Inside the rocky marriage of Priscilla Presley and Elvis

Rock and roll legend’s former wife praises Sofia Coppola’s new biopic

Prescilla and Elvis Presley on their wedding day
Priscilla was 14 when she met the then 24-year-old Elvis
(Image credit: Getty Images/Bettmann)

Director Sofia Coppola’s highly anticipated biopic “Priscilla” has debuted at the Venice Film Festival to rave reviews from critics including the film’s subject.

Adapted from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me”, the film is “a subdued domestic drama” with “no more than a glimpse” of the King’s concerts or “a note” of his music, said Nicholas Barber at BBC Culture.

Instead, said Vanity Fair’s critic Richard Lawson, Coppola rises to the “tricky task” of honouring Priscilla’s memories “while also being clear-eyed about what are some pretty alarming circumstances”.

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What was their relationship like?

Priscilla Beaulieu was “all of 14 years old when she was ushered into Elvis Presley’s inner circle”, wrote Lawson, while the “pill-addled, domineering” singer was 24.

The new movie stars Cailee Spaeny as the schoolgirl, who was living on a US Air Force base where her stepfather worked in Germany when she met Elvis (played by Jacob Elordi) while he was performing military service in 1959.

The film “maintains that they had a long chaste courtship”, said the BBC’s Barber, and that Elvis “wanted her company because he was homesick” and “grieving for his recently deceased mother”. This “unsteamy relationship” is a departure from the “usual cliché of a hedonistic celebrity”.

All the same, said Kyle Buchanan in The New York Times (NYT), their ten-year age gap age difference “hardly slows his pursuit”. Elvis seems to regards Priscilla’s virginity “as her primary trait” and asks her to promise to “stay the way you are” as he “proceeds to turn the poor girl’s life upside down”. He takes her from Germany to Graceland, “plying her with uppers and sleeping pills”, Buchanan continued, and insists they keep their relationship secret.

Elvis, Priscilla and Lisa-Marie at home in the early 1970s

Elvis and Priscilla with their daughter Lisa Marie
(Image credit: Magma Agency/WireImage)

The couple finally wed in 1967, in Las Vegas, but faced “issues in their marriage from the start”, said StyleCaster’s entertainment editor Jason Pham. Elvis “continued to cheat on Priscilla with other women”, and she “also had an affair with the owner of a dance studio”.

Priscilla also claimed in her memoir that he no longer wanted to sleep with her after their daughter, Lisa Marie, was born in 1968.

Although the couple later renewed their vows in Hawaii, “their marriage never recovered”, said Pham, and they divorced in 1973.

“My life was his life,” Priscilla told People magazine in 1978. “My problems were secondary.”

How accurate is the film?

Spaeny was awarded the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival last week for her performance. The 25-year-old grows “convincingly from lovesick schoolgirl to strong wife and mother”, wrote Barber for the BBC, in what “becomes a haunting dark fairytale about a beautiful princess trapped in a castle by a controlling king”. The tragedy is “their lack of closeness of any kind”, he added, with Elvis coming across as a “not-quite-human stranger”.

Some viewers may be frustrated by the film’s “air of passivity”, suggested Lawson in Vanity Fair, “the sense that Priscilla is adrift on currents entirely slowed and quickened by the whims of another person”. But sometimes, he added, “young love” can “feel like that”.

One of “great sadnesses” is the question of who Priscilla might have become “had she never had her identity so subsumed”. But “that is the course that history took” and the film is “a fine rendering of that”.

Elvis Presley’s estate was “unwilling to support the film”, however, or licence use of his music, said Buchanan in the NYT. While Baz Luhrmann’s “hagiography” – titled “Elvis” and released last year – portrayed the singer “as the innocent pawn of his craven manager”, Col. Tom Parker, “Priscilla” shows “how manipulative Elvis himself could be”.

Estate officials criticised Coppola’s version after the first trailer for the biopic was released in June. An unnamed insider reportedly told TMZ that the writing and directing were “horrible” and that “it feels like a college movie”, while “the set designs are just horrific”.

Priscilla Presley and film director Sofia Coppola on red carpet

Priscilla Presley and director Sofia Coppola at the Venice Film Festival
(Image credit: Rocco Spaziani/Archivio Spaziani/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

But Priscilla insisted Coppola “did an amazing job”, Variety reported after Elvis’s ex “jumped in from the audience” during a press conference at the film festival. “It’s very difficult to sit and watch a film about you, about your life, about your love,” said Priscilla, but the filmmaker “did her homework”.

Insisting that Elvis did not take advantage of her youth, Priscilla added that “I was the person who really, really sat there to listen and to comfort him”. That, rather than sex, “was really our connection”, she insisted.

And although the relationship ended, she said, “he was the love of my life” and “we still remained very close” up until his death in 1977.

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Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a freelance writer at The Week Digital, and is the features editor on ITPro, another Future Publishing brand. As features editor, he commissions and publishes in-depth articles around a variety of areas including AI, cloud computing and cybersecurity. As a writer, he specialises in technology and current affairs. In addition to The Week Digital, he contributes to Computeractive and TechRadar, among other publications.