By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER: Review of JackieThe most stunning moment in Jackie, a stunning film, has Jacqueline Kennedy finally stripping off the fabled pink dress, the one she wore to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. She wore it spattered by Jack’s blood during the frantic rush to the hospital after the president’s shooting, and sitting next to his coffin on the flight to Washington, and when attempting to visit his autopsy, and in the White House she would soon have to leave. Now the dazed and exhausted Jackie stands naked in the shower, and blood runs down her back. Never mind that it couldn’t have seeped sufficiently through the rather heavy dress (she had cleaned her face earlier), for in this startling image the film concentrates the Greek-tragic shock which has never entirely subsided. This has nothing to do with politics or conspiracies. While hard to watch, Jackie is a kind of balm, even after 53 years, for anyone old enough to have deeply experienced that most terrible event.
Perhaps this American nightmare has always required a brilliant foreign director. Pablo Larrain, from Chile, peels open our collective myth to make Mrs. Kennedy live again in her most awful but heroic days. Larrain found the right star: Natalie Portman. Well past her popular cuteness, her mature beauty is a half-shattered mask of tremendous expressiveness. This is a crowning role, more deserving an Oscar than her win for Black Swan (but credit Darren Aronofsky, who directed that lurid hit, for producing Jackie and hiring Larrain). Portman uses details both layered and exposed to reveal a woman suddenly at the border of both her own and national sanity, trying fiercely to understand. Her raft for survival was the Camelot myth, which she gave to journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim use this misty fantasy, one that is now half-forgotten, without irony, and we understand Jackie’s fierce need for it.
Larrain, 40, made a great movie about celebrity craziness (Tony Manero, 2008) and a thrillingly effective film about Chilean politics (No, in 2012). Working in America with a fairly big budget, on a profoundly freighted subject that has been infected by pulp (chief case: Oliver Stone’s JFK), Larrain does not falter. His regard for Mrs. Kennedy is fearless but compassionate, and he treats the assassination with powerful freshness. Portman has so personalized her role that the horror hits intimately. The folding of classic clips (not the Zapruder film) into re-staged events is seamless, vivid and factually credible. With cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, Larrain keeps everything rooted in Portman’s often benumbed or distraught but charismatic responses.
Larrain has said that a good director is “like a kid with a bomb.” Inevitably, any detonation sets off some quibbles. White’s interview is stretched out as a tense counterpoint. Teddy White, whose campaign book had exalted Jack’s election in 1960, would never have shown up for a talk with the grieving widow wearing a loose tie and a fairly remote manner. The segments of Jackie’s famous 1962 White House tour on TV are touching (her breathy nervousness is wonderfully caught by Portman), yet the value diminishes. Peter Sarsgaard, an actor of wispy, ironic nuances, struggles to capture Bobby Kennedy’s special blend of fire and ice (he’s also taller than Jack, an odd reversal). Excellent are Greta Gerwig, as Jackie’s devoted assistant Nancy Tuckerman, and – a bold, original addition – John Hurt as a profoundly caring but never sentimental priest.
Jackie is probably the best movie ever made (or likely to be) about the awful blow of 1963. Now, knowing her future (the Jackie O phase, the quieter New York years, the tragic death of her beloved son after her own), we can lay more dark laurels on this woman who, as Portman says with almost pleading pathos, “never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.” Larrain and Portman have restored her as a living person, swamped by history but entirely human, enduring her brutal fate as well as any figure not scripted by Racine or Euripides. What matters is to watch the film with total attention. And pity.
SALAD (A List)The Best Kennedy Films, by my appraisal: Jackie (Pablo Larrain, 2016), Thirteen Days (Roger Donaldson, 2000), Ruby (John Mackenzie, 1992), Primary (Robert Drew, 1960), Oswald’s Ghost (Robert Stone, 2007), Love Field (Jonathan Kaplan, 1992), Bobby (Emilio Estevez, 2006), Parkland (Peter Landesman, 2013) and PT 109 (Leslie Martinson, 1963).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)I Love Lucy remains a beloved TV show, and “Orson Welles did a guest shot in the 1950s. During rehearsals he had sat in the wings, staring at the star. Asked what he was doing, Welles, enchanted with Lucy’s skills since the 1940s, explained ‘I am watching the world’s greatest actress” (quote from Ball of Fire, a Lucille Ball bio by Stefan Kanfer).Welles had used Ball on radio and briefly on stage. In a different mood and moment, he probably would have given that praise to his great collaborator Agnes Moorehead. You can see his funny appearance (Oct. 15, 1956) as Lucy Meets Orson Welles on YouTube.
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)Movie music really matters, as in The Horse’s Mouth: “After a score by Joyce Cary’s son Tristram was found too heavy for a frequently comedic project, (director) Ronald Neame had a great flash: Prokofiev’s concert suite Lieutenant Kije. One of the century’s most inventive composers, Sergei Prokofiev fled Soviet Russia but later became a culture toy of Stalin and died the same day, his obituaries quashed by the dictator’s. Kije was written for a 1933 film of Yuri Tynyanov’s comic novel about an imaginary soldier and a mad czar (Stalinist analogies apply). Witty, jazz-free in instrumentation but romantically yearning, it fully met the challenge of Guinness’s Gulley Jimson.” (From the Alec Guinness/The Horse’s Mouth chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle).
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Jack Ruby (Danny Aiello) and Candy Cane (Sherilynn Fenn) face the 1963 Dallas trauma in Ruby (Sony Pictures, 1992; director John Mackenzie, cinematographer Phil Meheux).
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