Tragedy through an icon’s eyes

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Natalie Portman in Jackie, described by Washington Post reviewer Ann Hornaday as ‘intensely affecting and insistently protean… the film is a reminder that for a time, Jacqueline Kennedy was bigger than any star, bigger than Marilyn or Liz’. It opens in South Africa on March 3.

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BILLY SUTER

DESCRIBED as a searing and intimate portrait of one of the most important and tragic moments in American history – seen through the eyes of the iconic US First Lady then, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman) – Jackie is a three-time Oscar-nominated film that seems to be a must-see.

The film centres on Jacqueline Kennedy doing her best to maintain a public show of strength while grieving in private and caring for her two young children. As she searches for the best way to ensure both her husband’s and her own legacies, she also navigates the treacherous waters of politics.

Opening in South Africa on Friday (March 3), it is directed by Pablo Larrain and written by Noah Oppenhein.  It also stars Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Richard E Grant, Caspar Phillipson, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Max Casella, Billy Crudup and John Hurt.

The film, sadly, took none of the Oscars for which it was nominated – for score, costume design and lead actress (Portman).

The drama unfolds in Jackie’s world during the days immediately following her husband’s assassination.

Known for her extraordinary dignity and poise, here we see a psychological portrait of the First Lady as she struggles to establish her husband’s legacy and the world of “Camelot” that she created and loved so well, according to the movie’s production notes.

The film takes audiences on a personal journey into one of the most extraordinary events of American history – and also into a deeply stirring drama that illuminates in fascinating new ways the woman, the times and the ways we cope with and tell the stories of the most intensely public of tragedies.

At the start of November 22, 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy was among the most famed, admired and envied figures in the world. As the elegant, stylish and alluring wife of the youngest-ever elected President of the United States, she was also the first First Lady of the televised age… photogenic, captivating and yet barely-known beneath her near-mythical image of grace, youth and idealism.

Yet, within hours, Jackie’s world, along with the faith of the nation, would be shaken from their foundations when John F Kennedy was struck down by assassin’s bullets while riding at Jackie’s side in a motorcade parade through Dallas.

In a moment rife with confusion and shock, the world witnessed the First Lady’s composed grief in images that remain as poignant and mesmerising as ever. But what no one saw is what went on behind closed doors in Jackie’s private, tightly-contained world.

Suddenly alone, save for her family, confidante and priest, the First Lady faced a remarkable series of challenges as a wife, a mother and a reluctant part of the political machine: consoling her young children, planning her husband’s funeral, preparing for the next President to rapidly move into the White House and most remarkably, fighting to maintain control over how history would forever define her husband’s legacy.

Jackie unites award-winning director Pablo Larrain (Neruda, No) with Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman as they reimagine the private side of one of the most profound moments of the 20th Century.

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Natalie Portman, an Oscar-winner for Black Swan, received another Oscar nomination for her role in Jackie, above. The film also received Oscar nominations for costume design and score, but won none.

Larrain gives a boldly unconventional spin to the biopic genre, mixing historical footage with complete fictional re-creations, and excavating just one critical moment in Jackie’s life, but in all its intricately woven layers.

Meanwhile, Portman explores the haunting territory of a woman juggling her incomprehensibly vast yet contained sorrow with a world watching, remembering and making meaning out of her every move.

The result is an intimate portrait, yet one of epic themes, that provides a portrait of Jackie as we’ve not seen her: a deeply human, vulnerable woman confronted at once with the power of loss, love, self-preservation, public consciousness and history.

Jackie Kennedy led a multi-faceted life of power and influence, but when it came to writing about her, screenwriter and journalist Noah Oppenheim came to feel there was one story that spoke to her psyche in the most compelling way – the very brief but remarkably consequential days that the First Lady spent nearly alone in the White House following her husband’s death.

In a period of just a week, this fiercely private woman had to face unthinkable personal loss, hard political realities, a nation in the throes of a collective trauma and – amid all the uncertainty, Washington machinery and public scrutiny – the responsibility of keeping alive all that her husband wanted to stand for in America.

