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‘Jackie,’ and Living Through Despair

At a time when America’s leadership causes unease and even fear, I turn to the example of Jackie Kennedy, who continued to strive as a mother and citizen after her husband’s death

Rachel Shukert
November 29, 2016

I’ve been excited about Natalie Portman’s star turn as Jackie Kennedy in the upcoming biopic Jackie since, well, since I heard about it, which, like so many things pre-election, has begun to feel a little like the opening scene at the barbecue in Gone With the Wind: before we understood that our way of life was based on lies or had any ability to fathom the horrors to come. (We’re still kind of there, by the way, albeit after the barbecue, where Scarlett weeps pathetically at her hasty pre-War wedding to the soon-to-be-dispatched Charles Hamitlon. We’re crying hysterically, we just aren’t quite sure why yet.)

But I digress. Portman’s performance has been highly anticipated, generating major Oscar buzz in a movie season that seems, so far, to be a little light on old-school star power. But given the film’s subject matter, it’s not quite the glamorous pseudo-Chanel ad one might imagine it to be. The film deals with the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination in Dallas, and Jackie’s ensuing, volcanic grief. This is not the poised, put-together Miss Porter’s-voiced Jackie who politely paraded around the White House on television, showing the American people the President’s tasteful new upholstery. No: This is a Jackie in shock, a woman who has had her life pulled out from under her. Portman as operatic, raw. She convulses. She wails. She drinks. The pink Chanel suit is there, but—as in life—it’s covered with specks of brain, bone, and blood.

“It’s not subtle, right?” Peter Sarsgaard, who co-stars as Bobby Kennedy, told Vulture about Portman’s performance. “If an actor’s giving a safe performance, no one in the room except the person they’re talking to can even hear them. But when an actor’s out on a limb like that, you think, ‘God bless you for having the guts to go for it.’ ”

But in this peculiar historical moment, when so many of us feel as though we are teetering on the precipice—with our sense of personal and civic security if not quite gone, then forever changed—this is the Jackie we need. Not the poised fashion icon. The shell-shocked, grieving widow and the keening young mother who has no idea how she, her children, or her country are going to continue to exist.

Let’s not forget that despite the happy, Camelot myth, Kennedy’s presidency was also a time of bitter division. The young president from Brookline, Mass., was warned that people hated him in Dallas, due to the vast cultural divide between his stylish, liberal urbanity and the dyed-in-the-wool conservative Southerners who hated and feared the change he represented. We will never know what it was like to be Jackie Kennedy in those hideous few days, but for a moment, in a darkened theater, we can sit with her representation, in all her wild grief, and perhaps find a way to move through, or at least live with, our own. That’s the real magic of the movies.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.