Female Autonomy in Film: Comparing and Contrasting “Priscilla” and “Spencer”

Artwork by Sydney Gaw.

Illustration of Princess Diana holding a candle and Priscilla Presley looking into a small makeup mirror. Princess Diana looks off to the side of the frame, wearing large pearl earrings, a pearl necklace, and an olive-colored dress. Priscilla wears a pink nightgown.

“Priscilla,” (2023) a biographical drama written and directed by Sofia Coppola, brings Priscilla Presley’s story out of the margins and onto the big screen. The media has long regarded Priscilla peripherally– an accessory that exists solely to compliment Elvis’ fabled grandeur. The work that has centered her paints her as an opportunist who leeched onto Elvis to exploit his fame and fortune. “Priscilla” reconstructs this fragmented narrative. Derived from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, “Elvis and Me, Coppola’s portrayal of Priscilla’s famed relationship with Elvis Presley is simultaneously a coming-of-age narrative that traces the path of a wide-eyed fourteen-year-old girl into her turbulent womanhood. I understand “Priscilla” as an iteration of “Spencer” (2021), another poignant biographical psychological drama. Like “Priscilla,” director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight’s “Spencer” centers on a historically maligned woman. Princess Diana constantly subverted royal expectations, transcending the role of the idle, frigid figurehead the crown wanted her to play; consequently, she fell under public scrutiny. “Spencer” lends us access to Diana’s consciousness with an authenticity antithetical to invasive paparazzi photos and sensational tabloid headlines. 

Both “Priscilla” and “Spencer” focus on the internal battle of a woman under repressive control and highlight her resistance. Elvis’ celebrity functions like the monarchy and Graceland like the House of Windsor; they are insulating agents which estrange these women from lives without expectation. For Diana and Priscilla alike, physical appearance is both a mode of repression and a vehicle for resistance. Still, Priscilla and Princess Diana are subdued in unique ways.

Priscilla was not only revered for her beauty– she was her beauty. In the popular consciousness, the name “Priscilla” conjures an image of a woman with striking blue eyes lined intricately with kohl and hair teased to the heavens, poised and posed perfectly next to Elvis. We remember her by her proximity to glamor. Rather than mar our memory of Priscilla by tearing holes in her portrait, director Sofia Coppola merely shifts its perspective. She demystifies Priscilla Presley to introduce Cilla (Cailee Spaeny), a fourteen-year-old girl who is wholly enthralled with Elvis (Jacob Elordi) when they meet at a party in his home while he is stationed in Germany in 1959. What intrigues Priscilla the most about Elvis is that he has chosen her: a young teenage girl devoid of the opulence and celebrity he parades. Priscilla’s parents, wary of their ten year age difference, question why he would pursue her. 

Priscilla Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me” answers this: “I want you to promise me you’ll stay the way that you are. Untouched, as I left you,” Elvis urges Priscilla before flying out of Germany. Elvis valued Priscilla because she was malleable in his grasp: impressionable, isolated from her peers, and sexually inexperienced. The film reveals that Elvis exerted power over all facets of Priscilla’s existence, from her public image to her intimate life. Although the abusive, predatory culture of their relationship begins quickly, Priscilla moving into Graceland at seventeen exacerbates it. We see her brown hair dyed jet-black, coiffed in perpetuity alongside heavy eye-makeup, and her wardrobe stripped of prints and muted colors. “I hate brown… It does nothing for your figure,” Elvis muses in disapproval. These are the tangible markers by which we observe his control start to consume her. 

Like Priscilla, Larraín’s Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) is a marionette, adorned in dainty, lavish fabrics affixed to the burdensome strings which suspend her, the reluctant dancer. At the film’s start, her hands linger over delicate dresses, each marked with a label designating a specific occasion for her three-day stay at Sandringham Estate: ‘Christmas Day Breakfast,’ ‘Christmas Day Lunch,’ ‘Departure.’ What at first appears to be a mark of luxury is really representative of the crown’s all-encompassing authority. She demands that the monarchy cease to keep her apart from her royal dresser and sole confidante, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), threatening, “I’ll cut up all my dresses.” Diana repeatedly wears the dresses out of order, fracturing one element of the monarchy’s rigid shackles. One of “Spencer”’s most powerful scenes is also its quietest. Diana, her eyes brimming with tears, speaks in hushed tones to Maggie after learning Prince Charles gifted her and his mistress identical pearl pendants. Maggie offers comforting words–“then only remember you’re beautiful.” Diana replies,“beauty is useless. Beauty is clothing.” 

Diana’s claustrophobic lifestyle is palpable in “Spencer,” where curtains symbolize her omnipresent surveillance. Between mandatory weighings before meals and blinding lights cast on her by voracious photographers, Diana yearns for a semblance of freedom— for air to flow through her curtains and the sun to emerge. One of the Queen’s officers instructs her to keep her curtains closed to prevent paparazzi from capturing her indecency. His claim, “I watch to make sure that others do not see,” encapsulates how the crown meticulously managed Diana’s scarce moments of privacy. In conversation with the officer, the viewer sees how this relentless scrutiny eventually strips Diana of her humanity. She compares camera lenses to microscopes and herself to an insect in a dish–her wings and legs ruthlessly plucked from her frame. Following this interaction, Diana discovers her curtains have been stitched shut. Her rage subsides to relief once she tears them open with pliers, rupturing the threads that bind her to the monarchy and the media alike. “Spencer” is filled with many such instances where Diana seizes her autonomy silently and in solitude, as Larraín masterfully portrays the power of quiet resistance. 

