Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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.
When this off-Broadway play was announced back in March, I rushed to get my name on the list of patrons. Like most people who write for a living, having a chance to peer into the head of one of the most renowned journalists in America held a certain sway.
Playing at The Wild Project through May 22, an intimate theatre deep in Alphabet City, at 195 East Third Street, the script by Joseph Vitale stars Joseph Menino, who has the look (and chain-smoking cigarette demeanor) of the eminent broadcaster, down to his slicked-back and pomaded coif, deep baritone, and trademark braces.
The set is simple—chair, table, and the 1940’s microphone, a far cry from the tiny buds we see pinned to broadcasters today. Menino did a good job of recapping Murrow’s rise to fame, which began on a farm in Polecat Creek, North Carolina, then a move, at age six, with his family to homestead in Washington State, where he excelled in debate under the tutelage of Ida Lou Anderson, his polio-ridden teacher. Her guidance followed him well into his career—it was she who instructed him on the proper diction of his, “This is London” preamble to his broadcasts during the blitz while on foreign assignment for CBS.
The actor-as-narrator also explained the genesis of “Good Night and Good Luck”, the phrase he used to sign off. During war-time London’s incessant bombing by Berlin, citizens couldn’t be sure if their friends would be alive the next day following a raid. (Murrow and his wife, Janet Brewster, lost a dear friend in one particularly horrific one.)
Murrow’s World War II broadcasts were so effective in drumming up support for Britain that Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked him to join the BBC. (He demurred, although he carried on a public affair with the Prime Minister’s daughter-in-law, Pamela Churchill, a fact not mentioned in the play, but including it would have done a great deal to liven it up and move it beyond a staged biopic.)
His war-time reporting culminated with being embedded in Patton’s Third Army and Murrow’s broadcasting of the horrors witnessed at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Menino delivered it with the ringing tone of abject disgust, including the reference to “bodies stacked up like cordwood,” which still repels us (and rightfully so) 71 years hence.
Murrow returned to the United States after the War, and continued to work for Bill Paley and CBS in the pioneering days of television, culminating with his “See It Now” series. One segment, which showcased Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red scare, is often credited with leading to the senator’s ultimate censure and downward spiral to his death from alcoholism.
Murrow’s hard-hitting reporting was a double-edged sword, clueing his viewers on sordid details, but frequently offending the network brass (and its advertisers) in the process, and then permanently destroying his close friendship with Paley. His resignation from CBS led to leadership of the United States Information Agency under President John F. Kennedy.
Although the play would benefit from more insight into Murrow’s personality, for those who admire the man and his work, Murrow is a good start. Given today’s backdrop of political correctness, Murrow reminds us of a time when broadcasters spoke their mind—and were willing to accept the consequences.
In his time, Lyndon Johnson had a reputation for being brash, ruthless, and, at times, crude. Compared to what we’ve witnessed in the current presidential campaign, however, even the time LBJ pulled up his shirt to display for the press his scar after gall bladder surgery seems mild. Johnson was known for twisting arms to get things done. He was a master at negotiating when the odds were not in his favor. Yet his penchant to bully those around him (particularly his wife, Lady Bird), rankles. As the target of LBJ’s bouts of anger, Susan Rome shows us the gracious side of this first lady who, nonetheless must have suffered for what she was forced to endure.
Susan Rome as Lady Bird and Jack Willis as LBJ
All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning play, focuses on LBJ’s push to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Arena Stage’s production, expertly directed by Kyle Donnelly, has a tour de force performance by Jack Willis in the title role with a talented and energetic supporting cast. In a city that eats and sleeps politics, particularly presidential politics, All the Way will have no trouble attracting an educated and sophisticated audience. Those who remember LBJ will appreciate the playwright’s attention to historic detail. Everyone else will enjoy history coming alive in an exuberant way.
Except for Willis and Bowman Wright, Jr., who plays Martin Luther King, Jr., the other 15 cast members assume multiple roles. At times the entrances and exits are so swift, it’s a challenge to keep up with the characters. And because the play is presented in the round Fichandler Stage, snippets of dialogue sometimes get lost when actors are facing one direction. Still those are minor quibbles in a production that hits the mark multiple times.
Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey and Jack Willis as LBJ
Willis, who originated the LBJ role at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, last wowed audiences at Arena with his performance in Sweat. It’s up to him to carry this production and he manages that with ease. There’s certainly a physical similarity between LBJ and Willis, but it’s the way Willis carries himself and dominates the stage that transforms what might have been a mimic into so much more. “Everyone wants power and if they say they don’t they’re lying,” he booms, while grabbing the lapels of then Senator Hubert Humphrey (Richard Clodfelter). Humphrey, of course, was willing to put up with a great deal from Johnson, hoping to be selected as his running mate.
The play opens with Johnson assuming the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (He was sworn in on Air Force One just two hours and eight minutes after JFK’s death.) While Johnson was intent on pushing the passage of civil rights legislation to fulfill JFK’s legacy, he also fervently believed in equal rights. “Nothing will change in this country until Negroes can vote,” he says. Besides winning over Southern Democrats, Johnson worked to convince Republican Senator Everett Dirksen to support the bill.
JaBen Early as Stokely Carmichael, David Emerson Tony as Roy Wilkins, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr.
King’s situation is similar to Johnson’s. He must use his persuasive powers to bring together his disparate group of supporters. These include Stokely Carmichael (JaBen Early), Bob Moses (Desmond Bing), Roy Wilkins (David Emerson Toney), and Ralph Abernathy (Craig Wallace). Shannon Dorsey plays King’s wife, Coretta, as well as activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Adrienne Nelson does double duty, playing Humphrey’s wife, Muriel, and Lurleen Wallace, wife of the Alabama governor (played by Cameron Folmar).
Once the legislation is passed, the second act concerns LBJ’s reelection. Even though there was fear about a backlash after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the weak candidacy of Barry Goldwater handed Johnson a landslide victory. The play ends with a celebration, streamers raining down on Johnson who finally won the office in his own way and on his own terms.
Photos by Stan Barouh
All the Way Fichandler Stage Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street, SW 202-554-9066