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Film Reviews: Priscilla & Rustin

Arts Review2023-11-3By: Marc Glassman


Dramatic Lives

Priscilla & Rustin

By Marc Glassman



Sofia Coppola, director and writer

Starring: Cailee Spaeney (Priscilla), Jacob Elordi (Elvis), Dagmara Dominczyk (Ann Beaulieu, her mom), Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll (Hog Ears), Luke Humphrey (Terry West)


Elvis and Priscilla Presley are rock royalty, but they’re also ciphers. Who were they? What were their inner lives? The world knows they’re beautiful, but what did they love about themselves and others? Many adore them, but why?

Last year, Elvis’ strange, twisted career—natural born musical icon to burnt out Vegas tragic figure in less than 30 years—was spectacularly filmed by Baz Luhrmann offering Austin Butler as a pale imitation of the brilliant rock artist, with his demise assigned to the great demon, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, obscenely over-acted by Tom Hanks. Now, here’s Priscilla, the tale of the sweet teenager who Elvis made into his wife during the height of his fame as a movie star in the Sixties.

Sofia Coppola’s imaginative terrain always centres around lovely unknowable girls, who are endlessly dissatisfied with the fate that has been dealt to them. The ensemble casts of The Virgin Suicides, The Beguiled and The Bling Ring move from indifference to violence without clearly articulating the reasons for their despair. With Priscilla, there’s anger—eventually—but not much for her to act against for most of her adolescence as the ultimate bird in a gilded cage.

Priscilla’s story is an odd one, not easily knowable. A pretty American girl, the only child of an American military officer in 1950s Germany, Priscilla is plucked from a diner, invited to attend a party at Elvis’s private residence, where his father and friends lived during his time as a U.S. soldier. In the film, we see that Elvis has an immediate attraction towards Priscilla, but it becomes clear quite quickly that he wants her romantically, not sexually. 

Coppola has a poetic eye and true feel for the longings of a teenage girl, or young woman. She’s been able to convey that desire in film after film, offering the vision of women hoping for the ultimate in happiness, but what that might be is never clear. Is it the right man? Is it her full sexuality unleashed? Is there an orgasm reaching a Wagnerian peak that never happens, which unleashes a physical anger when it isn’t manifested? 

Cailee Spaeney plays Priscilla as a profoundly lonely girl, who has no emotional resources beyond herself. She has no friends in school and doesn’t know how to talk to her very conventional mother. Shots of her in bed gazing upward indicate her troubled happiness. Elvis Presley is in love with her—but she doesn’t know why nor does anyone else. In scene after scene at parties, she talks with her dream man but there is no connection. He doesn’t understand her, and she can’t even get him to relate to her sexually.

Somehow, Elvis convinces Priscilla’s mother and father to allow her to come to Graceland, his home in Memphis, where she is treated as royalty—not quite as luxuriously as Kirsten Dunst in Coppola’s Marie Antoinette but close. Perhaps it’s the trappings of privilege with no apparent meaning that intrigues Coppola. We see that Priscilla would be in despair—or perhaps an existential confusion—if only she could understand her strange situation. Elvis, too, is grappling with his identity. In an odd scene, they even take LSD together but nothing profound occurs. Perhaps they’re not equipped to truly know themselves.

Eventually, they have sex and marry. As we all know, they have a child—Lisa Marie—but fall out of love. Why did Elvis love her? What finally drove Priscilla to leave his toxic Vegas and Memphis masculine circus?

Priscilla is a stylish film, as one should only expect from Coppola. Graceland, Vegas and Germany are evoked precisely. But what was going on between Elvis and Priscilla remains a mystery. Priscilla was groomed to be Elvis’s dreamy teenage girl. In the end, neither was happy with who that person became—and Priscilla rebelled. 

Coppola’s film is gentle and mysterious. I wanted to know more but perhaps there isn’t more to know. Priscilla is a film that is worth viewing: it’s sad and troubling and you will leave still wanting to understand the girl that Elvis loved. 



