Countdown to the Academy Awards: Author of The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Shares His Thoughts on JACKIE

Written by: Michael J. Hogan


The author of The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy weighs in on the much buzzed about, Academy Award nominated film JACKIE.


It’s difficult to find a movie about the Kennedys that does not present a favorable portrait of the famous first couple.  Pablo Larraín’s new movie, “Jackie,” is no exception. As the title suggests, the central figure in this film is not John Fitzgerald Kennedy but former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, played by Natalie Portman.  We will never know how close Portman’s portrayal comes to the real Jacqueline Kennedy, who was notoriously guarded when it came to revealing anything about herself.  She did not keep a diary (that we know of), did not write an autobiography, gave few interviews she could not control, and was suspicious of reporters and historians alike. Larraín captures this in scenes that recreate her famous interview with the journalist Theodore H. White (who is unnamed in the film but played by the actor Billy Crudup) just days after her husband’s funeral.  Though still in shock and burdened with enormous grief, she managed nonetheless to control the interview and dictate virtually every line that White would write. Even now, more than half a century after JFK’s assassination, and nearly a quarter of a century after her own death, Jacqueline Kennedy’s papers remain largely closed to the public.

What is more, in their roles as president and first lady, the Kennedys did not always appear as themselves.  As I argue in my book, The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: A Biography, their identities were carefully constructed idealizations of a president and first lady who supposedly exemplified the best qualities and highest aspirations of the American people.  Here was the American Queen, an elegant, intelligent, and graceful first lady, a cosmopolitan woman of the world who grew up in privileged circumstances, attended private schools, spoke three languages, and was both an avid reader and something of an expert in art, architecture, and interior design. And here was her husband: the scion of a wealthy family, a Harvard graduate and prize winning author with Hollywood good lucks, unmatchable charm, and a rhetorical style that could move a nation.  Here was the progressive political leader who spoke for the poor, the ill, and the aged, and for world peace and security through arms control and détente.  Here was the practical intellectual, the daring explorer of new frontiers at home and in space, and the decorated war hero who risked his life for the country.  Here was the all-American family; the happy couple and devoted parents of two beautiful children.

This was the Kennedy “style” or the Kennedy “brand,” as I call it. It was the public face they constructed of themselves, and it concealed, so far as possible, any aspect of personality that might call into question the sincerity of their performance.  The Kennedys, in other words, revealed themselves in images of their own making, in settings of their own choosing; and because their drama was so artfully staged, it was often difficult to distinguish between the real Kennedys and the roles they played. So it is that when we remember the Kennedys today we are likely to remember the performers, as much as the real people, and not only the parts they played in their own White House productions, but also the parts reproduced in movies, museums, monuments, memorials and other elements of what Michael Kammen has called the heritage industry.

As I argue in my book, the heritage industry has always been less concerned with the real history of the Kennedy administration than with commercializing the popular image of the Kennedys as they performed the president and first lady in the theater of public life. Larraín follows in this tradition, as does Portman, who has the challenging task of performing a former first lady, whose public image was itself a performance. Jumping back and forth in their film narrative, they show Jackie in one of the most glamorous events in the history of White House social life. A stand-in for many such events, well reported at the time, the scene shows Jackie in the East Room of the White House, sitting by her handsome husband, dressed simply but elegantly in the fashion she made famous, hair perfectly coiffed in the neat bouffant that would soon adorn a new version of the famous Barbie doll, listening admiringly to the music of cellist Pablo Casals and expressing the cool and sophisticated Kennedy “style” that was much admired at the time and ever sense. The same “style” or “brand” is revealed again when they recreate Jackie’s Emmy-winning performance as tour guide in a televised review of the Executive Mansion, which she had meticulously restored as a stage for the performance of her husband’s presidency. These scenes, and others, capture the Kennedys as they played their parts as president and first lady, as they wanted to be seen, and as many Americans still remember them.

Larraín clearly understands that Jackie’s performance, as he presents it, may not be the whole truth of who she was. Interviewed by the New York Times just as his movie was being released, he confessed that Jacqueline Kennedy “was probably the most unknown of the known women of the 20th century.”  Even her White House tour, as Normal Mailer noted at the time, was a performance, which he dismissed as completely phony. Subsequent historians have leveled similar charges against both Jackie and her husband.  As they see it, for example, the image the Kennedys constructed of themselves tells us nothing about the president as a reckless womanizer who was so plagued by ill health that he often relied on what are now considered illicit drugs to get him through the day — or about Jackie as a woman who was uncomfortable with intimacy, obsessed with appearances, and dependent on some of the same drugs her husband used. Nor does it capture the rowdy social events they held behind the scenes at the White House or other discreet locations, which often looked more like raucous, even raunchy, fraternity parties than the elegant and sophisticated state diners so well know to the public. When it comes to all of this, Larraín settles for vague illusions to what Seymour M. Hersh has called “The Dark Side of Camelot,” as for example, in the film’s depiction of conversations between Jackie and her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy. Nor does the film tell us anything about the politics and diplomacy of the Kennedy administration.

