The real story of grooming that "Priscilla" leaves out

From Sofia Coppola to Priscilla Presley, we see how even these women are conditioned to protect famous men

Published November 13, 2023 1:30PM (EST)

Cailee Spaeny in "Priscilla" (A24)
Cailee Spaeny in "Priscilla" (A24)

The world owes Priscilla Presley an apology. For the past 64 years, we’ve done little to truly reckon with the fact that she was only 14 when she met a 24-year-old Elvis Presley. That information has been widely known and yet largely glossed over. Where protections should have been put in place, the world celebrated the superstar. Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” doesn’t let that slide as easily. The movie, as well as Priscilla’s memoir “Elvis and Me,” on which the film is based, reveals that the so-called legend was not just the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, more like the King of Grooming and Getting Away with It. 

This makes it all the more curious that Coppola still chooses to empathize with him. When asked about “taking down” Elivs, Coppola told Rolling Stone, “I never want to, like, take someone down and disrespect them. I think it’s sympathetic to see his struggles and the human side.” And sympathize she did, so much so that she omitted a lot about Elvis’ grooming nature.  

One of the first big screen revelations to dare to usurp Elvis’ reputation, the movie begins with Elvis (Jacob Elordi) and Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) meeting in 1959 in Germany. What follows is roughly two hours of textbook grooming. He dictates how she dresses, how tall her hair is, how her makeup looks. Then, he isolates her from her family and controls how much money she has. He makes him the center of her world ("If I call you I need you to be there,” he tells her as justification for ordering her to stay home and not work.) If she resists, he threatens to leave (or, more accurately, force her to go back home). If she still opposes him, he resorts to violence. The movie follows this cycle  — he tells her what to do; she bears the brunt of his erratic behavior; ultimately forgives him; repeat — until it's interrupted at the very end.

Yes, the movie shows Elvis is a creep. “Ninth grade? You’re just a baby,” he tells Priscilla when they first meet. Shortly after, she's trailed by whispers of “She’s so young” as she moves into his inner circle. Stating how young she is explicitly in the film is progress but it’s not enough, still attempting to shield him from the full consequences of his actions. Perhaps that’s why even the film’s co-stars are led to believe that “‘Priscilla’ is about true love.” Come again?

Coppola protects Elvis with glaring omissions. The movie is framed as if Priscilla is the only underage girl he had an interest in: She’s not like the other girls; she’s special! It’s true love! In reality, he had a revolving door of teenage girls. Before Priscilla there was another 14-year-old, Frances Forbes, whmo he dated at 22. He had a system to keep a steady stream of minors at the ready. An Amazon documentary, “Elvis's Women,” details how the legend's friends, who dub themselves the Memphis Mafia, would go down to a horde of fans and pick out young girls for the singer and bring them to him. This behavior continued even when he was with Priscilla, like Kathy Tatum who was 16 years old when she messed around with Elvis in 1969 when the King had just recently become a father. 

While some may argue this would not be in the movie because it was seen through Priscilla’s point of view, it's likely she was aware or at least suspicious. Throughout her memoir, she often finds clues to his predatory behavior. In Chapter 36, she describes how she “opened the mailbox to check the mail and found a number of letters from girls who had obviously been to the house.” Later, she admits seeing him with other girls at parties: “His bantering with some of the other girls at his house made me think that he might be intimately familiar with them.” Aside from a few suspicions with Elvis’ film co-stars, Coppola carefully edits this out.

In real life, his relationship with underage girls was so rampant, he often had his own slogan: 14 will get you 20, indicating the time spent in prison if he was caught. Joel Williamson in his book “Elvis Presley: A Southern Life” notes how Elvis, while on tour, would find 14-year-old girls to have pillow fights with, tickle, wrestle and kiss. Author of numerous books dedicated to Elvis, Alanna Nash says, “In this day and age, he'd be sharing a cell with R. Kelly.” Again, the extent of his crimes is not apparent in the movie.

PriscillaJacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in "Priscilla" (A24)

This is especially made clear when the movie departs from what Priscilla recounts in her memoir of what happened on her initial trip to Vegas with Elvis. The movie shows him leaping onto her while in bed and restraining her arms. He says, “I’ll show you how a real man makes love to his woman,” but then eventually backs off and leaves the room, giving the impression that nothing further happened. The memoir reads differently. She writes, “He grabbed me and forcefully made love to me. It was uncomfortable and unlike any other time he’d ever made love to me before.”

The film is also adamant that Elvis was “proper” — or, at least, as proper as one can be while dating a minor — in his sexual relations with Priscilla. In real life the couple maintained they did not consummate the relationship until marriage, and the movie panders to this. But just because they didn’t have penetrative sex until marriage doesn’t mean they didn’t still engage in sexual acts, something noted in the memoir yet the movie glosses over. In describing their time together when she was 17 , Priscilla wrote, “Fearful of not pleasing him — of destroying my image as his little girl — I resigned myself to the long wait. Instead of consummating our love in the usual way, he began teaching me other means of pleasing him. We had a strong connection, much of it sexual.” And yes, he did refer to her as his “little girl.” 

The sanitization of Elvis’ abusive, predatory and pedophilic behavior is likely the result of the inner politics at play behind the film. Priscilla, who was heavily involved with the movie, doesn’t describe their relationship as one of grooming even now. In a recent interview with Piers Morgan, she says, “I don't know about grooming me, I didn't take it as that. I never heard the word, I mean obviously it's all new now but he loved to take me to beautiful stores to buy me an outfit.” Part of an abuser's strategies is how they manipulate others to believe their abuse is an act of love. While Priscilla’s feelings are her own, it’s clear Coppola allows Elvis’ manipulation of them to extend into the film, too. 

For Coppola, the director known for perfecting the female gaze, to give Elvis the sympathetic cut is more than disappointing — it’s tiring. Women are often taught to protect men. We see this in pop culture history, like in 2022, when Kelly Rowland accepted an award and defended Chris Brown who also has a long history of domestic abuse, most famously against Rihanna. Even Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis and Priscilla’s late daughter, fought to protect her father by condemning the movie’s script and its “contemptuous” depiction of him. 

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Women giving men the benefit of the doubt is a tale as old as time, something girls are programmed into doing from an early age. As a Pew Research Study confirms, women are pressured and expected to be kind and empathetic both in the household and outside of it. Women are socialized to protect men, protect the family, and as Caterina Bulgarella writes in Forbes, it comes at the sacrifice of their own safety: “The care-giving expectations of women sheds light on why the #MeToo movement has never earned high marks of approval. If exposing the sexual misconduct of men risks ruining their reputations, and if women, who are responsible for protecting the feelings of their families, are the ones imposing this new climate of accountability, then we have all the ingredients for an extraordinary role violation.”

The instinct to protect men at all costs has been passed down for generations. It’s so ingrained that the King, from 50 years beyond the grave, doesn’t have to tell us to bow — we already do.

By Kelly Pau


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Elvis Presley Grooming Lisa Marie Presley Movies Priscilla Priscilla Presley Sofia Coppola