What’s fact and what’s fiction in Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla?” We fact-checked the film against the source material, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me.”
More from Variety
The new film, starring Cailee Spaeny (Priscilla) and Jacob Elordi (Elvis Presley), was inspired by the 1985 book, which became a New York Times bestseller at its release. Everyone knew Elvis the legend, but his former wife Priscilla wanted to reveal Elvis the man. This gripping tale from their meeting in 1959 until his sudden death in 1977 unveils the (often grim) realities of being married to the King of Rock and Roll. However, even in the darkest of memories, Priscilla maintains a deep love for her exceptionally complicated and often wildly unpredictable husband.
“When I read Priscilla’s story, I was so struck with how the setting is so unusual, but she goes through all the things that all girls go through growing up into womanhood,” Coppola said at the Venice Film Festival. “She talks with detail and openness about her experience, her first kiss, becoming a mother, all these moments in one’s life that I can relate to and I thought were universal. But in this very unusual setting that we’re so curious to know. Elvis and Priscilla were this legendary couple, but we don’t know much about her and her point of view.” Throughout the filming process Coppola revealed she was in contact with Priscilla, as was Spaeny who worked with the author to recreate her life as accurately as possible. “[Coppola] did her homework,” Priscilla said.
So what did the director take directly from the page, and what did she alter for her script?
Priscilla fell asleep for two days after Elvis gave her a sleeping pill
Fact: She slipped into an unconscious state after Elvis gave her two 500mg Placidyl pills during a visit to Graceland. What’s scarier, Priscilla took these pills right before she took a bath but managed to get into the bedroom before they fully kicked in.
As depicted in the film, Elvis had a steady supply of uppers and downers at his disposal. Soon enough, Priscilla would also begin her own personal pill regimen (Placidyls, diet pills and Dexedrine, which Elvis discovered while in the Army). After a particularly fraught pillow fight (which resulted in Priscilla wearing an eye patch) she weaned herself off all the pills and eventually stopped altogether.
Despite Priscilla’s decision to kick the habit, Elvis had a “harsh objection” to ever quitting. He often kept a medical dictionary on his nightstand to keep himself educated on the latest innovations and FDA-approved pills. “One would think he had a degree in pharmacology,” Presley wrote. “He always assured me that he didn’t need pills, that he could never become dependent on them. This difference in opinion resulted in many serious confrontations; I always compromised my integrity and ended up taking his viewpoint.”
Elvis forbade Priscilla from wearing certain styles
Fact: “He liked me in red, blue, turquoise, emerald green, and black and white — the same colors he himself wore,” Priscilla wrote. Elvis also had an aversion to brown and green as they reminded him of his time in the Army. The King also liked Priscilla in heavy eye makeup with dyed black hair.
Her style is not the only thing: Elvis was equally “fanatical” about posture. Priscilla was to sit straight or be corrected in real time by her partner. Plus, anytime she looked upwards with her eyes, he would tap her on the forehead and smooth out her wrinkles, saying she should look up with her neck to prevent creases.
Elvis threw a chair at Priscilla
Fact: Elvis had an erratic temper. His team and Priscilla were often subject to the whims of his anger, even when he asked for their opinion. Like the film, Elvis once pitched a chair at his then-girlfriend after asking her thoughts on a record. In her writing, Priscilla would lament that their love affair was dependent on how his career was going. Elvis would often make threats or demand that Priscilla pack her things and leave, including asking for a separation from their marriage wile Priscilla was in the third trimester of her pregnancy with Lisa Marie.
“When he was angry, it was like the roar of thunder,” Priscilla wrote. “No one could challenge his biting words; we could only wait until the storm passed. When he calmed down, he made excuses — he hadn’t had enough sleep, he’d had too much sleep, or he hadn’t had his morning coffee yet.”
Priscilla and Elvis took an acid trip together
Fact: In the search for a “higher state of consciousness,” Elvis turned to LSD. Unlike in the film, the pair went on their first (and last) trip with three friends in a conference room at Graceland. Priscilla described the rainbow-fueled experience as “extraordinary” but never tried it again as it was too dangerous.
Priscilla’s dog was a gift from Elvis upon her arrival to Graceland
Fiction: Honey was a gift from Elvis, true, but technically this gift arrived during a Christmas visit, long before she and Elvis had convinced her parents to let her move to Memphis.
True to the film, Priscilla was accused of “making a spectacle” of herself by a member of Elvis’ entourage after simply playing with Honey too close to the Graceland gates.
Elvis burned all his ‘higher learning’ books
Fact: Elvis read the works of Kahlil Gibran including “The Prophet,” “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse and “The Impersonal Life” by Joseph Benner. He would often hand out copies of these books (and many more) to friends and colleagues on film sets. As Elvis aged, studying philosophy and trying to decipher the meaning of life started to take up the bulk of the star’s day. In fact, it wasn’t just important for Elvis to be passionate about these studies, but he wanted everyone who surrounded him to read these works as well (Priscilla was less than thrilled with this pursuit, as he would often keep her awake reading to her in the middle of the night).
The singer would often attempt to create transcendent moments in real life. “Elvis and Me” shared a story of when Elvis wandered onto a Bel Air golf course — while the sprinklers were on — in search of angels, and another impromptu visit to a local morgue after watching the horror film “Diabolique.”
Eventually, Elvis’ longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker would demand a halt to exploring “esoteric philosophies.” Elvis and Priscilla gathered up and burned his collection of philosophy books in the middle of the night together as a sign of leaving it all behind.
Priscilla wore full lashes while giving birth
Fact: Just like in Coppola’s film, Priscilla would put on a full face of makeup before heading to the hospital to give birth to their daughter Lisa Marie. In her memoir, she admits to needing to convince the doctors to let her keep on her double set of lashes (her signature look).
Elvis forbade Priscilla from working
Fact: In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla picked up a job at a local salon modeling, but when Elvis got wind of her decision, he asked her to quit. Her partner was unimpressed with “career girls,” as he labeled them, and reinforced his ideals that Priscilla’s job was keeping him happy, even when he wasn’t around. Heaven forbid he randomly call her up one night and she wasn’t able to immediately answer his phone.
Eventually, Priscilla would open a boutique all her own in Beverly Hills store titled Bis & Beau, years after their separation and his death. The author would also pick up several hosting gigs including working on “Those Amazing Animals,” which was a spinoff of the popular show “That’s Incredible!”
Best of Variety