The True Story Behind ‘Priscilla’

Elvis Presley may be the King, but in Sofia Coppola’s latest film, Priscilla, it’s Priscilla Presley who gets the royal treatment. The biopic, inspired by Priscilla’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, shows what it was like to be married to one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century. “We know so much about Elvis,” Coppola says in a behind-the-scenes featurette for the film. “And it was really important to me to show the story through Priscilla’s experiences.”

Like many of Coppola’s previous films, Priscilla, which stars Cailee Spaeny in the titular role, follows a teenage girl’s coming of age. At age 14, Priscilla meets the 24-year-old Elvis (played by Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi), and he comes to define her entire being, right down to her sky-high bouffant and kohl-rimmed eyes. But not forever: the film reveals how Priscilla carves out an identity outside of her famous lover. By putting the focus on Priscilla, Coppola also offers a look at a side of Elvis rarely portrayed, one that is controlling, abusive, and likely to upset the legend’s biggest fans. (Not to mention, make for a fascinating double-feature with Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.)

But as the title makes clear, this is not his story. Priscilla stays true to the facts, as its namesake remembers them, to offer an absorbing look at one of pop culture’s most famous couples.

How did Elvis meet Priscilla?

In 1959, Priscilla Presley (née Beaulieu) was living in West Germany where her dad, an Air Force officer, was stationed. It was also where Elvis Presley was living while serving in the U.S. Army. In Elvis and Me, she recalls sitting in a local restaurant frequented by American servicemen and their families when a man in his twenties named Currie Grant approached her asking if she was an Elvis fan. When she told him that she was, he invited her to come with him and his wife to a party at the musician’s home located off base. Unsurprisingly, Priscilla’s parents were wary of sending their daughter off with a couple of strangers, but Grant was able to convince them to let her attend the party. It helped that he, like Priscilla’s dad, was serving in the Air Force.

Priscilla writes in her memoir about picking out the perfect outfit—a navy and white sailor dress with white socks and shoes—and being too nervous to even say a word during the 40-minute car ride to Elvis’ house. When she arrived she immediately spotted the rock star across his “plain, almost drab living room” and thought that he was even more handsome in real life than the fanzine photos let on. He was “younger and more vulnerable-looking with his GI haircut,” she wrote. Grant introduced her to Elvis as “the girl I told you about” and the two started talking. Elvis asked her whether she was a junior or senior in highschool. When she told him she was in ninth grade, he laughed and said, “Why, you’re just a baby.”

How does Priscilla handle the age gap between Elvis and Priscilla?

Priscilla’s age and the 10-year age gap between her and Elvis don’t go unremarked upon in Coppola’s film. During one of Elvis’s house parties, guests gossip Priscilla’s young appearance, saying she looks like an actual child. But the movie doesn’t go so far as to accuse Elvis of grooming or exploiting the middle schooler. “It was tricky,” Coppola told Rolling Stone in October of portraying the couple’s May-December romance. “I kept coming back to her perspective and her point of view.” Coppola wanted to honor Priscilla’s experience without judgment. “I feel it’s only my job to show what her experience is like,” the director added. “And I think you present things to an audience for them to think about and make their own decisions.”

Priscilla has long said that she does not consider herself a victim. Despite being a teenager when they met, she believes the homesick rock star saw her as a confidant who was wiser than her years. “Elvis would pour his heart out to me in every way in Germany: his fears, his hopes, the loss of his mother—which he never ever got over,” she said during a press conference at the Venice Film Festival in September. “And I was the person who really, really sat there to listen and to comfort him. That was really our connection.” But Priscilla said it was hard to watch the film and not think about how young she was when she first took up with Elvis. “At the end, I actually was quite emotional,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in August. “Only being 14. You look back and you go, ‘Why me? Why am I here? Why am I driving in a limo, going through the gates of Graceland with Elvis?’”

Why did Priscilla’s parents let her move to Graceland? 

