A Fine Romance Friday: Jackie

So it’s neither Friday, nor is this a romance. But since this is the label I use to write about film, here we go.

In 2016, Pablo Lorrain released a biopic about Jackie Kennedy called, creatively, Jackie. Focused on the period immediately surrounding JFK’s assassination, it’s a vehicle for Natalie Portman, but it’s also a meditation on history, gender, and grief.

Now I might be sort of interested in the mid-century. Okay, maybe a lot interested (exhibit A). So when the trailer dropped, I was SO EXCITED, but then the reviews trickled out. While they were generally positive (88% at Rotten Tomatoes), there was some prominent dissent, and I’d characterize them as muted on the whole. Therefore I didn’t see it until now. But I found it to be one of the most absorbing films in recent memory, and I have a few thoughts which I’ll drop below.

Two things first:

  • How you feel about Jackie (the movie) will probably hinge on how you feel about art film. It’s at least as much about how the story is told as it is about what the story is. In other words, it’s freaking self conscious, and that’s either something that works for you or it’s not.
  • It’ll probably also depend on how you feel about Jackie (the woman), JFK, and the entire Camelot “thing.” For myself, JFK is severely overrated. When Mimi Alford’s book dropped a few years ago, my response to the excerpts was, “this is rape.” To my mind JFK was at best a mediocre president. His handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Um, a save of a self inflicted wound at the Bay of Pigs. He accelerated things in Vietnam, had a wishy-washy record on civil rights, and couldn’t pass his tax plan. Okay, so there’s his support for NASA, and the Peace Corps, and the arts, but that’s a pretty weak foundation upon which to build a mythology.

But with those caveats, I loved this movie.

It consists of three interviews intercut with flashbacks of Jackie’s time in the White House, the assassination itself, and the JFK’s funeral. One interview is the 1961 White House tour (you need to watch it before you see the film to hear her speak for a sustained length of time); the second is an interview with a Life reporter shortly after the funeral (loosely based on reality); and the third is a discussion with a priest set a few weeks or months later.

In these conversations, granted while she’s in wildly different circumstance and emotional states, Jackie attempts to shape public perception, and she does so in a complicated dance that depends on her high femme costuming/presentation and her awareness of the men’s power, authority, and desires. She’s performing for all of these men: performing her grief, performing for cameras, and performing for (and editing) notes on a steno pad. She changes her clothing, posture, even her voice in order to present a certain face to the world. I’m tempted to say she’s uncomfortable in the White House tour but fully in control later on, but I’m not certain. Her closed off posture, tightly clasped hands, and her responsiveness to the direction she receives from aides might all be part of the act.

Many of my favorite moments in the film are explicit examples or rehearsals of/for performativity: Jackie a few hours before the assassination practicing a speech she’ll never give in Spanish. Jackie at the hospital feigning an emotional outburst at the urging of RFK. Jackie getting drunk, trying on some of her most famous dresses, and listening to the soundtrack from Camelot. (There are so many levels of performance and recording in that scene, I’m not sure I could ever parse them.) Jackie bringing a birthday cake to JFK Jr. and singing to him. (A morbid reversal of Marilyn?)

One of my absolute favorites is Jackie have a conversation in the Oval Office with the White House curator a few days before the funeral. She takes off her shoes and sits curled up on the couch while they discuss whether or not she should lead the mourners in an outdoor walk. I’ve watched a lot (A LOT A LOT) of White House-based movies and TV shows. It’s rare to see a woman in a position of power in that fictionalized space, let alone one who’s claiming to shape the historical and public perception of a man.

Other scenes are about voyeurism/Jackie as audience, such Lady Bird Johnson picking out new curtains while Jackie gawks in the foyer. Jackie watching Pablo Casal play in the East Room. Jackie watching, and being influence by, the TV news playing in RFK’s office or in the hospital waiting room.

It is in fact difficult for me to recall a scene in which someone isn’t acting or watching someone else do so. The film reminds me more than a little bit of Robert Altman’s Nashville, which is also a meta-film about an assassination. Every scene in Nashville is about performance, representation, and recording, as is every scene in Jackie. Who’s watching? What are they writing down? What does the performer want? What about the audience? How does the form of the recording shape the narrative that’s been captured?

What becomes most interesting in Jackie is not only what is present, but what is absent, namely JFK himself. For most of the movie, we see an arm here or a shadow there. We see immediately before or after the assassination, but not the moment of the shooting or the president himself until the movie’s final minutes. And when we final see JFK’s death, that is also when we finally hear JFK speak. He does so (at the conclusion of the 61 White House tour) to testify to power of Jackie’s renovation and redecoration plan. He shapes her legacy as she has shaped his for two hours.

It’s thus an almost perfect embodiment of Julia Kristeva’s theory of gendered grief from Black Sun (which I wrote about here). JFK becomes the black sun: his loss both destroys Jackie’s identity and becomes the mechanism through which she defines herself. He is absent throughout and also the force that shapes everything we’ve seen. He’s gravity. But for Jackie, there is no outside of her grief. It’s destructive and life giving.

In the film Jackie, the character Jackie says women can seek power either in bed or the world. She’s implying her husband’s paramours (victims?) are the former and she is the latter, but given Jackie’s seduction of her male interrogators, it’s not clear that the binary holds or where she would fall on it.

What’s missing for me in the movie is Jackie interacting with women. With the exception of the White House Social Secretary–who gets several excellent moments–Jackie exists not on her own or with women but in concert with men. Men she’s manipulating, sure. Men who underestimate her, definitely. But men nonetheless. I wanted send Jackie off to Grey Gardens, give her the space to define herself and perform (or not or whatever she wanted) away from the men who can’t see her, not really.

(To watch this movie the week of the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death was almost too pat.)

This isn’t to get into the costumes and the cinematography and the production design, all of which were top shelf. Portman’s performance is mannered and self-conscious and it draws attention to itself. But I interpreted all of those qualities as intentional and in line with the film’s view of Jackie as a woman who was uniquely able to shape her public image and, when faced with enormous tragedy, demonstrated mythology-creating grace and poise. Enough perhaps to write over her husband’s mediocrity.

So I can see why it was a polarizing movie and one that, because of the non-synchronous editing and general self-consciousness, might not be broadly popular. But I found it absorbing and meaty, and I would highly recommend it.

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