Next up in the Chasing Oscar series: Natalie Portman and her Oscar-nominated turn as the legendary First Lady in Jackie.
For millions of Americans, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy is the quintessential First Lady. She is a frequent reference point, a bar that all of her successors have been measured against. But why? What afforded Mrs. Kennedy such real estate in the American psyche?
Jackie takes us back to the last days of Camelot, zeroing in on the woman who must not only grieve her husband, but guide the nation in its mourning of their President after his assassination. The film starts in Hyannis Port, some days after JFK’s death, where an impeccably dressed but visibly worn Jackie greets an unnamed reporter for an interview. She laments how her husband’s legacy is being written, and she wants to share her heavily edited side. From there, Jackie takes us back: first to simpler days, hosting White House television specials and state dinners, and then to Dallas and the days afterward. We return to Hyannis Port throughout the film, whenever Jackie feels the need to strike something from the record, or offer a testy response to the reporter’s occasional passive aggression.
The problem with Jackie lies with its framing device, hopping back and forth between the assassination and the interview. The scenes between Jackie and the reporter are great on their own, but they chip away at the power of the main plot. There is so much worth unpacking: the bureaucratic chaos surrounding the funeral and the Johnson transition, Jackie’s fight to solidify her husband’s legacy through public memorial, and her private and public grief. Her last days as First Lady provide more than enough material, but the interview’s interruptions diminish it. The White House tour taping works a bit better, counterbalancing Jackie as real woman with Jackie as artifice. Still, a more straightforward narrative would’ve worked wonders and kept up the momentum.
Maybe the structure is besides the point; the success of Jackie rests not with the plot or the exquisite costumes and score (responsible for two of its three Oscar nominations), but with Jackie herself. Director Pablo Larraín frames his shots accordingly, with intense, unflinching close-ups of her withdrawn face and glassy eyes, conveying a woman caught between the duty to her role and her own monumental pain. It is deconstructed further in the film’s best scene, where Jackie toils about the White House in various gowns and jewels, downing pills and vodka, while the title song from the musical Camelot plays in the background. It’s a complete meltdown of the fairytale she worked so hard to uphold, and it’s heartbreaking to watch those tears slide down her face as she realizes it’s all over.
Natalie Portman is simply magnificent. Playing an icon is no easy task, especially one as public and mysterious as Jackie Kennedy. Portman melts into the role, disappearing behind that infamous pink Chanel suit and 60’s bob while wholly embodying the First Lady’s devastation, confusion, ambivalence, frustration and sometimes rage. And then there is that accent. I’ve seen the White House TV special and have heard that breathy twang, often compared to her alleged love rival Marilyn Monroe. It took several scenes to realize that Portman wasn’t lipsyncing over the original audio track. Her complete mastery of Jackie’s tone, and how it might stretch in moments of agony or disbelief, is extraordinary. Portman has claimed the Best Actress Oscar before for 2010’s Black Swan, and there is no reason why this engrossing performance shouldn’t afford her another.
As excellent as Natalie Portman is, Jackie is just good. The film’s odd narrative choices makes it feel bloodless in parts, which is rife with dark irony. When the story plays it straight, we are afforded a glimpse into grief in the face of public duty, and how a master of political performance operates. When it loses focus, Jackie loses some of the luster that Jackie herself worked so hard to maintain.
Brief detour I know, but coming up: Moonlight, La La Land, Silence, and Lion!