It’s a case of déjà vu, as Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman have teamed-up for a new Oscar bait film. Six years after Black Swan, Aronofsky serves as a producer for Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. It recently had its US premiere at the New York Film Festival to a sold out crowd of traditional festival goers and Portman fans waiting to see if it’s true that the actress will be in the running for an Oscar again. Me, I checked it out to see if it was another over-acted performance from the Israeli-born actress that would just get swirled up in applause from critics. And yes, it does feel like that again.
But there are other factors going into this. When Portman was promoting and going out on the Oscar campaign for Black Swan, she just announced that she was engaged and pregnant with her first child. Now happily married to dancer Benjamin Millepied and raising their son, Aleph, she is back on the Oscar trail, pregnant with her second child, and still getting lauded for the sake of being lauded. So if she does win the Oscar at next year’s ceremony, it will be more for portraying an iconic American figure or sympathy points for having another kid during the same time period as she will be campaigning for her awards. And the kid’s name better be Bet (you know, for Hebrew alphabet reasons).
Jackie is about Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, but Portman’s performance feels rooted in an old-Hollywood style of admiration, in which it just looks like Portman’s famous and beautiful face attached to a very stiff wig and pretending to be Jackie. It did not feel like that she immersed herself deeply into the role, and she even admits to have struggled with preparing for the role at the film’s Q&A after the screening. The accent is her Achilles heel in that it comes across as extremely unnatural and not at all pleasant to the ear. She mentioned how she spent a majority of her time watching the White House tour (which serves as a focal point in the film to further the mythical element of the Kennedys), and listening to tapes of interviews that Jackie did after the assassination. This gave Portman the groundwork to perfect the character’s public and private voice, but it ultimately falls flat, as public is down-right southern, and private is less Jackie being Jackie and more Jackie, being Natalie Portman.
There are things to like about Jackie, but none of them have to do with the central performance. While the screenplay is brilliantly structured as a memory piece between an interview one week later, a spiritual discussion with a Catholic priest, and the events that Jackie recounts to both of them, it is really the costumes and set pieces that really steal the show. With elegance in the forefront, these designs are absolute 1960s eye candy. It helped satisfy that craving for the hole that was left behind when Mad Men ended its seven season run. Another positive was the use of the musical Camelot in the soundtrack at two crucial points (once during a montage of Jackie trying on her famous gowns in distress, and at the end with the final images of Jackie lamenting the good days in the White House) to connect the idea that the Kennedys were America’s royal family and as mysterious as the King Arthur legend. But while everything thing in the frame is gorgeous, Portman’s performance and it’s blend of newscast footage is not. The archival footage does not blend well with the rest of Larraín’s production scheme, and it’s very clear that those behind the scenes had a very difficult time mashing the film’s actors and color palette with the archival footage they used. The White House tour, in particular, is extremely stilted with Portman’s Jackie being shown in medium close-ups, but her look is unnatural to the flow and grace that Jackie had in the original footage, and, I swear, they must have asked her to lip sync to the original audio because the Jackie voice used in this instance is extremely different when Portman conveys it in the “public” tone. Even the actor who plays John F. Kennedy looks like he’s lip syncing to the White House tour audio track when he shows up.
Jackie is a mixed dud, but sadly will be seen as glorious cinema for it’s iconic protagonist and historic setting. Now would be the good time to set the record straight before it’s too late because who knows how the Academy will vote, and I hope that this time they are right in bypassing Portman for someone else.