Jackie: behind the creation of JFK, America's once and future king

He was a playboy with links to the mob; so why is John F Kennedy remembered as the perfect president? New film Jackie may have the answer. We explore the movies’ latest return to Camelot

On 29 November 1963, a Life magazine journalist named Theodore White sat down to interview the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy. Inside the family compound at Hyannis, she spun him a tale of beauty and horror, contrasting grisly details of her husband’s murder (“I could see a piece of his skull coming off; it was flesh-coloured, not white”) with the golden years that went before. Jack Kennedy, she recalled, had loved the Broadway musical Camelot. He had a habit of playing the title song on the Victrola at night. “There will be great presidents again,” she said by way of conclusion. “But there will never be another Camelot.”

Life magazine had a circulation of 7m; a readership of more than 30m. The image of Camelot immediately took hold, back-filling and defining the public’s sense of the Kennedy White House as a place of noble acts and youthful idealism, all destroyed in one senseless stroke. One week after Dallas, the former first lady stole a march on the historians. She helped write the script that Hollywood has followed ever since.

Now along comes Jackie, a biopic of sorts starring Natalie Portman, which uses the magazine interview as the peg on which to drape an elegant drama of the assassination and its aftermath. Here the focus is not on the man who was killed but the woman who was not. The interest, tellingly, is not in unpicking the crime but unpicking the way it was then sold to the masses. Jackie amounts to a fractured, fascinating character study. It sets out to deconstruct the myth-maker at the very moment she sits down to start constructing the myth.

Jackie trailer: Natalie Portman stars in intimate portrait

This is not to suggest that Jackie was the first person to cast JFK as a legend. That dubious honour falls to his father, Joe Kennedy Sr, who had made his fortune as a Hollywood deal-maker in the 1920s and then set out to (in his words) “sell Jack like soap flakes” to the American people. It was Joe – no surprise – who served as behind-the-scenes fixer on the inaugural JFK biopic, PT 109. Released in June 1963, five months before its subject’s death, PT-109 provided a dogged, unquestioning account of JFK’s wartime heroics aboard a torpedo boat. The film was made with full White House approval. The president personally chose the actor Cliff Robertson (who would later appear as Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man franchise) to portray his younger self. Jackie, for her part, reportedly favoured Warren Beatty.

Cliff Robertson as Lt John F Kennedy in PT-109
Wartime hero … Cliff Robertson as Lt John F Kennedy in PT 109. Photograph: Allstar/Warner

Since then, there’s been no shortage of actors lining up to impersonate America’s once and future king. Martin Sheen memorably played him in a 1983 miniseries (a dress rehearsal for his later turn as Jed Bartlet); Greg Kinnear in 2011’s The Kennedys. On the big screen, James Marsden depicted JFK as a handsome prince just finding his social conscience in The Butler. Bruce Greenwood showed him earning his spurs against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis in the underrated Thirteen Days. Brett Stimely may barely be a household name in his own household, but the actor has played John F Kennedy no fewer than four times. There he is riding the motorcade through Dallas in 2013’s Parkland and cropping up in a Dominican film called Kill the Dictator. There he is again, in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and shaking Dr Manhattan’s hand on the White House lawn in the adaptation of DC Comics’ Watchmen.

The definitive screen Kennedy? I’m not sure that we’ve seen it. In fact, what’s notable about the key Kennedy-themed pictures is that these are the ones that elect to leave the president in the background, or off-camera altogether. Shot back in the early 70s, Executive Action kicked off a vibrant sub-genre of films that probed the conspiracy theories behind Dallas, effectively reframing the president as the body in the library, a mystery to be solved. Riding on its heels came the likes of The Parallax View (which was only implicitly about Kennedy), Winter Kills (ditto) and Ruby (a biopic of the man who shot the man who shot the president). The gold standard, of course, remains Oliver Stone’s 1991 epic JFK, an expertly managed piece of historical hogwash; the equivalent of a paranoiac screaming about the government inside a shopping mall. “The achievement of [JFK] is not that it answers the mystery of the Kennedy assassination, because it does not,” wrote Roger Ebert at the time. “Its achievement is that it tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

Martin Sheen as John F Kennedy and Blair Brown as Jacqueline Kennedy in TV miniseries Kennedy
Memorable … Martin Sheen as John F Kennedy and Blair Brown as Jacqueline Kennedy in TV miniseries Kennedy. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

But the cultural response has taken less clamorous forms, too. The late 1980s, for instance, saw a rash of coming-of-age dramas that used Dallas as their touchstone (presumably the result of baby boomers who had now grown up and were keen to either produce or consume films about their own adolescence). This was the era which gave us Mermaids, Shag, Coupe de Ville and Dirty Dancing. All of them set in the summer of 1963; a period of innocence, before the fall.

How to explain the absence of JFK in the best JFK movies? Maybe it’s because the man himself was such a consummate performer – so dashing, so telegenic, so at ease on the screen – that any paid actor risks coming across as a cheap impressionist; some melting waxwork or malfunctioning robot. Maybe it’s because no Kennedy movie, however potent, can match the sheer horrific wattage of that Super-8 footage from Dealey Plaza. The novelist Don DeLillo was perhaps only half-joking when he nominated Abraham Zapruder as the single most important film-maker of the 20th-century.

Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy and James Marsden as JFK in The Butler
Handsome prince … Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy and James Marsden as JFK in The Butler. Photograph: Allstar/The Weinstein Company

Alternatively, the answer might have something to do with Jackie Kennedy’s analogy to King Arthur and Camelot. The legend, in other words, is more powerful than the man. Or to put it more crudely, JFK (at least in cultural terms) is worth more dead than alive.

Which brings us back to Jackie, brilliantly directed by the Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín, where the former first lady is shown reeling through the drama in blood-stained pink Chanel, almost radioactive with fury and grief. It was Jackie, we learn, who devised every stage-managed detail of her husband’s funeral; Jackie who took control of the message to safeguard his legacy. “I’m just trying to get the truth,” Theodore White (Billy Crudup) tells her at one stage. “But I’ll settle for a story that’s believable.” This, by and large, is what she gave him.

In her youth, Jackie Kennedy once said that her great ambition was to be “the art director of the 20th century”. Before her marriage, she worked as a photojournalist for the Washington Times-Herald, interviewing the likes of Richard Nixon and reporting on the coronation of Elizabeth II. In later life, she took jobs at Viking Press and Doubleday, where she helped edit Michael Jackson’s 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk. But her greatest achievement came in those days after Dallas, when the queen of the White House abruptly made herself over as its architect and myth-maker, the equivalent of Guinevere sitting down to write Le Morte d’Arthur. “She wanted to take control of history,” presidential historian Stephen E Ambrose would later reflect. “And in many ways she managed to do so.”

Looking back on the Life magazine interview, White would seek to downplay his own contribution. “I was her instrument in labelling the myth,” he admitted. “So the epitaph of the Kennedy administration became Camelot – a magic moment in American history when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers and poets met at the White House and the barbarians beyond the walls were held back.”

This, then, is the image that persists to this day. It is the standard by which all other presidencies continue to be judged (hence Tina Brown’s recent description of the Trump family as “a Kardashian Camelot”). It almost doesn’t matter that the actual administration promised more than it delivered; that the president was a sickly playboy with a dotted line to organised crime; that historians typically rank Lyndon Johnson (Kennedy’s unglamorous successor) as a more effective chief executive. The Camelot myth has become part of the national consciousness, the means by which Americans make sense of themselves and the world they live in. Or as Mrs Kennedy ruefully puts it near the end of the film: “People like to believe in fairytales.”

• Jackie is out in the UK on 20 January.


Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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