Review: ‘Jackie’ Re-Imagines History With Fantastical Fiction
It is 1963 and Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) is at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, just a week after the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy. Here is a woman grieving for the entire nation. In this work of historical fiction, this is the Jackie the public never got to see – she smokes, she drinks, she pops pills and confesses to her Irish priest (John Hurt) that she’s had suicidal thoughts. Her behavior is not befitting a First Lady. This is the Jackie who is struggling to know the difference between her very private life and her public facade. In fact, when a reporter (Billy Crudup) is assigned to write a feature on her she graphically opens up describing the gunshot moment, “his blood and brains in my lap. I tried to keep his head all in,” but fiercely confirming along with her smoking that it’s all off the record.
Director Pablo Larrain (Neruda) wanted to show Jackie as a real woman, and not just the iconography that surrounded her. He painstakingly replicated moments that are forever etched in Americans’ minds juxtaposing them with archival footage like the 1962 White House tour that was televised in black and white, JFK’s funeral procession led by horse-drawn carriages, even Kennedy’s horrific assassination, shot for shot left nothing to the imagination. It was up to screenwriter Noah Oppenheim to fill in the blanks as we see Jackie in her famous blood-stained, watermelon-pink Chanel suit removing her blood-stained pantyhose, stripping down to a slip and entering a shower. We see her naked back as she washes her husband’s blood off her body. Is this behind-the-scenes Jackie Kennedy someone that we really want to see?
When the camera pans in tightly to Portman in close-ups, which were numerous, you can’t help but notice the uncanny resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. Larrain kept encouraging Portman to move closer and closer to the camera.
“What we did with Natalie once we established the way she was going to talk and move and walk; my starting point was her close-ups. I remember just wanting her to come closer and closer,” he said during a press junket in New York.
Portman is carrying the weight of the movie on her petite shoulders. She certainly did her homework reading every biography she could get her hands on from the people who knew Kennedy, including listening to interviews to get the nuances of the First Lady’s small breathy voice down. Portman explained how she began to mimic her unique speech patterns.
“The most helpful was the transcripts of her interviews with Arthur Schlesinger from 1964. It’s word for word of what she said and there’s tapes that accompany it so I could hear her talking. He was a friend of hers so I could hear her private voice. The accent is a very unusual combination of influences. Definitely being from Long Island helped this accent; you get the ‘tawk, wawk, chawcolate’ which comes in rather easily, even though I’m Long Island Jew, not Long Island patrician! It didn’t affect my vocal chords,” she said.
All that research gave her a picture perfect performance on the outside from her pillbox hat to her Pappagallo shoes. But capturing the nuances of her innermost thoughts and feelings were not as developed, except in those moments of grief and anger.
The ensemble cast features Peter Sarsgaard as brother Bobby, a curious casting choice. Usually a fine actor, Sarsgaard sailed through not even bothering to reproduce Bobby’s broad Brookline, Massachusetts drawl. He wore a prosthetic to jut his front teeth forward but that was the extent of his attempts to portray the Senator. He admitted as much to the press, “I did this movie largely at first in spite of the fact that I was gonna have to play Bobby Kennedy. I was just like, ‘Well I’ll just do it the way I do it,’ and people will say I don’t seem like I’m Bobby Kennedy and that’ll be fine.”
Jackie takes great dramatic liberties with the legacy of the Kennedy clan playing with historical facts and whipping them up with fiction. Several references are made to JFK’s ill attention to his wife. History tells us that the 35th President had a wandering eye. Jackie makes good on that claim when in one scene she whispers to the priest who insists she get back in the dating saddle that she and JFK never spent the night together, justifying, “There are women who want power in the world and there are those who want power in bed.”
In one scene she has a night of booze bingeing while listening to Richard Burton crooning “Camelot” – a reference to Jacqueline Kennedy, who single-handedly invented the Camelot myth. In an interview she gave Theodore White for Life Magazine a week after the assassination, she said she and her husband enjoyed listening to the cast recording at bedtime, particularly the title song, in which Richard Burton as Arthur sings, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
Thus coining the phrase of his presidency which is celebrated in the film, “There will be great presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot.”
Jackie may move at times like a documentary or a biopic, but as Jackie says in the film, “People like to believe in fairy tales.” At it’s core Jackie is a work of fantastical fiction.