In 2011, Natalie Portman won a Golden Globe (and soon after, an Oscar) for Black Swan. I think, at the time, I was among a small minority of critics who didn’t appreciate that much lauded film. To me, it seemed sexist, two-dimensional, and manipulative. It certainly helped Portman’s career though, not to mention her personal life. She married Black Swan’s choreographer Benjamin Millepied and is currently expecting their second child.
Earlier this month, Portman was nominated again for the intensely moving psychological biopic Jackie. And this time, I’ll be rooting for her. (Although I anticipate tough competition from Ruth Negga (Loving) and Isabelle Huppert (Elle.) Portman’s performance is her best work to date.
Jackie, directed by Chile’s Pablo Larrain and written by Noah Oppenheim (Allegiant; The Maze Runner), focuses on the week following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In the time it took Lee Harvey Oswald to fire three shots (two of which hit their mark), the naturally private Mrs. Kennedy became the world’s most public grieving widow. Mourning the death of her husband (whom, according to this film, she loved deeply), Jackie has to explain what has happened to her two young children and prepare to leave her beloved home. She also quickly realizes that her late husband’s legacy is in her hands. The new president and the overpowering Kennedy clan have other plans.
Jackie’s obsession with the funeral begins while she and Bobby Kennedy are in the ambulance with the late president’s body. Although still in shock from the events of the day, she asks the driver and an attending nurse if they’ve ever heard of James Garfield or William McKinley. They haven’t. She’s determined that Jack must be remembered with the same glory as Lincoln, the man who won the Civil War and freed the slaves. Bobby is quick to point out that his brother never had the chance to achieve that kind of greatness. “Will he be remembered as the man who resolved the Cuban missile crisis? Or the man who put us there in the first place?” To Jackie, the answer is irrelevant. Her husband was the leader of the free world. He will not be quietly buried in the Kennedy family plot in Brookline, MA. We get the sense that Jackie has been bullied by Jack’s family in the past. And she refuses to let that happen now. In fact, it becomes apparent that her struggle to orchestrate a world-class memorial for him is also a fight to break free from his family so that she can build a new life for herself and her children.
In the end, Jackie painstakingly choreographs her husband’s funeral, drawing upon detailed historic accounts of Lincoln’s, including a long (and consequently dangerous, as post-assassination conspiracy theories circulate) procession, and the symbolic riderless horse. The result was exactly what she wanted, cementing JFK as a national hero and producing some of modern history’s most iconic photographs, from the veiled widow kneeling to say farewell, to tiny John-John saluting his father’s casket. Thanks to Jackie’s exquisite taste and fine-tuned sense of the theatrical, Kennedy’s presidency, untimely death, and the somber pomp and circumstance that followed, are forever etched in our minds. The true story lends itself to screen interpretations, both in movies and on television. In fact, Portman follows in the footsteps of dozens of actresses who have portrayed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy — from Jaclyn Smith to Jean Tripplehorn, Katie Holmes to Ginnifer Goodwin, Blair Brown to (as unlikely as it sounds) Sarah Michelle Gellar.