Legacy Act: How ‘Jackie’ surpasses previous film portrayals of the former First Lady

When Pablo Larrain’s Jackie opens today, it’ll mark the third time this decade that Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis has been dramatized on screen in a theatrical release. And from the looks of it, Natalie Portman will give a fantastically human performance as the former First Lady that will stand out in stark contrast with, say, Minka Kelly’s 30 seconds of terrible screentime in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

The Kennedys have always held a glamourous and gruesome spot in our nation’s collective consciousness, and because of that duality we’ve never actually gotten a chance to see them exist as empathetic people or compelling characters in drama because of it. Here’s a small sampling of the Kennedys on film in the last twenty five years, and how surprisingly lacking in substance it is.

First, let’s tackle the heavyweight: out of the three films Oliver Stone has made with a President’s name or nickname in the title, JFK is the only one that doesn’t feature the titular character as a protagonist — instead we follow Jim Garrison, Louisiana DA, conspiracy theorist and man of action, and Kennedy is only seen in archival footage and, of course, in the Zapruder film.

The other two are rote biopics: Nixon, warts and all, is centered around a decently fascinating Anthony Hopkins performance buried under a layer of prosthetic makeup; and W., which features Josh Brolin in the role of our 43rd president, and tries to assuage Bush’s more serious, potentially criminal flaws with a patronizing tone (he went into Iraq because he just wanted his father to love him more than Jeb!). JFK doesn’t really want to get into all that pre-assassination business unless it’s to speculate why the vast global conspiracy wanted him dead. The same applies to ensemble films like Parkland (in which, amongst other point of view characters, Zac Efron plays the surgeon who operated on Kennedy after he was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital) and Emilo Estevez’s Bobby, which is about the day that Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.

Of course, there are other, more bizarre, takes on the Kennedy iconography, and that’s not only including the few avant-garde attempts to deal with it (see Warhol’s Since, or the art collective Ant Farm’s The Eternal Frame). The best of these is Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep, in which Ossie Davis plays a gentleman in an old folks’ home who believes he’s Kennedy, and that he was “dyed black” after the events of Dallas and taken there to live out his days. Of course, this means he has to team up with Elvis to stop a mummy from killing everybody in the home. Davis kills it in the role, and it’s a testament to how amazing of an actor he was — he endows what seems to be this one-note joke character with heart and humanity.

Definitely the most esoteric is the fucked-up The House of Yes, in which Parker Posey plays a deeply troubled woman obsessed with reenacting the Kennedy assassination with her brother, who is driven to violence when her brother brings home another woman (it’s gross in a wonderfully Todd Solondz way, and is available on Netflix).

Perhaps the only modern film to deal with the Kennedys as characters in any meaningful way is Thirteen Days, which is a surprisingly intense dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis hidden beneath the Kevin Costner vehicle it was advertised as. Here, Bruce Greenwood plays Kennedy, and he generally does a fantastic job with his performance, and although most in the film struggle with the accent, he comes off well. There are moments where we see Kennedy as a person in a way that isn’t typically depicted — stressed, occasionally thoughtful, showing the heavy weight of the crown as it rests on his head. You get a sense that the filmmakers strived for this — there’s no room for wistful treatment or Camelot bullshit in this film, the stakes are too high to allow for it. That’s practically a given when you’re dramatizing the closest point the Cold War came to going hot.

It looks like Jackie will be taking the “best of both worlds” approach in dealing with the First Lady and her legacy; a mixture of the avant-garde, at least in the writing and aspects of the film’s form, and the intensely realistic yet speculative nature of Thirteen Days, where the facts are just as important as the feelings that we can wring out of them. It’s an absolutely necessary change in the way that we look at one of the twentieth century’s greatest families, and the tragedies that befell them — that they are better honored through truth and some sort of understanding rather than empty hagiography.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Jackie photo by Pablo Larraín courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.