Instead, Larraín focuses relentlessly on the contrast between the tormented widow and the devoted guardian of her husband’s legacy, between Jackie’s private moments and her public performance of the president’s funeral—one of the most traumatic and dramatic events in modern American history.  On the private side, Jackie is revealed as she is seldom seen: a tortured insomniac, chain smoking and drinking heavily as she wonders aimlessly through the White House slipping on and then discarding various pieces of her famous wardrobe, as if they had suddenly become useless costumes. Here is the widow emotionally shattered by her husband’s brutal murder and full of doubts about her faith and her future — a victim, perhaps, of what the writer Barbara Leaming has diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

As Larraín makes clear, however, Jackie’s PTSD was not obvious in public, where she continued to deliver a controlled and nearly flawless performance as the perfect American heroine, alert to her responsibilities as wife and mother, and devoted to preserving the memory of her husband as the ideal American. Larraín captures her dutiful, if dazed, witness to the swearing in of President Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One as it raced the new president and the cold body of his predecessor back to the nation’s capital. He captures, as well, her detailed scripting of the president’s funeral, which she used to celebrate his values and accomplishments as she wanted them remembered; link him to other fallen heroes, notably Abraham Lincoln; and remind everyone that they had lost not only a war hero and inspirational leader, a champion of peace and social justice, but also a devoted husband and father.

Finally, as noted earlier, Larraín has Portman reenact Jackie’s interview with Theodore White.  White was one of President Kennedy’s favorite journalists and had done a good deal to promote the president’s public image, which the former first lady now wanted to preserve forever in American memory.  It was in this interview, as captured in the movie, that Jacqueline Kennedy compared the Kennedy administration to King Arthur’s court at Camelot—a metaphor that conjured the Kennedys as they had played the president and first lady in their White House productions. Concerned that Americans would forget her husband if he was assessed only on the basis of his legislative achievements, she told White that he should be remembered instead for what he represented, what he inspired, and how he made Americans feel about themselves and their country.

From that moment forward, Jacqueline Kennedy became the chief guardian of her husband’s memory—indeed, his chief memory maker. Because Larraín stops his film narrative with the funeral and its aftermath, including White’s interview, he misses this part of the whole story, which I cover in my book on the president’s afterlife.  We do not learn about Jackie’s careful management of the president’s papers, with a view to aiding historians, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., whose books offered a glowing assessment of the late president. Nor do we see her working overtime to quash alternative narratives, such as those advanced in the revisionist literature of the 1970s and 1980s, with its emphasis on Kennedy as fundamentally conservative in his domestic policy, a Cold War Hawk in his foreign policy, and a legendary lothario who took medical advice and drugs prescribed by a Manhattan quack known as “Dr. Feelgood.”

Neither does Larraín explain why Jackie buried her husband at Arlington National Cemetery, where he would rest with other war heroes in sacred ground, where his gravesite would be aligned with the Lincoln memorial and would become a permanent part of the capital’s monumental architecture—suggesting, as was her intention, that Kennedy was one of the great presidents and therefore worthy of remembrance. Also absent from Larraín’s narrative, is the part she would play in creating the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, and the Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston – all of which spoke to how she wanted her husband remembered: as a war hero, an intellectual of sorts who had a keen appreciation of the arts, a pioneer of new frontiers at home and in the heavens, a prize-winning author with a deep love of reading and a keen appreciation of what might be gained through the study of history and politics.

Despite stopping short of the full story, Larraín’s film should be taken on its own terms and, as such, has a great deal to recommend it. The film’s musical score (by Mica Levi) is hauntingly beautiful; the supporting players contribute compelling performances; and the film’s script (by Noah Oppenheimer) is insightful and, for the most part, historically accurate.  It offers one of the best presentations of Jacqueline Kennedy’s private torment in the days following her husband’s brutal murder, and contrasts that with the amazing strength and composure she displayed throughout his funeral. Indeed, Larraín clearly understands that in Jacqueline Kennedy he is dealing with a first lady whose every public appearance was a well-crafted performance. So does Natalie Portman, whose own performance is Oscar worthy.  With the exception of scenes showing Jackie’s private grief, Portman does not try to lift the veil and reveal what’s behind the first lady’s public persona.  Instead, she performs the performer, right down to her whispery voice and couture worthy of Women’s Wear Daily.

This emphasis on Jackie as a performer in the grand spectacle of her husband’s funeral, and on her iron resolve to have things her way, are two of Larraín’s keenest insights. Indeed, his film raises questions about whether Jackie could even untangle her private from her public life.  “I am not a movie actress,” she protests at one point in the film, and yet she writes the script for her husband’s funeral, gives herself a starring role in that magnificent drama, and holds to her script even when she encounters strong opposition, as was the case when she ignored security concerns and walked behind her husband’s casket as it moved from the White House to St. Mathew’s Cathedral.  At another point she tells Kennedy friend Bill Walton (played by Richard Grant) how hard it had become to discern what was real and what was performance. “The characters we read about on the page,” she explains to Theodore White, often “end up being more real than the men who stand beside us.” “People like to believe in fairy tales,” she adds, and that, of course, is what she gave them.

Larraíne captures this important point, too. While he does not take his narrative much further than Kennedy’s funeral, he hints at the full story in the way he covers Jackie’s careful staging of the president’s funeral and her “Camelot” interview with Theodore White.  Both fairly convey Jacqueline Kennedy’s devotion to her husband’s memory, or rather, to the Kennedy brand that both had forged as they played their parts on the White House stage.  It was this self-constructed brand that she wanted people to remember and that she wrote like a text into her husband’s grave site and other monuments to his memory.  This was the image to which she devoted herself until 1994, when she, too, passed from history to memory.  And it remains the image of the Kennedys most often captured by the heritage industry, including Larraín’s film, over more than half a century.

The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: A Biography by Michael J. Hogan

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About the Author: Michael J. Hogan

Michael J. Hogan is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Springfield, and Emeritus Professor of History at the Ohio State University. Past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, Hogan served for fifteen years as editor of Diplomatic History, the journal of record for scholars of American ...

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