According to Rocketman, Elton John’s mother, Sheila, was not a warm and fuzzy British matriarch who offered round-the-clock support. In fact, Sheila is scripted as being so cruel to her only son that when Bryce Dallas Howard, who was cast to play the part, first read Lee Hall’s screenplay, the actress was taken aback.
“When I first read the script, I was kind of shocked,” Howard told Vanity Fair—surprised by Sheila’s coldness and the cutting comments she made to her sensitive young son, which shaped the musician’s emotions and anxieties into adulthood. “I questioned [the portrayal]. Like, Hmm, this feels like vilification, and I don’t know if this is accurate.” So the actress did her own investigative work about the woman she would be playing—seeking out people who knew Sheila and were not affiliated with the Dexter Fletcher–directed film. In the end, they corroborated the script’s depiction: “In honestly every single conversation, it was confirmed to me that, yeah—this was a very dysfunctional relationship, and she was a broken woman.”
“Elton was born. . .in Pinner, England—right after World War II,” explained Howard. “The city had gone through so much, and there was still rationing in place, so it was certainly not an easy time. She married Elton’s father when Elton was six years old, and they just absolutely hated each other”—a point confirmed by Elton John himself. “They gave every impression of hating each other,” the singer wrote to The Guardian this year. “My dad was strict and remote and had a terrible temper; my mum was argumentative and prone to dark moods. When they were together, all I can remember are icy silences or screaming rows. The rows were usually about me, how I was being brought up.”
And when Sheila discovered that her son was incredibly gifted—able to tap out tunes on the piano as he heard them at just five years old—life did not get any easier. “Elton was a child prodigy, and that was shocking and complex because she did feel that her life was not her own,” said Howard. “A lot of resentment came from that. But it definitely crossed over—the cruelty and the kind of mean persona and, you know, just not showing love, ever. It makes me wonder if she wasn’t well, possibly. It had shifted into a place that was toxic and dangerous.”
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