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7 December 2023

Inside Elvis’s dollhouse

Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla Presley biopic shows how the singer groomed his teenage wife – but his obsession with young girls didn’t end there.

By Tanya Gold

The name Priscilla means “ancient”, but Priscilla Beaulieu was a prim child of 14 when Elvis Presley, 24, met her in Germany in 1959. She told the story in her 1985 memoir Elvis and Me. She wore a sailor dress and pop socks. He was enchanted. “Ninth what?” he asked her. “Grade,” she whispered back. “Why, you’re just a baby.” Then he ate five bacon sandwiches. His lifetime companions were food and pills, and they were present too that night. But Elvis was drawn to duality. He embodied the sacred and profane professionally, and no one has done it better, ever. And so, when he left Germany, he said to Priscilla: “I want you to promise me you’ll stay the way you are. Untouched, as I left you. And remember, I’ll always know.”

Elvis and Me is the source for Priscilla, a new film starring Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla, which tries to explore Elvis and women. It tells us that, if you are the subject of an erotic cult – and Elvis was attacked by women from the beginning: they stole his clothes and scratched him – there won’t be room left for anything as common as intimacy. I wish that Priscilla had told the story of a fan – or Elvis himself – but it is directed by Sofia Coppola, who for obvious reasons is more interested in how young women behave around very famous men. She is bewitched by surfaces, and Priscilla was too. Marie Antoinette would recognise Priscilla as a queen, with all the same speechlessness and costumery.

[See also: The madness of Burton and Taylor]

Elvis only enjoyed the early years, when Americans projected onto him a man that he wasn’t, a man who was joyous. After that he lived in the dark, with tin foil blotting out the sun from his bedroom. Baz Luhrmann offered a hopelessly sanitised version of this in his 2022 film Elvis, starring Austin Butler as the singer – a rabbit to his manager Colonel Parker’s snake (Tom Hanks). Peter Guralnick, Elvis’s best biographer, knew better: Elvis had a burning imperative of his own, and it was to self-destruct. Guralnick wrote: “I know of no sadder story.”

If Coppola’s film is pretty, muted and, in the end, boring, Priscilla was the same. “I was petrified,” she wrote later, which is why people thought her cold. I sense that she was not so much loved by Elvis as cast by him. On an LSD trip she stared at his shirt, mesmerised by surfaces. Living with him sounds boring too – waiting with Grandma and instructing the maid – but fame is only gilded in the imagination: a social contagion, more theft than love.

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This story is more about death than love, and the audience knew it: you don’t scream like that for something you think you will keep. “I’ll treat you just like a sister,” he told Priscilla the night they met. It was half true. Elvis created in Priscilla what his friend Joe Esposito called “a female you”.

Elvis had no real siblings. He was the second-born twin of Vernon and Gladys (the first twin, Jesse, died at birth), and Gladys believed the power of the dead boy entered Elvis. The fear of death entered him too. Gladys would not let him play rough with other boys. She called him “a wounded bird in a pack of wild dogs”. His first guitar was a substitute for a bicycle, which Gladys thought too dangerous. Did she think he’d get away from her? It was a household filled with fear. They all sleepwalked. He slept in their room.

Elvis’s grandmother told Priscilla that Gladys had “a heart of gold – yet you never wanted to cross her”. They cosseted their only child who, a neighbour said, was treated “like he was two years old”. Marion Keisker, an early mentor, said: “My total image of Elvis was as a child. He was like a mirror in a way: whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him.” When he was young, he was so shy he would only play the guitar in the dark.

His rise to fame was swift and miraculous: he became an ideal, with “nice” girls at home (they would sit with his mother and, later, grandmother, waiting) and anyone he wanted elsewhere. Elvis’s friends pulled young girls out of crowds and fed them to him.

Then Gladys died, at 46, because she couldn’t bear to share him. “I know she worshipped him, and he did her,” said Dixie, an early girlfriend, “to the point where she would almost be jealous of anything else that took his time. It grew hard for her to let everybody have him.” Priscilla agreed: “Gladys’s fear of losing her only son drove her to her grave.”

When Gladys died Vernon and Elvis were photographed on the porch of Graceland weeping. He couldn’t stop touching her corpse, so it had to be put behind glass. He haunted morgues after that, pointing out the body of an infant to Priscilla. There was an openness to Elvis, a refusal to deny pain. The music was pain. “Heartbreak Hotel” was a morgue.

