Liz Smith: Natalie Portman’s “Jackie” — From Venice Acclaim to Oscar Gold?
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara
Natalie Portman as “Jackie.”
“I WANT minimum information given with maximum politeness.”
That’s what Jackie Kennedy instructed her staff, during her one thousand days as First Lady of the United States.
The elegant Mrs. Kennedy, later the flagrant Mrs. Onassis and later still, New York working girl, Jackie, never deviated from her minimum/maximum dictum.
Of all the fabulous 20th century women who dazzled and intrigued the world, Jackie remained the ultimate, delectable sphinx.
Jackie as Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Onassis.
Throughout her life she maintained an almost impenetrable air of reticence. Jackie, despite the sensation of her decades in the glare of the limelight, gave away only what she wanted people to know or to assume. (She realized that no matter what the “truth” was, people were going to assume what they wanted anyway.) She left the media always panting for more. What was really going on behind those enormous sunglasses she favored? What would her eyes tell us? Everything? Nothing? How to interpret her sly Mona Lisa smile? (The smile that drove Christina Onassis to leap furiously out of a car she was sharing with Jackie, during the funeral of Christina’s father, Aristotle Onassis.) And what about that voice? To look at her, one expected something dark and husky and “brunette.” But what emerged was almost ridiculously soft and breathy — a caricature of the pastiche of femininity that was Marilyn Monroe’s screen voice!
Even the indefatigable Barbara Walters, never got to ask Jackie what kind of a tree she would like to be. (As Miss Walters did of the not-nearly-so-elusive Katharine Hepburn, who was far more interested in polishing her legend than Jackie ever was.)
Jackie didn’t exactly despise her fame — and she was always curious about the fame of others, forever peppering mutual friends about what Elizabeth Taylor was “really like.” (Incredibly, these two giants of public and press obsession met only once!)
Jackie just didn’t want to cooperate with the machinery of fame unless it was on her terms, totally. She knew who she was, and she didn’t have to massage her ego or extend curiosity about herself. So she never did. She left that job to us, and she simply looked on, amused, and probably more than a little contemptuous. And unlike others who talked a good game about protecting family life and shielding children, Jackie meant it. Once out of the White House, where she felt pressured to allow her children to be seen as PR props, she dropped the curtain on them. For as long as she could, anyway. (Jackie’s daughter Caroline was and is a retiring, if quite appealing, personality. Her son, John, like his father, was a gorgeous sunflower, perpetually and happily turning to the light, and using it to his best advantage.)
SOON, those who remain fascinated with Jackie — and I assume we are legion — will be awash in more of her mythology, via director Pablo Larrain’s feature film, “Jackie.” This movie, which electrified the Venice Film Festival, and has just been bought up for release by Fox Searchlight, stars Natalie Portman. She portrays the shocked and emotionally ravaged First Lady in the days following the assassination of her husband, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Natalie Portman as the First Lady.
One of the many glowing reviews to come out of Venice was Variety’s Guy Lodge, who warns, in advance, those of us who want to cling to traditional bio-pic standards, that “Jackie” is a very different creature. It is raw, and “entirely unsentimental.” The movie has been written by Noah Oppenheimer and takes “startling liberties with Jackie’s fiercely guarded privacy.” In other words, the movie attempts to convey an emotional truth, rather than a strictly literal one. Tricky!
In trying to tell the “truth” about any great public figure, it’s usually best to eschew their own words and most of what is taken for granted as factual. Great stars tell great lies. The problem in making it up is that rarely is it made up in an interesting or believable fashion. (The recent, disastrous “Grace of Monaco,” for example.)
Apparently, director Larrain and writer Oppenheimer have side-stepped that curse.
Miss Portman is being touted as an eventual, indeed inevitable, Oscar nominee. (She already has one statuette under her belt, playing the tormented ballerina of “Black Swan.”) The movie also stars Peter Sarsgaard (as Robert Kennedy) and Billy Crudup as Life magazine journalist Theodore White.
Jackie, only a week after JFK’s assassination, would unburden herself to White, and shattered as she was, superbly concoct the “Camelot” fable of the Kennedy presidency. It was, White would later admit, “a misreading of history.” But an accurate reading of Jackie; she knew exactly how she wanted her husband and his time in office to be perceived. (Later, she would battle with author William Manchester, over aspects of his book — with which she had cooperated — “The Death of a President.”)
Well, I can’t wait for “Jackie.” Writing about her, observing her, talking with her (she was unerringly gracious, despite my having reported much that had displeased her) was comparable to mining for gold, without ever striking paydirt. But, you inevitably returned to that site, just in case!
She fired up many fantasies and obsessions throughout her life, straight to the end, but only to her family and her closest friends, did she drop the veil. And who knows if she did, even then?
Hours after her death, in 1994, her son, John announced to the press that his mother had died “in her own way, on her own terms, and we all feel lucky for that.”
As for me, I always considered it lucky that this column came along at just the right moment, and that for years I would cover, simultaneously, the four most famous living women in the world of “celebrity” — Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie, Princess Diana and Madonna. (I’ll throw in the departed but inescapable Marilyn Monroe, because she seems more alive now than when she was alive!)
Despite my tremendous fondness for Elizabeth, and getting to know Madonna — so surprisingly vulnerable under the brash image — it was Jackie who remained the just-out-of-reach brass ring. (I met Diana only once, but I was stunned by her charm and her beauty — she was even more attractive in the flesh.)
Here was the imagined Jackie scenario. She would accept an invitation to read at one of my Literacy Partners events. Backstage, after the ovation and paparazzi and tumult had died down a bit, Jackie would turn to me and whisper, “Oh, Liz, this was such fun. Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow. I have so much to tell you about … my entire life!” Bring a tape recorder.”
Don’t snicker. Texas girls dream big. And most of mine did come true.