Natalie Portman

by Emanuel Levy January 3, 2017
Natalie Portman

getty images

As directed by the Chilean director Pablo Larraín, and scripted by Noah Oppenheim, Jackie presents an intimate portrait of one of the most tragic moments in American history, the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The conversations, events, decisions and actions that took place during the three days after the shooting are seen entirely through the perspective of the iconic First Lady, then known as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

In the titular role, Natalie Portman renders an astonishing performance that’s at once heartbreaking and fierce. The movie is by no means a conventional Hollywood biopic – it is not a chronological account of Jackie's rise to international fame and then sudden disruption and decline by a collectively dreaded incident. By narrowing the thematic focus, and reducing the dramatic persona, Larraín has made a searing portraiture that’s often too emotionally painful to watch.

From first frame to last, the movie places us in Jackie's world during the days after the assassination. Known for her extraordinary dignity, elegance and poise, we see a psychological portrait of the First Lady as she struggles to maintain her husband’s legacy and the world of “Camelot,” which they had lovingly created.

Jacqueline Kennedy was just 34 when her husband was elected President. Stylish and inscrutable, she instantly became a global icon, one of the most famous women in the world, her taste in fashion and décor widely admired and imitated. On November 22, 1963, while on a campaign trip to Dallas, Kennedy is assassinated – and Jackie’s pink suit is showered in her husband’s blood – and brains.

Jackie’s world – her religious faith and personal value system – is completely shattered. Traumatized and reeling with grief, she must confront the unimaginable: consoling their young children, vacating the home she had so painstakingly restored, and planning her husband’s funeral. Jackie quickly realizes that the next few days will determine how history will define her husband’s legacy – and how she herself will be remembered.

Stylish, desirable, sophisticated, Jackie was one of the most photographed and documented women of the 20th century. The media could not get enough of her during the years that she reigned at the White House. And yet, we know very little about her. Intensely private and inscrutable, she may be the most unknown “known” woman of the modern era. Says Larraín: "I like to think that we’ll never be entirely sure about her. We’ll never know her smell, or the sparkle in her eyes. All we can do is search and put together a film made of fragments. Slices of memory, places, ideas, images and people.”

Portman perceives Jackie as a queen without a crown, a woman who lost her throne and her husband within seconds. Kennedy died young; his time in office cut abruptly short and his few achievements in danger of being forgotten. Even through her own trauma, Jackie knew she had to finish his story. Over the course of a week, she transformed her husband’s image from a man into a legend, consolidating his legacy. In doing so, she herself became an icon, known to the world by just her first name, Jackie.

In order to capture the vividness of Portman’s performance, the camera had to stay extremely close. Larraín explains: “I remember, on the first day of shooting, I asked Natalie to come closer, and she came closer. And then I said, ‘Can you just come closer?’ And then I said, ‘Again, closer.’ It was hard for her having so many people close to her all the time, but I wanted to be very intimate. That’s how you get to really feel the process she went through.”

The film depicts the public and private personas of the first lady, which Portman says were quite different. “Looking at the existing film and audiotape of Jackie, we noticed that her voice and her presence were very different, depending on the context.” She elaborates: “There were a lot of small details of how she presented herself as the wife of a politician, which were so different from when she was talking to her old friends in the tapes. It’s a much different tone. There are so many feelings at once that she is going through. The film comes at her from so many different aspects. She’s a young widow; a collective symbol; a single mother; a betrayed wife; a person trying to figure out her way in the world.”

Asked if this was her most challenging role, Portman notes: “It’s definitely up there.” Playing the iconic First Lady felt ‘dangerous,’ because everyone knows what she looked like, everybody had some idea of her.” She admits the role was terrifying, "because I never really thought of myself as a great imitator. I was just trying to get to something that people could get past and believe I was Jackie, and then put my own self in there too.”