Powered by Natalie Portman’s fascinatingly mannered performance in the title role, Pablo Larraín’s Jackie feels like a film without precedent. How is it, for starters, that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – irrefutably the most glamorous and independently famous first lady ever to take up residence in the White House – has never been the subject of her own big-screen biopic? We’ve seen plenty of her on television, but it’s taken over half a century for the cinema to single out her story from the heavily pored-over mythos of Camelot – something Larraín’s film does with a wry, caustic awareness of how political and celebrity legacies are constructed.
“Objects and artefacts survive for far longer than people,” Portman’s Jackie says through a stiff smile on screen, in a re-enactment of Kennedy’s 1961 televised tour of the White House. The film, jaggedly covering the immediate internal aftermath of John F Kennedy’s assassination, shows how Jackie was sealed in the public imagination as both person and object – the glittering exception that nonetheless proved the limitations of how presidents’ wives have long been presented to, and viewed by, the American people. Following a bitter election season in which former first lady Hillary Clinton fell afoul of the same restrictions at a more executive level, the defiantly exclusive focus of Larraín’s portrait – in which JFK himself makes only the most fleeting of flashback appearances – carries a piquantly gendered subtext.
After all, on screen as in life, first ladies have mostly been made to stand modestly to one side. Even the cinema’s most vivid portrayals of White House wives, fictional or biographical, have largely been in service of a more dominant male characterisation: Joan Allen’s Pat Nixon to Anthony Hopkins’ Tricky Dicky, Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln to Daniel Day-Lewis’s Honest Abe, or even Emma Thompson’s Hillary proxy to John Travolta’s thinly veiled Bill Clinton in Primary Colors. But rarely has one made it to title-role status. A forerunner to Jackie, in that sense if no other, is Magnificent Doll, a frothy 1946 vehicle for a non-dancing Ginger Rogers as Dolley Madison, wife of founding father and fourth president James, which framed her life principally as a love triangle between her, her eventual husband and future American veep Aaron Burr.
The title alone should be a giveaway that Magnificent Doll isn’t the most enlightened of studies, though it does at least offer us perhaps the most cheerful first lady in film history. Flirty, funny and fabulously behatted, Rogers’ Madison certainly stands out in a gallery of portrayals that range from the tastefully demure – take Elizabeth Banks, who perfectly channelled Laura Bush’s carefully pitched blandness in Oliver Stone’s otherwise careering Dubya biopic W – to veritable Lady Macbeth in woolen skirt suits.
It’s certainly hard to think of a first lady much fiercer than Joan Allen’s aforementioned Mrs Nixon. She’s in just over half an hour of Oliver Stone’s sprawling, sometimes scorching 195-minute Nixon, but her steely-sympathetic aura, clouded in stale cigarette smoke, permeates the entire film. Allen plays Pat partly as a resentful, long-suffering afterthought in her husband’s life, and partly as a ruthless, invaluable abettor of his worst impulses; Stone’s film may be riddled with crossing narrative byways about political process, but Allen makes it most memorably the story of an adoringly toxic marriage.
Allen scored a supporting Oscar nomination for her pains, as did Sally Field in Lincoln, though she has a harder time escaping her onscreen husband’s imposing shadow – even the scenes of marital dispute in Tony Kushner’s densely woven script find Day-Lewis’s noble leader wrestling with his own dueling philosophies while his wife objects in the background. That seems deliberate and poignant: after one key argument, Field plaintively collapses to the floor in a sea of crinoline, exasperated by the great man’s verbiage. Between the lines, you sense an actor’s frustration at being given the defeated end of the scene. Is it possible to outplay Abraham Lincoln, or his thespian impersonator? Greer Garson’s Oscar-nominated Eleanor Roosevelt gets a little more rhetorical purchase in the little-remembered but still-sturdy stage adaptation Sunrise at Campobello, as she and a bedridden Franklin D Roosevelt clash with family and advisers over his political future following his paralysis in 1921 – though Roosevelt, like Jackie Kennedy, remains a celebrated first lady more generously documented on TV than on film.
Still, spare a thought for poor Mamie Eisenhower, played by Melissa Leo in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a 2013 waxworks parade of 20th-century life in the White House as seen through the eyes of a long-serving butler. Minka Kelly puts in a brief turn as Jackie, while Jane Fonda is a fearsomely shoulder-padded Nancy Reagan – but Leo’s Mamie, despite an individual credit in the film’s trailer, remains mysteriously Awol from the final film. First ladies have received the short shrift on screen before, but never quite so brusquely.
Also cut from Daniels’ film was an actorly facsimile of Barack Obama, though the departing president – and crucially, Michelle – got an evenly matched tribute in this year’s Southside With You, a winsomely low-key romance dramatising the future first couple’s first date, a good-humoured occasion nonetheless marked by breezy intellectual and political sparring, quietly mapping out the ideological path the law-firm colleagues would eventually take together to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Tika Sumpter takes a suitably smart, alert approach to playing history’s most modern first lady to date; one wonders if her successor, Melania Trump, will ever be personified quite so coolly (or lit quite so glowingly) on screen. Perhaps a solo portrait as rigorously dedicated as Jackie is in the next first lady’s future – paging Kristen Wiig, please – though it’s awfully hard to imagine: Larraín’s slyly feminist film looks to be an anomaly for some time to come.