is just a overbearing authority figure with no background. Lynne Griffin makes only the slightest impression as Elvis’ doting grandmother, and even then she’s just the warmer caretaker to offset Vernon. Really, apart from the two leads, the only character that really sticks with you is the adorable puppy that Elvis gets Priscilla as a gift.
All of that can be forgiven if the script is solid, but sadly it isn’t. There are hints of something more profound in Coppola’s screenplay, but it’s fleeting. I previously mentioned the slight nuance of having Priscilla be an active participant in her situation in contrast to the more tabloid aspects. That’s really good, and it’s aided by the overarching pattern of behavior that Elvis uses with her, essentially trying to make her into his own little paper doll by dictating what clothes she should wear and how she should style her hair and makeup. Whenever they have a disagreement, he asserts mostly quiet dominance that basically boils down to him wanting a “little woman” to come home to after he’s done living his glamorous life. There’s some indication that maybe he sees Priscilla as a replacement for his late mother, but it’s surface level at best, and even if it was fully explored, the rest of the script makes it feel like it would be nothing more than a tired Freudian trope.
Apart from those brief moments of clarity, the screenplay could easily be assembled by plot bots making a generic “abused woman” TV movie. She’s innocent, he’s a brute, and even when she does something slightly untoward, it’s as a result of stuff he did to her. By the time we get to the obligatory sexual assault scene, complete with Elvis drunkenly declaring, “This is how a REAL man makes love to his woman,” you’ve lost any semblance of caring, and you’re thinking back to all the close-up shots of Priscilla’s feet that make you wonder if Quentin Tarantino took over for certain segments.
The plot structure is also quite confused, spending way too much time in certain areas and then taking massive leaps elsewhere. A ton of story is spent on how they first met and started dating, with the period from 1959–1962 taking up almost the entire first hour. By the time they get married, there’s only about 20 minutes left in the film. Then we just jump to 1973 and the very abrupt announcement of the divorce. There are literal years of content and context that get lost in this method, not the least of which is the fact that the last time skip goes from Priscilla looking how Elvis wants her to, with dyed black hair and monochrome dresses, to her basically looking like Carly Simon with blonde streaks in her hair and a disco pantsuit. Spaeny is basically unrecognizable in this form because it’s such a drastic turn. I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be a statement of her independence and agency, but we didn’t see that transition, or even a smaller act of rebellion to prepare us for the moment, so it’s beyond jarring.
In fact, that can be said for a lot of the instances of melodrama in this film. We get a lot of subtle scenes of Elvis asserting his will, followed by innuendo and tabloid material that happens completely offscreen, with only scenes of Spaeny worrying about it, capped off with something insane like Priscilla commenting on a song that’s been pitched to Elvis and him just straight up throwing a chair against the wall. Where the hell did that come from? Elvis assumes the traditional gender roles of the time period, which is why he acts with authority towards her, I get that as a generalization. But in this specific sequence, Priscilla was simply asked her opinion, and she agreed with Elvis, and he goes full Jerry Springer without warning or precedent? How does that work? Shock value is only effective if it’s believable, and while you can quibble with Elvis’ attitude up to that point, he had shown no propensity for violence before he started chucking office furniture. It makes no sense. It’s a surprising moment, but more laughable than serious, because it feels like parody, like Coppola was ticking off a checklist of things that just had to be in this movie to show that Elvis was a bad husband, if not a bad person, and that only disservices the story and characters.
This film gets right the same thing that Elvis got right last year, in that it creates an honest portrayal of the title character, even if some of the facts are flubbed, delivered by a star-making performance. But where the previous entry failed, so to does this one, as Sofia Coppola largely abandons the idea of telling a nuanced story in favor of soap opera clichés and tired repetition of story elements you can see on any made-for-TV movie, only with a higher budget for better production values. Priscilla comes achingly close to breaking free of these trappings, allowing for the possibility that Priscilla Presley was at least partially complicit in her own suffering, but then it just succumbs to a forgettable pattern of run-of-the-mill abuse tropes, most of which we don’t even directly see, before hastily scrambling to the conclusion just so we could end it. The entire affair feels artificially inflated to campaign for awards based on Coppola’s name alone, without nearly enough quality in the product to back it up. It may still get the rewards that the marketing seeks, but it doesn’t deserve it, and honestly, if this were released in March or April, almost no one would have seen it or cared. When you think about it, that kind of fits the Priscilla Presley depicted in this movie perfectly, a potentially compelling afterthought, but an afterthought nonetheless.
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