In 1960, after completing his two-year stint in the army, Elvis moved back to the United States. He promised to stay in touch, and Priscilla writes that she was surprised that he actually did, calling her late at night to confide in her about his post-Army life and career. By 1962, she had flown twice to the U.S. to see him, spending her spring break in L.A. and Christmas in Memphis, Tennessee at his Graceland estate. When she arrived back home in Germany in 1963 after celebrating the new year with Elvis, Priscilla told her mom that he wanted her to move to Memphis and finish high school there. In her memoir, Priscilla writes that her mom was confused by their relationship, recalling her asking: “Why you? Why can’t he find someone his own age? You’re only 16. What is this man doing to our family?”

Yet Priscilla’s parents did eventually agree to let her go. Why? “I basically threatened them and told them, ‘If you don’t let me go, I’ll find my way,’” Priscilla told THR. She believes her parents took her threats seriously and decided that losing their daughter for a few years was better than a lifetime. But they did try to set some ground rules for their young daughter. For one, she would not live at Graceland, but in a separate residence with Elvis’ father, Vernon Presley, and his new wife. Elvis agreed to enroll her in a good Catholic school and make sure she graduated. Unfortunately, he only kept one of his promises: Priscilla quickly moved into Graceland, and began keeping up with Elvis’s wild hours, which made it hard for her to stay awake in class without taking speed. However, she did graduate with help from a very smart Elvis fan. “Her name was Janet and she was a straight-A student. I tapped her on the shoulder and flashed my brightest smile, whispering, “Are you an Elvis fan?,” she writes. “Taken aback by my question, Janet nodded yes. ‘How would you like to come to one of his parties?’ I asked.” Not only did Janet let Priscilla copy her answers, she ended up getting an A. The only people who may have been more excited than Priscilla on graduation day were the nuns who got to take photos with Elvis, who, at Priscilla’s request, waited outside during the ceremony so as not to be a distraction.

Did Elvis introduce Priscilla to drugs? 

There is a scene in Priscilla in which, at Elvis’s urging, Priscilla takes a mysterious pill to help her sleep only to wake up two days later. In Elvis and Me, Priscilla writes about the two large red pills Elvis gives her to relax after her flight from Germany to Graceland. “You had to be a horse to get these down,” she writes of the medication that was a “little stronger than what I had taken before.” (While overseas, Elvis had given her speed to keep her from dozing off in class, telling her it was how he managed to stay awake during late-night Army drills. “Elvis honestly believed he was doing me a favor by giving me the pills,” she told People in 1985. “And I’m sure the thought never entered his mind that they could be harmful to him or me.”)

After taking the giant pills, Priscilla writes that she felt as if her “arm was so heavy I could barely raise my hand; my eyelids seemed weighted. But I felt good and kind of silly.” She doesn’t remember falling asleep that night, but she does remember waking up to Elvis’ grandmother trying to revive her. Moments later, when she finally came to, Elvis told her, “You’ve been out for two days on two goddamn five-hundred-milligram Placidyls. Must have been out of my head giving them to you that way.”

For much of his career, Elvis took sleeping pills and diet pills, but Priscilla writes that his addiction worsened in the years before his death when he started taking more “powerful, unnecessary prescribed drugs to raise his spirits and ward off boredom.” But there was also a period in his life with Priscilla when he was “seeking a higher state of consciousness,” dabbling in psychedelics. In Elvis and Me, she describes a LSD trip in which she “found [herself] in Elvis’s huge walk-in closet, purring like a kitten.” This freak-out inspires one of the funniest moments in Priscilla — and is by far the trippiest scene in any Sofia Coppola film.  

Did Elvis take up with a spiritual guru?