[See also: The making of Prince William]

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

What did Elvis want from Priscilla? He moved her to Memphis when she was 17, and they married when she was 21. In Elvis and Me Priscilla called herself Cinderella, but she is closer to the girl in Rebecca (who may have called herself Cinderella too – until the corpse appeared). Her life has the quality of gothic horror, but with sequins and sunburn. Priscilla tried on Gladys’s clothes in the attic at Graceland, until she was chased away by Grandma.

She was the anti-Gladys, a child of wax. “He taught me everything,” Priscilla wrote: “how to dress, how to walk, how to apply make-up and wear my hair, how to behave, how to return love – his way. Over the years he became my father, husband, and very nearly God.” It also suited his manager, Colonel Parker, formerly of the circus – did he ever leave it? – who could not fear a rival in a 14-year-old girl.

The marriage was an act of control, narcissism – he made her look like him, with porcelain veneers on her teeth and black dye in her hair – and hope. Priscilla is potentially a saviour, though he won’t be saved, and they lived in that necrotic, speechless space. No wonder it’s a dull film: neither can tell the truth, and so they re-enact a 1950s marriage a decade too late. She took a part-time modelling job. Elvis couldn’t approve: “It’s either me or a career, baby. Because when I call you, I need you to be there.”

So, she modelled for him: “We dressed up and undressed, played and wrestled, told stories, acted out our fantasies, and invented scenes. Whether it was dressing up in my school uniform and playing at being a sweet, innocent schoolgirl, or a secretary coming home from work and relaxing in the privacy of her own bedroom, or a teacher seducing her student.” They were acting. When he asked her how she was, she learnt to say, “Just great, Elvis. Everything is wonderful” – like an employee.

He introduced her to pills – all addicts are pushers. She stopped taking them, but they were ever-present: Elvis and Me feels written from behind glass. Only one scream breaks it, and that is from Priscilla’s mother, Ann: “Why you? What is this man doing to our family?”

Elvis loved the transgression of exploiting young girls. They lined up after concerts. “Gate girls” queued outside Graceland and were picked off by bodyguards. In Elvis’s Women, a 2023 documentary, a woman testifies that he stuck his tongue in her ear when she was 14.

He was so obviously a sex addict there is almost nothing left to say. If Priscilla was jealous of an affair, he would threaten her with expulsion: “‘I want a woman who’s going to understand that things like this might just happen. Are you going to be her – or not?”

Of their wedding night in 1967, she wrote: “I don’t think he really knew what to do with me.” Why would he? She was a child of wax, and Graceland was a dolls’ house. Was he so jaded he couldn’t want the woman he invented? When she got pregnant with their daughter Lisa Marie – she didn’t want to, but Elvis forbade contraceptive pills – she merely lost weight: “I prided myself on never needing to buy a maternity outfit.” He stopped sleeping with her, and she left him because they had “no common reality”. She grew up, but he couldn’t. He was insane by then: visiting President Nixon, when high, to offer to solve America’s drug problems; stopping his motorcade to intervene in a fight, doing karate moves in costume in the air.

His principal addiction was performance. “It’s almost like making love,” he said, “but it’s even stronger than that. Sometimes I think my heart is going to explode.” Towards the end, playing Las Vegas, women queued up for kisses as he sung “Love Me Tender”. There is something terrible about it, and gruesome, an erotic cult around a dying man.

This theme would have made a more interesting film than Priscilla, because his marriage was an invention to conceal a truth: for him, fear was more real than love. “Over and over, he dreamt the same dream,” wrote Guralnick, “a variation, in one form or another, of the nightmare that had haunted him ever since success first arrived unbidden at his door. The core of the dream never changed: all his money was gone, the fans had abandoned him, the Colonel was gone, he was alone.” He died at 42.

This is no morality tale, which is fair because, whatever he did, he died for it. Priscilla can’t judge Elvis, because she couldn’t. When they left their divorce hearing in 1973, they held hands. The wax child was well cast, and loyal to the last.

“Priscilla” is in cinemas from 1 January 2024

[See also: The degradation of Marilyn Monroe]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special