George C. Wolfe, director

Dustin Lance Black & Julian Breece, script

Starring: Colman Domingo (Bayard Rustin), Chris Rock (Roy Wilkins), Glynn Turman (A. Phillip Randolph), Ami Ameen (Martin Luther King), Michael Potts (Cleveland Robinson), Jeffrey Wright (Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.), Audra McDonald (Ella Baker), Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Mahalia Jackson), Bill Irwin (A. J. Muste)

Bayard Rustin was the unsung hero of the legendary American Civil Rights Movement until now, when the Obamas, this film’s producers, decided to tell his story to the public. It’s a decision to be welcomed at a time when Rustin’s tale will have greater impact and resonance than would have occurred ten or twenty years ago.

Rustin was the key organizer of one of the most significant days in U.S. history, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, which culminated with the Reverend Martin Luther King’s resonant “I Have a Dream” speech, poetically espousing racial harmony and the end to violence and racism in the United States. Few knew that King’s belief in pacifism came from Rustin, a lifelong Quaker, who had spent time in India, understanding the principles of Mahatma Gandhi and its effectiveness in the political realm. Back in the Fifties, when King was a young Methodist minister and activist, it was Rustin who convinced him to renounce guns and embrace peaceful resistance. The two worked together again in 1963 but their relationship had to be re-kindled after a controversial break-up three years earlier.

This stirring account of Rustin’s life effectively dramatizes his main problem as one of the most important activists of the time: his homosexuality. In 1953, Rustin was convicted of having committed what was then a sexual offense, which led to him being a pariah in the Civil Rights movement. A former Communist (which he renounced in 1941), Rustin was always at risk of being ousted from the conventional Civil Rights movement, but it was the Harlem U.S. congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who forced Rustin out in 1960, threatening to spread malicious rumours that his friendship with King involved physical intimacy.

The main thrust of George C. Wolfe’s filmic drama is Rustin’s actions in 1963, which were, in the main, exemplary. Rustin mended his relationship with King, which led to Roy Wilkins, the conservative leader of the most influential Black organization of the time, the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples), to accept him as the deputy director for the march, under the auspices of the beloved elder of the movement, A. Phillip Randolph. 

Many of the best scenes in the film are set in a floor-length funky, dusty office where young idealistic black and white activists took the phone calls, typed the letters, bantered and had impromptu meetings under the charismatic leadership of Rustin. Charged to put together a march of 100,000 people in less than two months, they did it and made sure that there was enough food, water and plenty of latrines for the astonishingly large crowds—over 200,000 showed up.

Much of the film is made up of Rustin’s struggles with his homosexuality, which he never renounced and for which he was never ashamed. To dramatize the situation, the film offers a situation in which a young and quite brilliant preacher, who is attracted to Rustin, has to decide to “go straight” for his wife and ministry despite a clear hankering towards being gay. Rustin is clear: to renounce your nature is never the right way to go. And Rustin refuses to ever apologize for being queer.

George C. Wolfe, the acclaimed Tony award director of Angels in America, effectively evokes the Sixties and Rustin. Stuck with many potentially dull scenes dramatizing groups of people—mainly Black activists—arguing  for the best strategies on the march, Wolfe makes them as entertaining as possible, but Rustin is hardly an auteur film. The amazing theatrical craft of Wolfe ensures fine performances, from Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin; Chris Rock, effective as Roy Wilkins; Jeffrey Wright (Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.), absolutely extraordinary as the terrifying NYC rep and, finally, the legendary Audra McDonald as Ella Baker. The problem that Wolfe can’t totally rectify is the stentorian tone of the film: we’re made to feel that important events are unfolding, forcing people to make speeches, not talk. One wishes that the production had been allowed to relax a little since it’s obvious that what we’re seeing is of massive importance.

Perhaps that’s just a quibble. Rustin evokes a wonderful event in U.S. history, one of the most extraordinary for the country, and for any notion of freedom and equality in that troubled nation. Marked by a charismatic portrayal by Colman Domingo, we’re brought into the complex life of one of the key individuals of the Civil Rights—and nascent LGBTQ—scene, Bayard Rustin. His life is surely worthy of this compelling film.



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