Natalie Portman has been nominated in the Best Actress category at the Oscars for her role as Jackie Kennedy.
It’s not the first nomination for Portman. In 2004 she was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for Closer, and in 2010 she was nominated again for her role in the dark psychological drama Black Swan. On that occasion, she went home with the Oscar. Her nomination today makes her third.
Jackie tells the story of the emotionally devastating aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, 1963. Focusing on his widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, it’s a raw and intensely dramatic look at the private grief of a woman forced to endure it under the glare of public scrutiny. We see Jackie desperately trying to numb the pain with alcohol and pills. We see her walking aimlessly through the echoing rooms of the White House, bereft of a marriage and a purpose. And we see her recalling the famous televised tour of the executive mansion in which she talked about preserving the integrity and importance of American history. These sequences are a valuable touchstone in the film because they show the audience where the personal becomes historical.
Structured around the only interview Mrs Kennedy gave to a journalist about the assassination only several days after the events in Dallas, it’s Jackie’s way of securing her husband’s legacy before others write it, rewrite it, and perhaps destroy it completely. Jackie retains complete editorial control, so she can say whatever she wants and remove anything she chooses. Gradually it becomes a vehicle for her to write history herself. It’s here that she creates the myth of Camelot.
While the world remembers Mrs. Kennedy as a dignified and graceful widow who walked behind her husband’s coffin and held the country together as a result, the movie takes a much more intimate look at what really went on behind the famous facade of the White House. Director Pablo Larraín gives us a complex woman full of unresolved anger, fear for her future, and he even gives us a woman capable of manipulation. There are striking moments where Jackie is at once vulnerable, as when she is forced to witness Lyndon Johnson sworn in as president hours after Kennedy’s assassination, and others when she refuses to change out of her blood-stained pink dress so that the world might see exactly what she has endured.
Noah Oppenheim’s impressive screenplay offers countless examples of hidden torture experienced by the central character often disguised as polite condolence. Whether Jackie is confronted by members of the Kennedy family or White House and government officials whose primary concern is for the seamless transfer of power, the political is inextricably bound up with the deeply personal and painful for Jackie. Not event grief can stop the perpetual exercise of power.
But Jackie does not just deliver when it comes to the central character. Natalie Portman is wonderfully supported by John Hurt, playing a priest who hears Jackie’s confessions and doubts about God; by Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, whose grief and dislike of Lyndon Johnson almost spills out into open hostility; and Billy Crudup, who plays the journalist tasked with transcribing the thoughts of the grief-stricken First Lady. Chafing at the journalistic restrictions placed on him, Crudup gives a performance that should have been rewarded with a nomination as well.
The cinematography visually captures Jackie’s intense trauma in startlingly intimate close-ups of Portman. The proximity demands a great deal from an actress in such a role, and Portman delivers. At once she is on the brink of emotional collapse, and she’s also a tiger determined to stake a place in history for her husband and herself. She gives us the softly spoken, perfect First Lady, and the intelligent, implacable woman behind the elegant facade.
Natalie Portman is up against some other fine actresses in the Best Actress category this year, including Emma Stone, Ruth Negga, Meryl Streep, and Isabelle Huppert. The ceremony will be held in February.
[Featured Image by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]