Today he is among the most beloved of US Presidents, but JFK’s legacy was hardly assured upon his death. He had spent just two years and nine months in office, and the fear among those closest to him was that all he aimed for would be forgotten because the potential had gone unfulfilled.

In the midst of her own anguish, Jackie steeled herself with a single-minded mission: to tell her husband’s story in a way that it would always be remembered, as brief but shining moment of American promise.

That week was a period of time, felt Oppenheim, that defined not only the icon Jackie would become but the beginnings of our image-saturated culture in ways that haven’t really been explored.

“Like so many women in history, Jackie has never really got her proper due. She’s been portrayed mainly for her style and elegance, but she deserves more credit for her exceptional understanding of image, public relations and really creating the idea of Camelot after JFK’s death,” says Oppenheim in the film’s production notes.

“When I read about that single week in 1963 – when she had to console two grief-stricken children, deal with moving out of what was really her only home, contemplate a whole different life moving forward, and at the same time had one last shot to solidify her husband’s legacy – it was extraordinary.

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“I couldn’t imagine a more revealing moment to explore one of the most interesting women of the last century.”

Oppenheim cut his teeth in the world of news and politics, serving as Senior Vice President of NBC News – where he often talked about Kennedy’s impact withfellow journalist and Kennedy biographer Chris Matthews – and a senior producer of the Today Show.

He’s also the co-author of the bestseller, The Intellectual Devotional: American History, a compendium of wisdom from American historical figures.

Naturally, he went with relish into the research, poring through the endless archives amassed about the Kennedy family and the short-lived but endlessly influential administration.

But research could only take him so far in his efforts to recreate the voice, personality and often-obscured emotions of Jackie.

“The blessing of writing about someone like Jackie is that there’s an overwhelming amount of information about who she was, how she behaved, the timeline of her life,” he admits in production notes.

“This preponderance of information about her life enabled me to root her in reality, but it also provided me an opportunity to ask questions and use my imagination to fully breath life into her on the page.

“Because I had this wealth of research, I was freed creatively and was able to dig deeper and explore her beyond the bounds of the facts I was able to ground her in.”

As he researched and wrote, Oppenheim felt very strongly that he was writing a story not of the past, but one that resonates fully with today’s world – a story about a woman who in many ways was the first in Presidential history to forge the idea of leaving behind a visual legacy that lives forever.

“Jackie Kennedy’s story speaks to us today for several reasons,” says Oppenheim.

“For one thing, it harkens back to a time when politics had a certain dignity to it, when we all admired the people who occupied the White House. I also think Jackie was sort of the first American queen, someone who showed us what it is to have the noblest grace under fire.

“And I think this is a time when people are desperately trying to cut through the fog surrounding what’s true and what’s not in our world – so it is a ripe time to explore how public figures craft their images and create mythologies around themselves.”

Oppenheim’s intellectually probing yet starkly emotional script, so different from anything that had ever been penned about Jackie Kennedy, ended up on the famous “Black List” of the best as-yet unproduced screenplays and launched his screenwriting career.

Spielberg courted the script for a while. Another filmmaker drawn to it was Darren Aronofsky, the iconoclastic and adventurous director whose films include Black Swan, The Wrestler and Requiem For a Dream.

At first, Aronofsky considered directing it himself. But ultimately, it was Aronofsky who brought the film to director Pablo Larrain and to Natalie Portman, with whom he’d had a highly creative rapport on Black Swan – with Aronofsky coming aboard as producer with his company Protozoa Pictures.

Says Aronofsky of his reaction to Jackie: “It was such an interesting project to undertake. I think it can be very important to recognise that even the icons we most look up to are actually human.

“It doesn’t weaken them to explore not only their courage and strength but also their fears and self-doubts. I think, ultimately, that makes someone like Jackie Kennedy even more real and more powerful.”

 


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