By the mid-1960s, Elvis was looking for answers to life’s biggest questions. Priscilla shows him  holding Bible studies in the den of his and Priscilla’s Bel Air home and consorting with Larry Geller, a hairdresser and self-proclaimed spiritual advisor. During this period, “it seemed as if Elvis was always off alone reading esoteric books,” Priscilla writes in her memoir. “Or deep in discussion with Larry about God’s master plan for the universe.” To strengthen their bond, Elvis encouraged Priscilla to join him on the spiritual journey. He pushed her to attend lectures by metaphysical philosopher Manly P. Hall and read Vera Stanley Adler’s New Age self-help book The Initiation of the World. He became so obsessed with finding true enlightenment that he began using Cheiro’s Book of Numbers, which used numerology to define someone’s personality traits, to weed out those in his life who were numerically incompatible with him. “I waited in terror, praying that my number would be a six, seven, or eight, so I would be compatible with Elvis, who was an eight,” Priscilla writes. “Fortunately, my number linked with his.” 

Priscilla tried her best to feign interest in Elvis’ new hobby, but admits that it became difficult once he began withholding sex. He believed giving into his sensual desires was antithetical to his spiritual growth. She recalls nights in which they would take sleeping pills and he would read her metaphysical texts in bed, which didn’t exactly put her in the mood. This nightly routine led Priscilla to blow up at her then fiancé, begging him to spend more time being intimate with her than reading his boring books.

In the movie, Priscilla’s pleas result in Elvis burning his collection of spiritual texts. But in Elvis and Me, she writes that it was only after Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, convinced him that Larry had used some sort of mind control to manipulate his thinking that the rock star ditched the guru and the books he had recommended. “That night, at three in the morning Elvis and I piled a huge stack of his books and magazines into a large box and dumped them into an abandoned water well behind Graceland,” she writes. “We poured gasoline over the pile, lit a match, and kissed the past goodbye.” Elvis didn’t burn all of his spiritual books that night though. A Bible given to him on his first Christmas in Graceland in 1957 that he would use until his death sold for $94,000 at a UK auction in 2012. The book, which included annotations from the King himself, went for double what was expected, according to NBC News

Did Elvis and Priscilla really wait until they were married to consummate their relationship?

Priscilla shows a moment between Elvis and Priscilla in which he tells her they can’t have sex until marriage, but they can do other things. In Elvis and Me, Priscilla writes that they did engage in what she refers to as “intimate circumstances” throughout their seven year relationship, but did not have sexual intercourse until their wedding day in 1976 when she was 21. While that fact may seem rather convenient to some, to this day, Priscilla swears that it was Elvis who didn’t want to have sex until they were man and wife. “People think that was the attraction, it was sex. Not at all,” she said during a press conference earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival. “I never had sex with him [when I was underage]. He was very kind, very soft, very loving. But he also respected the fact I was only 14-years-old.” 

In her memoir, Priscilla says that Elvis was more nervous than she was to finally consummate their relationship. “After all, Elvis had protected me and saved me for so long,” she writes. “He was now understandably hesitant about fulfilling all his promises about how very good this moment was going to be.” While she had never been interested in waiting to have sex, she admits that it was worth the wait. “As old-fashioned as it might sound, we were now one,” she writes of their first time. “It was special. He made it special, like he did with anything he took pride in.”

What was Priscilla’s reaction to Elvis’ affair with Ann-Margret?

Throughout Coppola’s movie, Priscilla wants to believe Elvis when he tells her the rumors of his affairs with countless Hollywood starlets, including Nancy Sinatra, are not true. But when she sees a magazine photo spread of Elvis and his Viva Las Vegas co-star Ann-Marget looking rather cozy, she can no longer ignore the gossip. 

In her memoir, Priscilla writes that she was jealous of Ann-Margret, who had earned herself the nickname “the female Elvis Presley.” She worried that when the two started shooting Viva Las Vegas, they would begin an affair—and they did. Elvis initially denied that there was anything going on between them, claiming instead that Ann-Margret was having an affair with the movie’s director in order to steal his close-ups. He would later accuse Ann-Margret of planting stories of their engagement in the gossip magazines in order to get to him. It wasn’t until Elvis suggested that Priscilla stop visiting him in L.A. while he was shooting the followup to Viva Las Vegas that she confronted him. “I picked up a flower vase and hurled it across the room, shattering it against the wall,” she writes in her memoir. “‘I hate her!’ I shouted. ‘Why doesn’t she keep her ass in Sweden where she belongs?’”

