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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Linnea Rogers

The Most Special Girl in The World and Absolutely Nobody at All

Watching Priscilla in conversation with Woolf.

 


Watched Priscilla on a whim Tuesday night. Boyfriend was sick, so I went on my own. Wore holey black tights. A black miniskirt. Paired with a black sparkly jumper. My hair pulled back by a plastic hairband. And leather knee-high boots. My local cinema, populated by red velvet curtains and red leather two-seaters. Purchased a big cup of Diet Coke with a fat paper straw. Unzipped my boots, tucked my feet under my thighs, and slid my slim red Vivienne Westwood glasses over my face. Perfect.


An hour and a half later I left the cinema, unsure what I’d concluded. The final scene of the film features our titular character driving away from Graceland. A quite touching and understated parallel to the previous punctuations of the film’s acts — when Elvis drives away from Graceland, leaving Priscilla behind. We never see past those gates until the end. Just like Priscilla. But, while making my way home, I struggled to understand exactly what the film wanted me to believe Priscilla was driving away from — and, equally, what she was driving towards.


Biopics tend to be emotionally self-evident. What is on the screen does not need to have a purpose aside from exposing the audience to the actions, atmospheres, and, if ambitious enough, inner life of its subject. In this way, the purpose of Priscilla is obvious: to tell the lesser-known side of a universally-known story. But Priscilla wouldn’t fit into my understanding of a biopic. It felt fresher, somehow. Not too fresh — it’s not exactly Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart, as Princess Diana in a pastoral, speculative fable. No, Priscilla is heavy. Dense with vintage authenticity, Coppola’s trademark, like dust settled in velvet curtains. Everything — from the music, the props, and the wardrobe —  is authentic to the period: Aqua-Net, plush carpet floors, viscous black hair dye, thick cotton clothes. The same goes for the various filters and filming techniques employed, which show that Sofia Coppola’s newest offering is more concerned with creating an authentic world and conveying that world loyally, as opposed to arguing for a myopic interest in its subject. I could almost smell the plastic chemical hair salon, the chlorine, the swish of perfumed schoolgirl skirts.


After all, is that not who Priscilla is? A random girl in a special situation. A girl who does not yet know herself dropped into a fantastical world of fame and excess. When a biographical film is not mainly concerned with the texture of a person, it is concerned with an event of which the subject was a part. Priscilla isn’t this, either. If so, the event would be Elvis’ very existence. It’s a story of proximity, about a world built on proximity. About living in margins, in footnotes, and what exists there. Most notably, it’s about what existence looks like in proximity to greatness, which any wary woman should know is not synonymous with goodness.



In 1929, 30 years before 14-year-old Priscilla met 24-year-old Elvis in Bad Nauheim, Germany, Virginia Woolf penned her seminal essay on women and writing, A Room of One’s Own. She writes: “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” Elvis minimizes Priscilla’s life, and he tells her plainly, “Well, it's either me or a career, baby.” She is taken precedence over, so he appears greater — Priscilla quite literally makes Elvis greater, larger, due to their staggering height difference (seen most affronting when they leave the Vegas casino together).


“The life” in question is his life. The other side of that life, for her, is waiting. All that waiting. Priscilla rarely does anything. Anything at all. She sits. She stands. She picks up the phone when Elvis calls. She is occasionally applied to: makeup, hair, nail polish. When she is with other people, mostly Elvis, she does what she is, explicitly or implicitly, instructed to do. Shoot a gun. Put on a dress. Be a good girl – Elvis’ mantra for her. When Elvis says “Black hair. And more eye makeup,” Priscilla nods affirmatively, with real excitement in her eyes. She wants to fulfill a task. She is like a devout believer, existing only in the gaze of a volatile man, whom she wants to please — for that is how she can continue to exist. 


So, then: what is she driving away from?  And what is she driving towards? The obvious answer is that she is driving away from a whole lot of everything., including everything she’s ever really known. In the script, Coppola describes Priscilla surveying the walls of Graceland before she leaves: “...the only life she’s ever known […] walking through the empty rooms, taking a last look of where she grew up.” She’s driving away from her tumultuous relationship with the King, and she’s driving towards freedom.



But from my understanding of the film, by its end, their relationship is essentially non-existent. When Priscilla tells Elvis she’s leaving him, it’s more of a formality than anything. There’s no build-up. No defiant door slamming. No screaming match. No clever, cutting words. You would be hard-pressed to find this scene nestled in a compilation alongside Amy Dunne, Pearl, or Tonya Harding. Until the very end, she stays a good girl, doing things the proper way. Of course — she doesn’t know anything different. It’s a universal, but oh-so-personal experience: to place all your personal value in a relationship with a man. Priscilla is precisely about the dichotomy between being the most special girl in the world and also absolutely nobody at all.  Priscilla is a glorified doll — to be dressed, rejected, and disrespected. A young Priscilla leaves the whispers of Lucky her! that surround her at school to go home to an empty house, to wait for the older man that, literally and figuratively, defines her.


