If you haven’t seen Jackie, it’d be easy to roll your eyes a little at the premise. A tasteful, beautiful historical figure portrayed tastefully by one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and tasteful actresses in a beautiful, tasteful biopic — all that high fashion and breathless dramatic glamourousness can easily edge into parody. And how much is there to learn, really, about a historical figure people have been obsessing over for 50 years? Moreover, what is it with our Jackie obsession, anyway? All these words we use to eulogize her: dignity, poise, elegance. Is any of that really about her personhood or is it simply a justification for all our perfume ad clichés? Was she just pretty enough to make us look and silent enough to make us wonder, or is there more?
Jackie, from Chilean director Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda) and writer Noah Oppenheim, does an incredible job taking a subject that could so easily be hoary and shallow and giving it heft. It may fall a little short exploring the why of the Jackie mythos, but it’s a brilliant portrait of Jackie’s role in creating it. It restores her agency even if it fails to challenge some of our assumptions. Perhaps most impressively, it’s a film with enough to say about Jackie Kennedy that it makes you believe that there really is still something to learn about her, even if mere mention of the phrase “style icon” makes you want to puke a little.
In the first place, “biopic,” a genre the title seems to suggest, is a bit of a misnomer, since this is more of a snapshot. It captures Jackie Kennedy at a crucial moment in time: the week following the JFK assassination. It uses as a framing device her first interview after the assassination, the one in which she herself actually created the myth of “Camelot.” Billy Crudup plays the writer (identified in the film only as “The Journalist,” though the situation is based on a real magazine profile, written for Life magazine by Theodore White). The narrow time frame keeps Jackie tightly focused, its portrait is concrete and lucid even as it moves dreamily in and out of flashback.
The film opens with Crudup arriving at the Kennedys’ Hyannis compound, where, meeting Jackie at the doorstep, his character patiently agrees to her demand for complete editorial control. “In case I don’t say exactly what I mean,” she explains.
“Somehow I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” he responds. Message!
It’s the first brush stroke of a portrait which will go on to depict Jackie Kennedy as the history-wise, relentlessly image conscious custodian of her husband’s legacy. Also, my God, that voice. From the her opening words through about five minutes of screen time, Natalie Portman’s breathy, over-polished but still unmistakably Mass accent (the Rs mostly become Ws, as if in trying to lose her regional dialect she’s given herself a speech impediment) is one of those fingernails-on-the-chalkboard, I’m-not-really-going-to-have-to-watch-a-whole-movie-of-this-am-I impressions, a la Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the Snowden trailer. But eventually you get used to it, and if you actually watch the real Jackie Kennedy’s 1961 White House tour television special (referenced heavily in the film) you realize that she actually did talk like that. It’s this weirdly sexual but overtly chaste purr, like someone trying to combine a bad husky porn voice with a bad baby porn voice, marinated in finishing school and dunked in the Boston Hahbah.
Her delivery is truly bizarre (both the real Jackie’s and Natalie Portman as Jackie’s). But once the off-putting quality wears off, it becomes an aspect of this compelling character. How does a person get a voice like this? How does she become like this, this chimera of personified virgin-whore complex? Jackie doesn’t fully answer these questions, but the anecdote is perfectly chosen for other reasons.
For JFK’s funeral, she wants spectacle. Why? How does this famously private woman magically find herself under such an intense spotlight at an event largely of her own design? Partly, it seems, because she wasn’t really private, just meticulously stage managed (hence that voice). What the film does so elegantly is to connect that almost pathologically image conscious Jackie with a Jackie who not only cared about history, but was shrewd in creating it. It makes a compelling case that Jackie was worried about her image not (just) because she wanted to be such a perfect Stepford Wife that she could land a president, but because she was hyper aware that image is largely what becomes history.