Elvis, she claims in the book, then threw her on the bed and gave her an ultimatum: “I want a woman who’s going to understand that things like this might just happen. Are you going to be her—or not?” In that moment, Priscilla decided she would be the kind of woman Elvis wanted and went back to Memphis. Two weeks later, Elvis returned to Graceland and told her the affair with Ann-Margret had ended. “Don’t get me wrong,” she recalls him saying. “She’s a nice girl, but not for me.”

That betrayal would be the beginning of the end for the couple, who would each go on to have their own extramarital affairs. Elvis and Ann-Margret would stay friends until his death in 1977, but Priscilla wouldn’t meet her until his funeral. “Ann expressed her sympathy so sincerely,” she writes. “I felt a genuine bond with her.”

Did Elvis sexually assault Priscilla?

In her memoir, Priscilla details the psychological and physical abuse Elvis caused her during their nearly 15 years together. Many of those incidents appear in Priscilla, including the moment in which Elvis throws a chair at her after she criticizes a song he had been asked to record. Unfortunately, this was par for the course with him, according to Priscilla. “If he thought it would teach us a lesson, he’d blow some minor grievance out of all proportion, and even as he was yelling he might wink at someone nearby,” she writes of Elvis’s temper tantrums. “Then, ten minutes later, he’d be fine, leaving us bewildered and emotionally depleted. There were also times he would leave us emotionally uplifted. He was truly a master at manipulating people.”

In the memoir’s most harrowing moment, Priscilla describes being summoned to Elvis’s Las Vegas hotel room. She was “filled with curiosity” as to why he wanted to see her since, by this point in 1972, they were living separate lives and had been for months. She wondered if he wanted to have a real discussion about their marriage. But when she arrived, she found an intoxicated Elvis lying in bed. “He grabbed me and forcefully made love to me,” Priscilla writes. “It was uncomfortable and unlike any other time he’d ever made love to me before, and he explained, ‘This is how a real man makes love to his woman.’” 

While Coppola does not show the sexual assault, she does include a conversation Priscilla claims the two had following the incident. After that traumatic moment, she tells Elvis she’s leaving him for good. The scene’s dialogue is nearly verbatim to what Priscilla has written in her memoir. “It’s not that you’ve lost me to another man, you’ve lost me to a life of my own,” she writes. “I’m finding myself for the first time.” Elvis doesn’t stop her from going, instead saying, “Maybe another time, another place,” to which she responds, “Maybe so, this just isn’t the time” before walking out for good.

Why did Priscilla leave Elvis?

After the incident in Las Vegas, both in the movie and her memoir, Priscilla goes to Graceland to pick up her things and say goodbye to Elvis’s grandmother and the rest of the staff there. She writes that she found herself looking at the iconic Music Gates where fans used to wait hoping to get a glimpse of the King and wondered if she would ever return. She would, but not as Elvis’s wife. The two would divorce in 1973, but remained close until he died in 1977. “We remained so close that Elvis never bothered to pick up his copy of the divorce papers,” she writes.  

Priscilla has always maintained that she didn’t divorce Elvis because she didn’t love him. “He was the love of my life,” she told ITV’s Loose Women in 2016. “But I had to find out about the world.” After the divorce, she would go on to have a career as an actress appearing in the Naked Gun franchise. She would also become a key figure in shaping Elvis’ legacy, taking care of his estate, which is worth an estimated $300 million, for the last 45 years. (Following the death of Priscilla’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, earlier this year, her granddaughter Riley Keough was named the official trustee of the estate.) 

Early in her memoir, Priscilla writes that Elvis had “taught me everything: how to dress, how to walk, how to apply makeup 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.” Priscilla shows all of that, but it’s also an empowering look at how Priscilla learned to be her own person, often in spite of her famous ex-husband.

The True Story Behind 'Priscilla'

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