As if fortysomethings need any further memento mori that they’ll become dust sooner than they think, Natalie Portman joined their ranks earlier this month. Indeed, it has been more than a quarter-century since Portman’s on-screen debut. And what a stunning journey it’s been from ingenue to in-demand — from Jane Foster to Jackie Kennedy, Star Wars to stoner comedies, Malick to Mr. Magorium, precise impersonations of Madonna to piercing interrogations of the Madonna-whore complex, Beautiful Girls to Black Swan. It seems easy now, with years of hindsight, to feel like Portman’s stardom was never in doubt. But no talent like her should be taken for granted. If you believe her legendary Lonely Island-assisted freestyle, she could even kill your dog for fun, so don’t push her. What you want, Natalie? A career of might. What you need, Natalie? To always find new heights. This is Natalie’s Rap.
Can anyone understand how it is to have lived in the White House and then, suddenly, to be living alone as the President’s widow?– Jacqueline Kennedy
Is there a harder job in the world than the President? In his English-language film debut, Jackie, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín suggests that the role of the Widow may be even more difficult. When John F. Kennedy’s life was cut short in November 1963, his wife, Jacqueline, placed her deceased husband’s head in her lap as the presidential motorcade sped away to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Almost two hours later, the former First Lady stood in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit next to Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One as he was inaugurated as the next President of the United States.
“I want them to see what they have done to Jack,” she insisted to “Lady Bird” Johnson when it was suggested she change her clothes before the inevitable photographs were taken for the historical swearing-in.
An exploration of both grief and legacy as they play out on the world’s stage, Larraín’s film gives us an unconventional portrait of Jackie Kennedy’s mindset surrounding that tragic day in November. The events before and after are framed around a hazy Hyannis Port morning the week after, when Life journalist Theodore White (played by Billy Crudup) knocks on the door of Kennedy’s new home. Jackie (played by Natalie Portman) demands editorial control over her interview before inviting White in for their emotional exchange about her late husband’s legacy. It’s a traditional linchpin for biopics, allowing the director to show flashbacks that line up with the subject’s recollection of events. But Larraín eschews the sign-posting to which we’ve become accustomed, scattering the chronology like a nightmare half-remembered after waking up.
We see Jackie’s public image being molded before our eyes, as she shoots her Tour of the White House CBS special, with White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (played by Greta Gerwig) instructing her behind the camera on how to smile. We watch her deplane in Texas in that iconic Chanel suit, greeted by Vice President Johnson (played by John Carroll Lynch) and First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson (played by Beth Grant) amid cheering crowds. After the assassination, she grieves with John’s brother Bobby (played by Peter Sarsgaard) as they process what happened and try to sort out the details of the highly anticipated funeral. Most intimately, the film includes conversations Jackie had with an unnamed priest (played by John Hurt) shortly after her husband’s death.
Just like Jackie when she was in office, all eyes are on Portman as she attempts to transform into most likely the most well-known First Lady of all time. The first thing that’s impossible to ignore is Portman’s accent work while recreating Kennedy’s highly unique dialect. She goes for a spot-on recreation of Jackie’s specific timbre, nailing nearly every inflection and caught breath that the real Jackie exhibited in her many public appearances. Centering around a fashion icon, the movie’s attention to detail in the costume design is almost as important, and Academy Award nominee Madeline Fontaine adorns Portman with stitch-perfect wardrobe in every scene. Though Portman doesn’t exactly look like Jacqueline, her voice and outfits go a long way in terms of weaving together the fictional with reality.
But does her performance transcend a fine-tuned impression? I would argue that it almost always does. It’s tricky because Portman is playing a character who is always keenly aware of how she is being perceived, so it’s something of a performance of a performance. Portman shines most in the moments that we haven’t seen play out in public view before, specifically her scenes with Hurt’s priest character. It’s here that she’s most candid and most vulnerable, allowing herself to meld most with her tragic character. There are times that Portman’s portrayal can feel a bit too mannered and self-conscious for its own good (typically in the historical reenactment sequences), but on the whole, this is some of Portman’s finest work. For it, she scored her third Best Actress nomination but lost to Emma Stone for starring in a temporary Best Picture winner.
Early on, Jackie tells White, “when something is written down, does that make it true?” The entire film grapples with the notion of who writes our history and how we’re to be remembered but also, more specifically, how little the actual truth might matter compared to the appearance of things. Through TV and print, the Kennedys came to epitomize American excellence and majestic opulence, even though there were plenty less-than-wholesome things under the surface. There are allusions to Camelot, a musical said to be JFK’s favorite whose line, “Don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot,” came to eulogize a Kennedy presidency cut short of its full potential. Was John really that big a fan of the musical? Maybe not, but to paraphrase Jackie, the American people love their fairy tales.
The strongest elements of the film collide in its most potent scene, which depicts Jackie aimlessly marching through Arlington National Cemetery on a gloomy fall day while cabinet members argue about the location of his grave. The camerawork from Stéphane Fontaine is full of nightmarish conviction, tracking along with the traumatized widow as the snares of Mica Levi’s music score gallop along with her. Jackie doesn’t know where she’s going but she doesn’t want to waste any time getting there. She fumbles in high heels through the mist of the myth that she and her family have worked to create and preserve. It’s a haunting and indelible image, one of many that make this uneven but unflinching look at fame and misfortune a memorable showcase for Portman’s refined talents.