The Big Picture
- Cailee Spaeny gives a quietly brilliant and captivating performance as Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s biographical drama “Priscilla”.
- Spaeny expertly translates Priscilla’s thoughts and feelings through her facial expressions and body language, showcasing her talent for physical acting.
- Despite being overlooked for an Academy Award nomination, Spaeny’s performance as Priscilla deserves recognition for her portrayal of a young woman trapped in a gilded cage.
With Academy Award nominations announced on Tuesday, Greta Lee and Margot Robbie were two of the most surprising exclusions from a strong Best Actress lineup, but another snub worth mentioning is that of Cailee Spaeny, who gave a quietly brilliant performance as Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola‘s biographical drama Priscilla. In contrast to Baz Luhrmann‘s larger-than-life Elvis biopic, which received eight nominations at last year’s Oscars, Priscilla was shut out completely, and if any part of Coppola’s film deserved recognition from the Academy, it’s Spaeny’s captivating performance. Despite her sparse dialogue, Spaeny expertly translates Priscilla’s thoughts and feelings through her facial expressions and body language in Coppola’s rumination on the life of a child who grew up far too quickly and found herself tethered to the King of Rock and Roll.
When teenager Priscilla Beaulieu meets Elvis Presley at a party, the man who’s already a meteoric rock ‘n’ roll superstar becomes someone entirely unexpected in private moments: a thrilling crush, an ally in loneliness, and a gentle best friend.
- Release Date
- November 3, 2023
- 113 minutes
‘Priscilla’ Revolves Around Cailee Spaeny’s Performance
Unlike Elvis, which gave Olivia DeJonge‘s iteration of Priscilla Presley very minimal screen time, Priscilla revolves entirely around her, allowing Spaeny to take center stage in Coppola’s adaptation of Presley’s memoir Elvis and Me. The real Priscilla Presley, who also serves as an executive producer of Priscilla, gave the film her seal of approval, and has stated that she “would never support another movie from anyone else,” about her life. Spaeny also shared the praise she received from Presley after watching the film next to her at the Venice Film Festival, telling People, “[Priscilla’s] reaction and how she said she watched her life through seeing the movie. That’s it. That’s the best review I could get.” Given her remarkable, understated performance, it’s easy to see why Presley sang her praises.
Much like her memoir, Priscilla takes us through Presley’s life from her first meeting with Elvis (Jacob Elordi) until she leaves their marriage, offering a unique coming of age story, one of Coppola’s storytelling specialties. Spaeny brings Priscilla to life from the page to the screen as she goes from an infatuated teenager to a young woman trapped in a gilded cage to an adult determined to take her own path. Priscilla doesn’t voice her feelings or opinions very often because she has no one to confide in aside from Elvis, who immediately shifts the conversation back to himself whenever she tries to articulate her loneliness when he leaves Graceland for months at a time. Groomed from the age of 14, instead of paying attention in school, Priscilla learns to mold herself into the kind of girl Elvis likes: soft and feminine, always elegantly dressed with freshly painted nails and styled hair.
Aside from her looks, what really captures Priscilla’s transformation are Spaeny’s eyes. When Priscilla first starts dating Elvis in Germany, she has a perpetual twinkle in her eye, both when they’re physically together and when she’s at school daydreaming about him. While living at Graceland, she experiences a roller-coaster of emotions, elated whenever the two of them are alone together and heartbroken when she finds love letters addressed to him and sees him on the covers of magazines cuddling up to other women, like Swedish-American actress Ann-Margret. As she roams the empty Graceland estate, she carries a sense of loneliness in her eyes, unsure about this new life she’s been roped into. After they marry and Priscilla becomes an expert at tailoring her behavior to Elvis’, she develops an emptiness behind her eyes, numbly accepting the fact of his infidelity and realizing their relationship has become a hindrance to him.
What Lisa Marie Presley Really Thought of ‘Priscilla’
Elvis Presley’s daughter did not mince words for the Sofia Coppola biopic.
Cailee Spaeny’s Physical Acting Is Essential to Her Performance
Despite being in her mid-20s, Spaeny manages to believably play a 14-year-old Priscilla at the beginning of Priscilla, bolstered by effective costuming and hairstyling that call attention to Priscilla’s youth and innocence upon her first introduction to Elvis. With such little dialogue, Spaeny is forced to communicate largely through her facial expressions and body language, which noticeably evolve as the film progresses. In her first few interactions with Elvis in Germany, Priscilla is a soft-spoken, lonely ninth grader who suddenly catches the eye of a man 10 years her senior who also happens to be one of the most famous men alive.
The first time she attends one of Elvis’ parties, her nervous excitement and apprehension are written all over her face as she enters a room full of adults and immediately feels out of place. When she’s introduced to Elvis, she’s demure and reserved, intimidated yet flattered at the attention he’s giving her while trying not to come across as starstruck. When she and Elvis go to the movies together, she sits totally upright in her chair, observing him as he recites the lines in tandem with the actors, keenly aware of their physical closeness and unable to conceal a giddy smile when he rests his hand on her knee. Elordi also physically towers over Spaeny, and their significant height difference draws attention to their age gap and uneven power dynamic.
As Priscilla makes the move to Graceland to live with Elvis, we see her demeanor evolve as she becomes accustomed to a new lifestyle and learns to tailor herself to his needs. When Elvis sets rules as to how he expects Priscilla to dress and do her hair and makeup, she immediately dyes her hair black, and is rarely seen without her signature black winged eyeliner from then on. He treats her like a doll, and as Priscilla alters her appearance to meet his particular standards, she immediately appears significantly older than she did back in Germany. But even in her new sophisticated clothes and heavy makeup, she still comes across as a child (which she was) playing dress-up in a grown woman’s clothes, trying her best to fit in with the rest of Elvis’ entourage.
Spaeny nails her role as Priscilla, a young woman forced to perform at all times, both for Elvis and for the cameras. She did receive some recognition for her performance, winning the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice International Film Festival, and being nominated for a Gotham Award and a Golden Globe. Though Priscilla has its issues, particularly with pacing, the film largely depends on Spaeny’s performance, who carries it beautifully alongside Elordi — the pair wonderfully bring Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship to life in all its complexity and volatility. With just five spots available in the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards, it’s unfortunate but not entirely surprising that Spaeny was left out, however the nuances of her performance as Priscilla still warrant recognition.
Priscilla is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S.
Rent on Prime Video