Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Jackie humanizes Jackie Kennedy...and Natalie Portman

We all thought we knew Jackie Kennedy, which is to say we thought there wasn't much TO know; that what we did know, the surface stuff, the basic biographical information, the fact that she remained dignified in the face of tragedy and went on to have a second life as the wife of Aristotle Onassis...we thought that was just about the whole picture. Jackie wants us to know there was more to Jackie than just the image of Jackie and it succeeds in this venture, more-or-less. Jackie made me for the first time in my white male life really consider Jackie as more than Jack Kennedy's sort-of-awkward, plastic-looking, much-admired-for-possibly-unworthy-reasons first lady, and I came away thinking okay, Jackie was quite the dame after all. Jackie had dimensions that went beyond her role as the smiling White House hostess, the haunting grainy figure crawling out of the Lincoln in the Zapruder film, the occasionally-talked-about tabloid celebrity going on with her life in spite of everything. Jackie was a living breathing person capable of flaming out like the rest of us, capable of going on a solo booze-pills-and-cigarettes bender, capable of having a looking-in-the-mirror is-that-really-me moment. Good for her. Congrats.

But at the end of the day, so what? Not to be harsh but...if that's all Jackie is, an attempt at plucking Jackie from the realm of myth and making her human-sized, turning her around, letting us see how she hurt and suffered and still managed to rise above it all and give her beloved-but-flawed husband a send-off worthy of the Camelot of his (and presumably our) dreams...okay, great. It doesn't exactly ring the bell in a big way but I got it. Mission accomplished.

Maybe Jackie is best viewed as a star vehicle for Natalie Portman, the perfect chance for Portman to break free of her movie-star-over-actress reputation and show serious chops. Portman's performance makes you want to say things like: she hits all the notes, she's pitch-perfect in every scene, she nails it. If Jackie forces us to look at Jackie in a new light, so too does it force us to look at Portman in a new light. Portman has always seemed a little bit uptight, a little bit posh, a little bit distant and patrician...just like Jackie. Portman as an actress has never seemed to give of herself very much but in this performance she seems to unleash some of her own thoughts and feelings about stuff Jackie also had to put up with: what it means to live in the public eye, to be scrutinized and taken apart and sometimes brutalized by strangers. Portman can relate to Jackie on an intimate, personal level and she seems to inject this inside-dope into her performance, giving her Jackie a sardonic edge. Jackie is skilled at the art of manipulating her public image, and no doubt Portman has developed similar skills in her years as a movie star.  Portman becomes Jackie partly by becoming probably more HERSELF than she ever has been on film. She's freed up by this role much the same way DiCaprio was by playing a version of himself in Wolf of Wall Street. Maybe Portman will never get another role to which she is so ideally-suited. In that case, it's good that she knocked it out of the park, blasted it into the bleachers, parked it in the cheap seats etc.,

Portman's performance is achieved largely in close-up, and director Pablo Larrain likes HOLDING his close-ups, so there's nowhere for his actress to hide. If Portman didn't have the ability to string emotions together, conveying each mental state precisely and clearly, she would be dead. If you watch this movie and still think Portman can't act...then you don't know anything about acting. Which isn't to say I now think Portman is on the same level as Cate Blanchett or someone like that. This is clearly a case of an actor being wired into the brain of a character on some uncanny level, of performer and role meeting at some magical deeply-sympathetic nexus. By being willing to zoom in on Portman's face and FORCING her to give her all, Larrain wrings out of her a level of performance that I doubt she'll ever achieve again. She's not somebody who can range all over the place like Blanchett, find the truth in just about any role, but in this role Portman found a place to get a foothold and she just rattles off great scene after great scene.

Shout-outs also to screenwriter Noah Oppenheimer for crafting a compelling non-linear narrative that "breaks the rules" of biopics and delivers the real goods; Greta Gerwig for standing behind Portman AND Jackie and infusing the film with her particular never-less-than-marvelous brand of warm humanity; John Hurt for bringing his A-game as the priest; the art department, the make-up and costume and hair people, cinematographer Stephane Fontaine for composing the amazing Bergman-like close-ups. Oscars all around. Puzzled looks for Peter Sarsgaard for his flat, unmemorable Bobby Kennedy and for the little kids who played JFK Jr. They would have been better off using a CG JFK Jr.

Question I had coming out of the movie: In Errol Morris' Fog of War, Bob McNamara claims he picked the spot at Arlington National Cemetery where Kennedy was buried, but in Jackie, Jackie clearly picks out the spot herself with no input from McNamara. Bob McNamara is no longer alive so he can't gripe about this apparent bending of the truth to suit the narrative of Jackie taking 100% charge of the funeral arrangements. Or maybe McNamara lied about helping her pick the spot? We'll probably never know.

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