3 stars (out of 4)
Katie Holmes. Minka Kelly. Jeanne Tripplehorn. Sarah Michelle Gellar. Ginnifer Goodwin.
These are just some of the actresses who have played former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Natalie Portman is the first one to truly inhabit her.
She delivers her most memorable role since Black Swan in the much-buzzed-about drama and quasi-biopic, Jackie. Though not an ideal physical match, and, standing at 5-foot-3, she’s nearly a half-foot shorter than the icon, the performance will surely stand tall come awards season. The movie recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by the end of the year.
This is not a Jackie who withers in the background as her husband, John F. Kennedy, ascends to the presidency and then is assassinated. Nor is she an enigmatic glamour icon in her trademark Chanel suit and oversized sunglasses. For the first time in ages (possibly ever?), she is depicted as a flesh-and-blood woman grieving her husband — as well the end of her fairy-tale Camelot life.
The framework is simple (if a bit of a copout): At the end of 1963, Jackie gives an interview to a journalist (Billy Crudup) from her home base in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. In between puffs of a cigarette, she gives her perspective of that horrible day in American history and its chaotic aftermath. Judging by the weary look in her eyes and the arched tone of voice, it’s hard to believe that she is just 34 years old.
This is not a standard history book–like flashback. First we hear bullets piercing the black air. Then director Pablo Larrain cuts straight to a close-up of a sobbing Jackie in an airplane bathroom shaking violently as she tries to wipe her husband’s blood off her face. (The beautiful and haunting score adds to the heightened emotion.) In the next few hours, she must watch solemnly as Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn is as president, tell her two children that their father is not coming home from Dallas (“He’s with your brother Patrick in heaven”) and organize her husband’s official goodbye in the manner in which he deserves.
Though the information here isn’t terribly groundbreaking, Larrain has the vision to present Jackie’s turmoil almost like an upscale horror movie. With every passing moment, her life is slipping away and nobody can help make the pain go away. Certainly not her brother-in-law, Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), who tries in vain to shield her from the news that JFK’s shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, was killed. The Johnsons and their staff, meanwhile, gently request that she and her children move out of the White House.
It’s up to Jackie to summon her strength and persevere through the madness. And it’s up to Portman to carry the movie during its most superfluous scenes. (There’s a lot of talk devoted to how to plan a state funeral.) For much of the movie, Jackie is alone in a room — in the master bedroom taking off her blood-stained pantyhose, practicing her TV tour of the White House in 1961, readying herself for the burial. Portman has the screen presence to make those moments more captivating than they ought to be. If anything, the silence is devastatingly impactful: When Portman speaks in that demure New England dialect, she tends to come off too mannered. With every dropped “R,” it becomes obvious Portman is trying very, very hard to be someone she’s not.
Throughout her life, Jacqueline Kennedy tried in vain to hide herself. She’s still a mysterious figure. At least Portman has lifted the veil enough for us to get a peek.
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