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Grief as reinvention: Jackie and ‘Jackie’

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“Behind every great man is a great woman”: It’s an adage that’s been brought home to in our postfeminist age. Witness the apotheosis of Michelle Obama on the cover of the current Vogue and the new “Jackie,” with Natalie Portman transcendent as the tragic former first lady.

 Jacqueline Kennedy with Charles Collingwood during the televised tour of the restored White House, Feb. 14, 1962. The tour is a touchstone in the new film “Jackie.” Courtesy U.S. State Department.

Jacqueline Kennedy with Charles Collingwood during the televised tour of the restored White House, Feb. 14, 1962. The tour is a touchstone in the new film “Jackie.” Courtesy U.S. State Department.

Indeed, her Jacqueline B. Kennedy and Jackie herself are better than director Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie.” For one thing, the movie’s music, no doubt intended to strike a discordant note, is merely jarring. It underscores other false notes. Why is the boy who plays John F. Kennedy Jr. a blond? And why does Peter Sarsgaard’s Robert F. Kennedy fail to speak with his distinctive broad Boston cadence, particularly when Portman’s Jackie speaks in her signature breathy New Yorkese? And why do we see her not once but twice in a red gown when she mainly favored white and pastel formal wear?

Perhaps this is quibbling. What “Jackie” and Portman’s Jackie do very well is locate her grief and then show us how she cycles through it, reinventing her husband, his presidency – and, thus, herself – in what remains in some ways a pyrrhic victory.

“Jackie” opens in the aftermath of the JFK assassination as Jackie licks her wounds at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., inviting a sympathetic, unidentified reporter who is clearly historian Theodore White (Billy Crudup) to join her in mythologizing her husband’s presidency as a kind of Camelot, after the musical and song the president apparently loved. There will be no record of her drinking and smoking, much less her tarter, targeted comments, she tells the reporter, or any other sign of the ravaged widow, only the disciplined madonna that the nuns held up to us as an example we should follow.

The beauty of Larrain’s film is that he cares nothing for that Roman Catholic beatification. Rather, he gives us Jackie guts and all, as her husband and his brains tumble into her lab and she later looks in a three-way mirror aboard Air Force One -- the same mirror in which she had practiced a speech in Spanish and placed the iconic pink pillbox hat on her head as if it were a crown – and frantically tries to wipe the blood from her face, only smearing and spreading it in the process, sobbing breathlessly, her heart breaking. Emerging from the bathroom, she is approached by a compassionate Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant), whogently suggests she change from the pink and navy faux-Chanel bouclé suit that is perhaps the most recognizable suit in history.

No, Jackie insists. “Let them see what they’ve done.”

After 9/11, I remembered those words and quoted them in a story. It seemed to me then as it seems to me now a very New York thing to say, a defiant taking it on the chin, like the Morgan Bank in Lower Manhattan whose façade still bears the scars of its 1920 bombing. Jackie was a New Yorker. It was the place she knew first and the place to which she returned for the subsequent acts of her life as professional widow, single mother, Aristotle Onassis’ wife, divorced woman, editor, architectural preservationist, glammother to Caroline’s children and stoic cancer victim.

But all that is in a future pastLarrain’s film. He gives us the beginnings of metamorphosis as Jackie cycles through grief, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, a brittle, uneasy acceptance that strikes me as truer than the platitudes of religiosity. (I spoke at an advance screening of the film at the Pelham Picture House in Pelham, N.Y. on the day after Hillary Clinton’s loss and found the film genuinely cathartic.)

If there’s a great woman behind every great man – a subject I addressed at the screening – chalk that up to an abundance of compassion and a lack of opportunity. Women yearn to help men, but then that’s in part because it’s been the only way they could achieve status and because they outlive men. What remains is the legacy of love.

“Jackie” gives us a woman who was first and foremost a most public wife even as she realized her husband found her less compatible in the bedroom.

That she loved him nonetheless makes that realization all the more poignant.