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Natalie Portman--On Becoming the Woman in the Bloodstained Chanel Suit

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Jackie deconstructs the Camelot myth in a riveting portrait of the First Lady during the aftermath of JFK’s assassination...

“She’s a widow, she’s a young mother, she’s a betrayed wife. She’s a symbol for all these people.”

In the opinion of Natalie Portman, Jacqueline Kennedy was a living reflection of what people wanted her to be.

“When you know you’re a symbol for people, when you know that people see you as something from the outside, how can you maintain your humanity when, for everyone else, you’re this … mannequin?” Portman asked at the Venice Film Festival, promoting her role as the widowed First Lady in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie.

“She’s a widow, she’s a young mother, she’s a betrayed wife. She’s a symbol for all these people.”

That’s why Portman was initially hesitant to take on a role she considered “somewhat dangerous … because everyone knows what she looked like, sounded like, and has kind of an idea of her.”

In a later interview in Los Angeles, Portman told me that her previous impressions of the widow of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy were similarly superficial. “I think I hadn’t really considered her much. I thought of her as a façade, the ‘Warhol Jackie’ of ‘The Look,’ with the pillbox hat.

“People talked mainly about how she dressed and how she wore her hair. But she was such a substantive person. I hadn’t considered her deep intellect, strength, and control.”

It wasn’t a “Jackie impression” that eventually earned Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Portman. Larraín and producer Darren Aronofsky (who directed Portman to an earlier Oscar in Black Swan) sold her on a story that takes place almost entirely out of the public eye.

Set mainly in the days after JFK’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, leading up to a showcase funeral patterned after Lincoln’s, Jackie is the story of the First Lady’s private moments. It’s her day in the bloodstained Chanel suit, her shock, and her eventual resolve to give her husband a send-off worthy of the Camelot motif she more or less created in the days after Dallas.

The movie is almost claustrophobically focused on her face throughout, with the appearances by Jack (Caspar Phillipson), her brother-in-law Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), her priest and confidant (John Hurt), and Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) almost amounting to intrusions on a focused, one-woman performance.

"Camelot was an invented royalty, and she was a queen without a throne."

“Jackie really took authorship of the story during a period of the most intense mourning, shock and grieving,” Portman says. “And she had the presence of mind, within all that craziness and confusion, to take hold of the legacy and shape it herself. Camelot was an invented royalty, and she was a queen without a throne. It’s quite astonishing.

“What she says in the movie is that sometimes the characters you create are more real than the people that stand beside you.

“There’s no way you can ever really know a person you’re portraying like this,” Portman adds. “The best you can hope for is that other people believe you.”

But she says she saw a dramatic difference in the public and private faces of her character when comparing a famous piece of video with an audiotape. The video was of the February 1962 tour of the renovated White House, hosted by the First Lady. It aired on all the U.S. networks. “The control, that whisper of a voice, and an almost studied stiffness in the presentation of herself,” are what most impressed Portman.

By contrast, the famous audio was Jackie with her guard down. It was a post-Dallas series of interviews with her old friend, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (The once-sealed tapes — released in 2011 — are an archived piece of history. They inspired the unidentified interview session that serves as a framework for the movie.)

The audio gives us an absolutely candid former First Lady, with an entirely different speech pattern. “You can even hear the ice clinking against their glasses. It was completely relaxed and it really helped you get the voice and the accent. Her voice and mannerisms could be completely different, depending on the context,” Portman says.

“Once you’re comfortable with those, you can just forget it and concentrate on the emotion.”

And, of course, Jackie offers the ultimate unknowable, the events of the seven-minute race to the hospital after the shooting. “People know the Zapruder film (the 8mm home-movie footage shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder of the Kennedy motorcade and assassination) and that’s it,” Portman says. “But what followed might have seemed like an eternity.

“There was that moment, in the (Zapruder) tape when she crawls out on the back trunk. I always thought she was trying to escape. It wasn’t (that). She saw a piece of her husband’s brain fly out on the trunk, and she was trying to get it so they could put it back in.

“You can’t even imagine the animal instinct at that moment of terror. For someone who loves beauty so much to be confronted with such ugliness, is really quite a jarring thing to watch as a viewer.”

Jim Slotek is a Toronto movie critic and freelance entertainment journalist.