Jackie Kennedy biopic casts spotlight on a brighter American age

Natalie Portman’s portrayal of JFK’s wife has prompted talk of an Oscar. As the Trumps approach the White House, what lessons might the film offer?

Widowed at 34, Jackie Kennedy gave an interview to Life magazine a week after the assassination of her husband. “There’ll be great presidents again,” she said, “but there’ll never be another Camelot again.”

The metaphor of King Arthur’s mythical land features prominently in Jackie, a new film starring Natalie Portman that retells the 1963 shooting and its aftermath from the first lady’s point of view. Fascination with the Kennedys and their gilded world – their so-called Camelot – never seems to wane, but the movie may take on an added poignancy and nostalgia for Democrats looking through the prism of America under Donald and Melania Trump.

The cultural presence of a president is often remembered long after policies are forgotten. Many in New York, Washington and other liberal cities are coming to terms with an imminent sea change. To give one example, Barack and Michelle Obama hosted the multiracial cast of the musical Hamilton at the White House. Last week, Trump condemned them for expressing political concerns to Vice-President-elect Mike Pence.

The 35th president, John F Kennedy, and his wife Jackie were champions of the arts, at ease with the world of Broadway shows. The actor Richard Burton is heard reciting lines from Camelot in the new film. The incoming 45th president, by contrast, is seen by critics as a philistine and vulgarian who never reads books and gets riled by his portrayal on Saturday Night Live.

“The Kennedys were like movie stars,” said Clint Hill, 84, a former Secret Service agent who was in the Dallas motorcade when the president was assassinated. “They were young and attractive. People envied them and wished they had the same lifestyle.”

Hill, who was assigned to Jackie and has written a memoir, Mrs Kennedy and Me, added: “Of all the first ladies we’ve had, Jackie Kennedy stands out. She changed the role. She was elegant and sophisticated. She took an intense interest in the historical furnishings of the White House. She brought in paintings and furniture that represented the past. She brought entertainers that had not been there before.”

Jackie is directed by a Chilean, Pablo Larraín, and structured around the Life magazine interview by Theodore H White at Hyannis Port. It has been praised by critics as an artful approach to a conventional subject – “looping and dizzy, sad and intimate”, said Vanity Fair – with a cast including Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt and Richard E Grant. In one scene, Portman, who has been tipped for an Oscar, is shown washing off her husband’s blood in a shower.

Anita McBride, once chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, said: “I looked at the trailer and was struck how young young she was. What a level of responsibility to take on as a young mother who was very cognizant [of] the way the White House was seen on the world stage. She will always be a figure of grace and strength and we can’t forget her elegance.”

‘This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor’

jacqueline kennedy
Jacqueline Kennedy sought to make the White House ‘a showcase of American art and history’. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The film goes on limited release on 2 December, seven weeks before Obama leaves the White House and Trump is inaugurated.

At 43, Kennedy was the youngest person ever elected US president. At 70, Trump is the oldest. The Kennedys were the first president and first lady born in the 20th century, a generational shift likened to the replacement of black and white with colour. Trump had record disapproval ratings during the campaign, lost the popular vote and has triggered protests in major cities.

Whereas the cerebral Kennedy is remembered for his soaring rhetoric, citing the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Shakespeare and insisting, “This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor,” Trump is a businessman and reality TV star who recently opined: “You have to be wealthy in order to be great.”

Jackie announced soon after her husband’s election her intention to make the White House “a showcase of American art and history”. Newspapers adored her glamour, from her silk chiffon inaugural gown to her pillbox hat, making her one of the most photographed women in the 20th century. Melania, a model, shares an interest in fashion.

At Jackie’s behest, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals performed at the White House, a moment recreated in Larraín’s film. The first lady persuaded France to let the Mona Lisa be displayed in Washington, the first time the painting had been loaned abroad. She was instrumental in saving numerous historic buildings from the wrecking ball.

Judging from their reception so far, the Trumps will have a tougher time with the arts community. Betty Boyd Caroli, author of America’s First Ladies, said: “Jackie said she wanted the White House to be the best of everything and she brought in cultural talent. I don’t know how the Trump administration will handle that. The first lady will be judged on who performs there, especially if it goes badly.”

Melania faces another uphill battle, Caroli said, though by no fault of her own. “Jackie had a good sense of American history. Melania was born in communist Yugoslavia and learned English later in life. If you come here as an outsider, you’ll never know the country as well as someone who grew up here. That’s a huge disadvantage as far as I can see.”

Jackie’s stock has risen among historians, Caroli said, with many now rating her impact as second only to Eleanor Roosevelt. “The audiences I speak to are more complimentary now. She made an impression in other countries and was a style icon and intelligent.”

But for all its glitter, the legend of Camelot has been challenged amid revelations of JFK’s womanising and secretly poor health. His presidency was cut short – his vice-president, Lyndon B Johnson, achieved far more in terms of legislation, notably regarding civil rights and combating poverty.

Anthony Giardina, a novelist and playwright who grew up in the suburbs of Boston, not far from the Kennedy dynasty, observed: “When you look back at the Kennedy administration, as much as they thrilled us, it was the more pedestrian Johnson who got things done. We find it’s often the less glamorous figures, the Hillary Clintons if you will, who actually get things done.”

‘When Mr Trump takes over, you’ll see him fit the mould’

Kennedy was a relatively inexperienced senator. Trump has no political experience at all. But Hill, who stayed with Jackie for a year before returning to the White House, serving five presidents over 17 years – his most recent book is Five Presidents – said: “When Mr Trump takes over the Oval Office, you’ll see him fit the mould. When they walk in, they realise the immense responsibility.

“The weight of the office begins to bear down considerably. It’s more intense the people realise. When you compare photos of the presidents when they start and finish in office, you can see they’ve aged considerably.”

As for the forthcoming film, Hill has his reservations, challenging its depiction of what time of day the Life interview took place and Jackie asking him what calibre of gun was used by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, a conversation he maintains never happened.

“It’s a mixed thing,” he said, speaking from his home near San Francisco. “I’m glad they recognise her importance but it’s sad they depict her in a manner that’s not factual.

“They take a great deal of dramatic licence. A lot of things were fabricated. It misleads people. It changes people’s view of history and gives them a false impression of what happened.

“Jackie Kennedy really was one of a kind and it would be impossible for any actress to do her justice.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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