For those who remember Jacqueline Kennedy as First Lady, Natalie Portman’s performance in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, will be mesmerizing. During that famous White House tour, recreated for the film in black and white, Portman nails Jackie’s breathy voice and her straight-back posture. That was the Jackie we watched and knew. What the film shows is the Jackie we didn’t see – the one who chain-smoked, who descended into grief as she mourned her husband, and who fought to preserve his legacy, as well as her own.
This is Chilean director Larraín’s first English-speaking film and he has delivered a riveting portrait of a complex woman. The supporting cast is strong, featuring Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig, as Jackie’s loyal aide Nancy Tuckerman, John Carroll Lynch as Lyndon B. Johnson, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, and as JFK, Caspar Phillipson, who bears a striking resemblance to the late president.
Natalie Portman and Billy Crudup
When the film opens, it’s a mere week after the assassination and Jackie has retreated to Hyannis Port, the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod. She’s agreed to an interview with a reporter played by Billy Crudup. (The reporter, while unnamed, is Theodore H. White, author of The Making of a President series, including one about Kennedy, whose interview with Jackie appeared in Life magazine.) Jackie is determined to control the narrative. Several times after sharing her intimate thoughts, she tells the reporter, “Don’t think for a second that I’m going to let you publish that.”
America, in fact, the world, had never seen a First Lady like Jackie. Besides restoring and redecorating the White House, she showcased the arts and fashion. In one scene, Jackie, elegantly dressed in a mint green sheath, along with the president and honored guests, listens to an intimate concert by the Spanish cellist Pablo Cassals. She influenced style with her colorful dresses and pillbox hats.
Peter Sarsgaard and Natalie Portman
No outfit, however, is more embedded in people’s minds than the Chanel-like bright pink suit she wore that fateful day in Dallas. In the film, Jackie is in front of a mirror on Air Force One, practicing a speech she plans to give in Spanish. Stepping off the plane, she’s greeted by Texas Governor John Connally (Craig Sechler) and his wife, Nellie (Rebecca Compton). Soon after, there’s the motorcade, the shots, and the Secret Service agents descending on the limousine, while the car rushes the gravely injured president to the hospital.
On the plane, Jackie resists efforts to change her suit, staying in the blood-stained garments. When she finally is back at the White House, the scene where she undresses, pulling off her ruined stockings, then showering the blood out of her hair, is painful to watch. But it’s when she enters the bedroom that the full impact of the president’s death hits. She’s alone faced with the overwhelming tasks that confront her, explaining Jack’s death to their children, arranging the funeral, and moving out of the White House.
The Funeral Procession
Barbara Leaming, in her 2014 biography, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story, claimed that Jackie suffered from post traumatic stress after witnessing the death of her husband. Publicly, she appeared to be holding everything together during that time. What Larraín purports to show in the film is what she suffered behind the scene, crying, drinking, popping pills, as she wanders through the many rooms in the White House. In one scene, she tries on dress after dress, looking at herself in the mirror, then tossing them aside. All the while, we hear Richard Burton singing the title song to the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical, Camelot. That was what Jackie wanted people to remember about their time in the White House that “once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
She may have been grieving, but she was determined that her husband have the proper funeral and burial. While Johnson’s people, particularly his special assistant, Valenti, argued that it wasn’t safe to have Jackie, Johnson, and world leaders walk behind Kennedy’s casket from the Capitol building to the church, she insisted. She also fought Rose Kennedy’s desire to have Jack buried in the family plot in Brookline, Massachusetts, instead picking out his final resting place, in Arlington National Cemetery.
Many actresses have played Jackie, but Portman’s portrayal is the one that will be remembered. She’s simply phenomenal.