In Priscilla’s moments of insurgence, she is necessarily disruptive. Like Princess Diana, Priscilla was expected to endure Elvis’ abuse and remain obediently by his side. However, there is a key difference between the two female leads: if Diana is the subject of her film, Priscilla is the object. In “Spencer, Diana is vocal, strained but steadfast in her rejection of monarchical standards. Priscilla, on the other hand, is repeatedly spoken to and spoken for by Elvis and his company. Consequently, “Priscilla”’s earlier scenes are swathed in an oppressive silence. Priscilla never speaks to the girls at her school, but their whispered rumors and leering eyes rarely escape her. Graceland is quiet, save for the faint tick of a clock. In contrast, Elvis floods each frame he is written into with a cacophony of sound. A jazz record. Warm greetings between loved ones. The sound of silverware and glasses clinking above the dining table. At dinner, boisterous, animated stories exchanged between the King and his entourage stifle Priscilla, who has unease written across her face. She meets their laughter with pursed lips. Behind her eyes, which land dutifully on each speaker as they talk, Spaeny exhibits inner turmoil. Even when she dares to interject, Priscilla’s voice is muffled against Elvis’. Coppola harnesses silence to signify Priscilla’s loss of identity and volition. Thus, conveying emotions loudly and honestly becomes Priscilla’ rebellion against Elvis’ autocracy. 

Early in the film, Elvis directs Priscilla to conceal her sadness about his departure from Germany and plaster on a smile, wearing a kind of emotional veil to earn his approval. It is in this moment that she is taught camouflaging her feelings appeases Elvis and denotes strength. Elvis’ chronic infidelity is a consistent point of contention between him and Priscilla. Visibly distraught over the headline “Elvis and Ann-Margaret ENGAGED,” Priscilla throws a newspaper at him and implores him to confess to the affair. Elvis’ manipulative means subvert her rare displays of rage, as he tells her in an icy tone, “I need a woman who understands that things like this might happen. Are you gonna be her or not?” The camera is angled up to show him looming over Priscilla, his power, influence, and physical form dominating hers. Similarly, when Priscilla finds a letter addressed to Elvis by Ann-Margaret, she confronts him with conviction only to be labeled “aggressive and demanding” by Elvis while he engages in his own intemperate outburst, hastily throwing her belongings in a suitcase and expressing his intent to exile her to her parents’ house. Her voice breaking, she lets out a defiant “I’m not going!” Elvis lashes out at Priscilla when she fails to adhere to his ideal of femininity: a woman unyielding in her service to him who remains blissfully aloof to his disloyalty. 

“You have to be able to make your body do things that you hate,” Prince Charles says callously to Princess Diana in “Spencer.” She heeds his words, but not in the way that he means them. Charles was a pawn in the Queen’s armory who understood that the crown’s power as an institution far exceeded his own. Sentenced to a life of service to the monarchy, he criticized Diana because she refused to parallel his sacrifices. The pearls he gives her are not only emblematic of his infidelity, but of the crown’s control, hanging like iridescent chains around her neck. At dinner, as Charles looks on, Diana snaps the necklace and ingests a single pearl that lands in her soup. Discordant piano notes accompany Diana’s display of endurance, as she shows the audience and her husband that she will escape this constricting regime even if it physically pains her. 

Charles’ words are equally illustrative of Priscilla’s relationship with Elvis. In “Priscilla”, Elvis gives her amphetamines to help her stay awake at school after nights spent with the ‘Memphis Mafia,’ which she takes with greater frequency until she spends two days unconscious under their influence. Moreover, Coppola’s imagery of Priscilla donning double-set eyelashes and a full face of makeup on the morning of her daughter’s birth shows how Elvis’ ideal imprisons Priscilla in her own body. When Priscila and Elvis’ relationship unravels, we see Priscilla gradually free herself of his grasp. As the sun sets on the 60s, the kohl ring around Priscilla’s eyes lightens, her clothes desaturate, and her hair returns to its natural color. She hasn’t had black hair since. 

Like the plights of their protagonists, “Priscilla” and “Spencer”’s final scenes parallel one another. Priscilla drives away from Graceland after divorcing Elvis, accompanied only by Dolly Parton’s poignant, yet earnest “I Will Always Love You” blaring from the car radio. Princess Diana traverses the same figurative road, forsaking the scheduled Boxing Day celebration at Sandringham Estate to escape to London with her children in tow. Together, they belt out Mike and the Mechanics’ “All I Need is a Miracle,” hands thrust in the air against a soft breeze.  A distinct lack of movement is integral to both films, Priscilla confined to Elvis’ estate, waiting in stunted silence for him to arrive home and Diana restricted from taking so much as a step outside the royal residency. The stagnancy Coppola and Larraín so carefully contrive is made to be disrupted.  Coppola says, “that image of her driving off to find herself and start a new life was always the final frame,” and Diana echoes this sentiment as she utters a resounding, “I thought I might just…drive.”  We leave Priscilla and Diana in perpetual motion, transformed from passengers to the individuals behind the wheel of their own lives. 

“Priscilla” and “Spencer” are fixed on either side of a mirror. These films are more than the perfect double feature— they manage to depict women struggling in solidarity two decades and an ocean apart. Priscilla and Princess Diana’s public and private conflicts were akin to one another. Discredited and defamed by oppressive agents, their  fashion, emotion, and motion became these women’s mechanisms for resistance. Their respective biopics immortalize their rebellions, imbued with new light and the insight Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, and Kristen Stewart’s compelling performances offer. The result is a mosaic– fragmented tiles of information thoughtfully and beautifully arranged to preserve the legacies of Priscilla Presley and Princess Diana.

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