In a media landscape saturated with simulacrums of strong women and half-baked neoliberal-feminist icons, Priscilla feels like a truer tale of reclaiming oneself. This is not necessarily to the fault of strong female characters. These stories are meant to be aspirational, idealistic, and not necessarily authentic (or, in the case of one Amy Dunne or Pearl, cathartic). Priscilla is cathartic in an alternate way. After watching Priscilla do a whole lot of nothing for the majority of the film’s runtime, I wanted to whoop and cheer when she finally did something, like very slow karate, after moving to L.A. I worry slightly that I’m not-like-other-girls-ing Priscilla, but I guess that is what I find so fascinating in the film: that due to her strange upbringing and circumstances, Priscilla barely functions as a subject. She is not a protagonist. She does not drive the story forward, until the very end when she drives away.


I had recently watched Springsteen on Broadway. Americana was on my mind. In the introduction to “The Promised Land,” Springsteen describes driving through America as a young man. A line I immediately went to jot down: 


…disappearing into nothing. My favorite thing.


Perhaps this is what Priscilla is driving towards at the end of her film: sweet, delicious nothing. A woman’s simple right to be on her own. A woman’s right to amount to nothing. A woman’s right to capital-N Nothing. Woolf suggests a woman needs a room of one’s own to tell a story (she also suggests cash). A quote echoed in one of the last lines of the film: “You’re losing me to a life of my own.” It’s no coincidence that the final scene is Priscilla leaving Graceland, not Elvis. Just like the man never belonged to her, neither did the place. But as opposed to a place of one’s own, she does not need the man to start living her own life or telling her own story.


Woolf’s looking-glass quote has become my new marker for whether a film treats a female counterpart honorably. Does she primarily function to reflect the figure of a man?  To make him greater? Does she exist to be taken precedence over? And, in the vein of Priscilla, how is this regarded, depicted? How is his “greatness” depicted? Is that worthy of her destruction? Her misery?



There has been a lot of discussion about great men in the last few decades, and what they are owed — and what we owe them to look away from. Priscilla serves as a much-needed reminder of how the victims of these men are tangible, whole beings, lives who disappeared in favor of bolstering the men who used and abused them. As much as we do need aspirational female characters and role-models; the basic, more unbecoming reality of women’s lives is equally important. It is not always our stories that revolutionize things, but the very act of telling them itself.


I have seen critiques of the film saying that Priscilla barely speaks. As a friend rightly pointed out, she doesn’t have the vocabulary to understand what’s happening to her, or the awareness that a young woman might hold today. Priscilla has no agency because she has not had time to develop an agency, as a skill and as a virtue. She has not been made privy to the fact that she has agency.


Young girls these days might “know better.” They are hopefully apt to recognize forms of benevolent sexism — sexism that treats us cushily, buys us clothes, and lets us live in its houses. Sexism that tells us not that we belong in the kitchen but to keep the home fire burning. The fact that Priscilla can be made, starkly portraying the unsavory side of a man who was once larger than life itself, illustrates the spacious rooms now made for women within fiction and story-making. After all, A Room of One’s Own is not just a manifesto; it is a lament. It is a cry of tragedy for all the fiction lost to the oppression of women.


The glamourous glimpses of Priscilla never take full precedence over what we recognize as her true reality. Priscilla taught me a lesson I keep having to relearn in real life, as the film depicts the divide between reality and façade. All of Priscilla’s waiting days outweigh the spectacle — the gowns and the Roman candles and the casino scenes — by tenfold. What is, or becomes, representative of someone’s life is not necessarily what actually constitutes a life.



For me, it ended up answering the question I am so often plagued by while traversing social media: “Why doesn’t my life look like that?” The simple answer being: “No one’s life looks like that.” The beautiful stranger on my phone screen’s life doesn’t look like that. Her life looks like setting up a tripod to film an illusion, to create a façade. Whenever I found myself yearning for Priscilla’s dresses or moments of excitement, the film made sure to remind me of the flipside of her existence.


In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf contemplates the ever-elusive concept of reality:


“What is meant by “reality”? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech—and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates.”


The reality of Priscilla’s life is what is left over from her time with Elvis, of her love and hatred of him. These shapes “too far away for us to discern what their nature is” feels genuinely prophetic of Woolf. The shapes have come closer; they take the form of cinema or phone screens. They fix and make permanent facades of reality. 


I am equally guilty of this supposed fixing. This self-preservation. This façade. I started this essay by describing myself — what I was wearing, how I was sitting. The brands I hoped to represent me. Packing myself away into a neat little vignette. To set a scene? To immerse? Yes, of course. But also to manipulate. To self-aggrandise. To lace images of myself in between my words, in between something potentially worthwhile to say. Trying to make myself matter. The King, social media, we ourselves, all become purveyors of women’s self-surveillance. Patrons of the inner voyeur. And, for a moment, through my own self-voyeurism, through my own words, I got to be the most special girl in the world, and also absolutely nobody at all. Dressed up in a dark room to see a film about a girl who sits alone in someone else’s house. 🌀


 

Olivia Linnea Rogers is a Norwegian-British writer, fringe enthusiast, film watcher, and poet, if you're lucky. Based in London. She can obviously be found online on Instagram (@olivialinnearogers) and Twitter (@olivialinrogers).



1 Comment


Unknown member
Feb 28

The last paragraph really struck me. I love how you convey Priscilla's and Woolf's themes of facade with your opening paragraph describing what you wore. It ties it all together

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