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They Booed Elvis: How Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla’ Makes Up for Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny star as Elvis and Priscilla Presley in "Priscilla."
Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny star as Elvis and Priscilla Presley in "Priscilla." By Courtesy of A24 and Zoey Kang
By Avery Britt, Crimson Staff Writer

After the Elvis frenzy that erupted following the release of Baz Luhramnn’s 2022 camp film of the same title — the film that catapulted Austin Butler into the stratosphere of popularity and resparked Elvis-mania among a group of kids who were almost 50 years removed from the King of Rock and Roll’s last performance — the idea of an audience booing their new King seemed not only far-fetched but impossible. However, Elvis as a figure deserves to be condemned in many ways. While his questionable use of music written by black artists is an oft-cited criticism of him, a more egregious action from Elvis remains beyond speculation: his courtship and marriage to his wife, Priscilla Presley.

Elvis met Priscilla at the height of his original rise to stardom when he was 24 and she, 14. Therefore, not only is there a major power imbalance in the coupling, due to their varying statuses, but there is an illegal element at the center of this romance: Priscilla was groomed by Elvis.

However, if you watched the Luhrmann film, there would be almost no way of knowing this. The couple’s meeting in Germany is brief, there is no mention of her age, and the actress playing Priscilla appears true to her realistic age. Olivia DeJonge, who played Priscilla in “Elvis,” is in her mid-twenties at the time of her performance and she reflects that older age on screen. However, Coppola, thankfully, takes a different approach. From the audience’s first interaction with Priscilla Beaulieu in “Priscilla,” it is clear that she is a young teenager. She wears very little makeup, has the classic teeny bopper bang and ponytail, and she possesses a very shy, youthful energy in the opening scenes. But, even beyond that, her age is explicitly mentioned multiple times in the film. It is an inescapable reality that Priscilla is a child interacting with a superstar.

As she ages, this dynamic is further exacerbated, especially in Priscilla’s evolution to her iconic look of heavy makeup and teased jet Black hair. Many people might assume that Priscilla developed her own unique style, and the Luhrmann film leans into this belief. “Elvis” shows that after her time overseas, Prisiclla simply begins to appear in her iconic look, as if she decided that dating a superstar required a superstar appearance. However, in actuality, according to her book “Elvis and Me,” “Priscilla” makes it clear that Elvis designed her. With scenes of Elvis micromanaging her clothing, make up, and hair, it is clear that the lack of acknowledgement of this in Presley’s book reveals that Elvis’s grooming and control over the young girl went largely unrecognized.

Throughout this paced escalation of Elvis’s tightening grip in the relationship, the audience in the theater as I watched the film slowly soured on The King. The fact that he is played by Jacob Elordi elicited cheers and yelps when he initially appeared on screen, but, as Elvis’s personality was slowly illuminated, those cheers turned to outward expressions of displeasure, from gasps to groans, all leading up to a shocking moment.

While Priscilla Presley makes it clear that Elvis never technically physically abused her in the book, he certainly had aggressive tendencies that were made obvious in “Priscilla.” Particularly, during one scene in the film, Elvis hurls a chair next to Priscilla’s head — creating the most surprising display of physical violence within the film. In response, something that seemed impossible a year ago occurred in the theater with emphatic gusto: The audience booed Elvis. In this moment, the harsh reality hit them and the audience seemed to finally shed the rose-colored glasses that they have been viewing Elvis with for the past year. Finally, they have the full picture of the problematic side to The King. Even so, while the film adequately shows Elvis’s abuse, we never get to see Priscilla’s redemption.

“Elvis and Me” not only chronicles Priscilla’s marriage to Elvis but also the aftermath of that relationship: How she left Elvis to find her own life and success. Most notably, after Elvis’s death, she becomes the manager of Graceland and Elvis’s estate, almost single handedly preserving his legacy for decades to come and making his Tennessee Home one of the most visited places in the country. While the film does end with the act of Priscilla leaving Elvis to gain this independence, the audience never has the opportunity to actually see her as that independent figure. This is especially disappointing, as the viewers witness so much of Priscilla’s abuse but never experience her evolution from that.

Sofia Coppola’s films famously aestheticize femininity, and “Priscilla” is no exception to this pattern. However, the choice to aestheticize abuse with no redemption can be a dangerous one. It leaves the audience with a clear visual knowledge and catalog of abuse while only leaving an imagination of freedom. With that disparity in information, people could potentially fall back in love with the idea of a young girl undergoing harrowing abuse. But hopefully the audience’s reaction is a harbinger of hope — they booed Elvis now and hopefully they will hold disdain for his actions in perpetuity.

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