Although I have come across quite a few people who dismiss the richly ambiguous La La Land as an unsuccessful attempt at a musical – no doubt implicitly comparing it to traditional musicals like My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music – I do not share their view. It is an outstanding film that resurrects the idea of the musical in a changed world, and does so with just enough bittersweetness to rescue itself from sentimentalism.
Emma Stone is certainly perfect in the role of Mia, the aspiring actress who makes it into the big time, but at the cost of her love for Sebastian, who is instrumental in facilitating her decisive audition, and whom she, in turn, motivates in the realisation of his own Jazz dreams. In sum, she is certainly deserving of an Oscar, given the way she acquitted herself of her task in La La Land, and if there was not a competing performance to challenge hers on this occasion, I would not have said another word. However, her star performance coincided with another one of Oscar quality, and which, in my humble opinion, is actually more deserving of the Oscar than Emma’s. Don’t get me wrong; I have no intention of denigrating Emma’s rendition of the character of Mia. It was unquestionably brilliant. When I first saw her in Woody Allen’s Irrational Man opposite Joaquin Phoenix’s existentially compromised philosophy professor, it was not difficult to recognise her talent. So, it is not a matter of saying that her performance in La La Land was not deserving; far from it.
Here is what I mean: her task was to portray a fictional character, with no historical person, alive or dead, to compare with her interpretation of such a person. When Daniel Day Lewis impressed with his rendition of Abe Lincoln, it was partly because he had managed to get into that legendary American president’s skin, as it were (in relation to information contained in the available historical records, that is). And to be able to do that, I believe, makes greater demands of an actor or actress than portraying a fictional character, with no model for comparison.
For the just-concluded Oscar season there was a performance of just this this kind and calibre by an actress, who was nominated for an Oscar, but failed to win it. She is Natalie Portman, and in the film, Jackie, she faced the daunting task of giving a convincing interpretation of a traumatised, but resolute Jacqueline Kennedy in the course of the four days between her husband, John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, and his burial, which was largely arranged by herself.
Portman’s faced the daunting task of portraying a grief-stricken Jackie Kennedy, who struggles to find a semblance of equilibrium between caring for her two uncomprehending, confused young children, on the one hand, and doing justice to the memory of her vivacious husband-president, who had captured the imaginations of Americans before he was brutally slain by a gunman in the course of a motorcade through Dallas. And her rendition of ‘Jackie’ is, to my mind, magisterial, to say the least. In a way, she managed to ‘become’ Jackie Kennedy for the duration of the scenes involving herself and the ‘journalist’ (Billy Crudup) who interviewed her at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, after she had moved out of the White House, and in those scene-sequences that reconstruct the assassination and the events following it, up to and including Kennedy’s state funeral in Washington, DC.
What is so impressive about her depiction of the hapless young widow, you may ask. To answer this question one cannot avoid drawing the film’s director, Pablo Larrain, into the discussion, given his almost uncanny feel for the way the world must have appeared to a woman shattered by the inexplicable death of her husband, inches from her on the back seat of the presidential car. His extremely sensitive apprehension of Jackie Kennedy’s somewhat ‘blurred’ perspective on the world is presented to the audience, partly through the fine camera work of Stéphane Fontaine, and for the rest via Portman’s chameleon-like Thespian ability to assume the personal characteristics of the bereaved American First Lady. In philosophical terms one might say that, together, Larrain, Fontaine and Portman give viewers a phenomenologically evocative, if not accurate, idea of the fraught American social and political world in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination.
What also comes through powerfully in her performance is the character of Jackie Kennedy, who may have struck most casual observers at the time as a debutante who was lucky enough to enter the White House on the shirt-tails of a charismatic, made-for-the-presidency young member of ‘American royalty’, John F. Kennedy. This was partly because of the two faces of Jackie Kennedy, both of which come through clearly, although ambiguously, in the film, to wit, her public visage and the private one. The former is better known than the latter, for obvious reasons – the glamorous, dignified and self-controlled First Lady – but the very fact that she has been described as the prototypically ‘private’ person already gives an indication of the reasons behind her sustained fascination for millions of people across the globe. Bringing into visibility the tension between these two personal domains is where Portman’s performance succeeds best.
Although she was only 34 when her husband was murdered, the way in which she handled the arrangements for his funeral (corroborated by historical documents) leaves no doubt about her strength of personality and character. Although her slain husband’s brother, Robert (Bobby) F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is shown as shielding her protectively from anyone who seemed as if they might crowd her in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, it is her quiet, albeit greatly tested, strength that comes across – her deliberate refusal to change her fashionable pink suit, still bearing her husband’s blood, for the flight back to Washington, or to take tranquillisers that might affect her concentration when making the necessary arrangements for the funeral. The fact that her choice of format for the funeral – the riderless horse, the long funeral procession, in which she walked a considerable distance with many other dignitaries (against the advice of security agents) beside the American flag-draped casket on a horse-drawn caisson, the ‘eternal flame’ at his Arlington National Cemetery grave – was eventually adopted and executed, is testimony to her irresistible determination.
Before the assassination this had already shown itself, of course, particularly in her successful transformation of the White House into what has been called ‘a living stage’ where American culture, art and history were displayed, if not enacted, not least because of the dinner parties, accompanied by musical performances, that she arranged at the White House, with guest lists that included not only politicians, but noted scientists, artists and intellectuals. All of this is brought vividly to life in the film, with Portman shining in the role of Jackie Kennedy. Before the film was made she had studied every aspect of the former First Lady’s life and personality, including her way of speaking, which was reputed to have been in a husky kind of whisper. This, too, is resurrected on the screen by Portman.
Thanks to the real-life interview conducted with Mrs Kennedy by Theodore H. White for LIFE magazine at her residence in Massachusetts, on which the film is partly based, as well as countless other articles and books on her life, and on the almost mythical aura that surrounded the Kennedy presidency, one can compare the film’s (specifically Natalie Portman’s) rendition of Jackie’s personal perspective on, and (through flashbacks) experience of, these far-reaching events with what has been documented. And the result is, as far as I am concerned, a performance so convincing that it merits an Academy Award.
The quasi-mythical character of the Kennedy presidency is beautifully framed by the (historically accurate) revelation, that Jack Kennedy loved the story of King Arthur’s Camelot, and often listened to the music from the film by that name. In the film Portman’s Jackie repeats this to the journalist, the cherry on the top being the implicit comparison between the Kennedy years and the mythical Camelot, captured in the lyrics, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot; for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot…” Similarly, Larrain and Portman’s Jackie will contribute to people remembering the Kennedy presidency.