JackieJanuary 20, 2017
Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.
In an interview with Theodore H. White of Life magazine one week after her husband’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy insisted that no-one should forget Camelot. It was the song Jack loved most, the lines he loved to hear before they went to sleep.
Or so the world’s most famous widow would have us believe. White took the bait, with some reluctance. When he had to transmit a draft of the interview over the phone, in Jackie Kennedy’s presence, his editors rejected the Camelot references as sentimental and inappropriate. Jackie intervened to demand they remain in place. The editors backed down, and Lerner and Lowe’s musical became the score for the Kennedy legend.
The Life interview plays a starring role in Jackie, the first English-language film by renowned Chilean director, Pablo Larraín. It’s a remarkably original, assured performance from both the director, and from Natalie Portman in the title role of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Billy Crudup plays Theodore H. White (here identified only as “the journalist”), whose long interview with Jackie provides the backbone of the movie. The lead-up to the assassination, the event itself and the aftermath are shown as flashbacks, with transitions that are both seamless and dramatically satisfying. In the interview, held in a Kennedy stronghold in Hyannisport, Jackie is in control. She smokes a cigarette while telling the journalist “I don’t smoke”. She lets down her guard to complain: “Nothing’s ever mine, not to keep,” but swiftly reverts to the business of crafting a suitably heroic image for her late husband.
In the flashbacks we see Jackie the control freak, and Jackie the victim of an unthinkable catastrophe forced to bear her grief in public. Portman captures the precise diction that always sounds slightly artificial. It’s on display when Jackie takes the press on a tour of the White House, showing off the refurbishments she’s made. She is self-deprecating in an insincere way, while insisting on the importance of tradition.
Jackie always appears to be acting until she finds herself cradling her husband’s bleeding head in Dallas. From this point the camera becomes intrusive, almost voyeuristic. We observe her state of shock as she sits on the Presidential plane wearing the pink Chanel suit she wore in the car, only now it is covered in blood stains. Back in her White House apartment she showers away the blood, in a scene that symbolises the washing away everything she had planned and dreamed.
A quick binge on pills and vodka, a blast of Camelot on the stereo, and she begins to refocus on preserving the Kennedy legacy. Against all advice from her security staff, she insists on a grand funerary cavalcade for Jack, in emulation of Abraham Lincoln’s send-off. The images from the Kennedy funeral would be scorched into the public imagination. Jackie’s widowhood was immortalised by Andy Warhol, who recognised a hint of celebrity glamour in her black clothing and veil.
As demonstrated in No (2012) his movie about the Chilean referendum that removed Pinochet, Larraín has a unique ability to shoot a feature as if it were a documentary. In Jackie all the devices of documentary-making are in evidence, even when a scene can be nothing more than supposition, or simply fiction. In this detailed portrait of a few days in one woman’s life there is no real beginning and no end, but the narrative is completely engaging.
We recognise Portman’s Jackie as a supreme manipulator, even as we gasp at the magnitude of her ordeal. We feel the awkwardness of her situation, as her prized role of First Lady is snatched away and she prepares to leave the apartments she has decorated so fastidiously. There’s an inevitable tension with the Johnsons, who are eager to move into the White House and restore normality.
JFK himself is no more than a bit player in this movie, which tells the story almost exclusively through Jackie’s eyes. Her only confidantes are her Social Secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, not playing ‘goofy girl’ for once); John Hurt as an Irish priest; and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), who worries that the Kennedys will be remembered as “the beautiful people”, not the family who changed America’s destiny.
The script by Noah Oppenheim is miraculously good for a writer whose previous credit was the young-adult flop, Allegiant (2016). The score by Mica Levi adds a haunted dimension to the story, when a lesser composer might have opted for pomp and ceremony. It’s tempting to add a special caveat for whoever managed the hairspray.
The major honours must go to Larraín and Portman for a portrayal that brings Jackie Kennedy powerfully to life without diminishing her mystery and complexity. It’s a tale set in the heart of US politics, in which the political issues seem trivial alongside the personal ones. It’s the story of a woman who makes a world, only to lose it in the most tragic circumstances. To cope with her loss she creates a great and glorious myth that still holds us in its grip.
Directed by Pablo Larrain
Written by Noah Oppenheim
Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, John Carroll Lynch
Chile/France/USA, rated MA 15+, 100 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21 January, 2017