Of “Jackie,” man­ners and power

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Froma Har­rop

hose ex­pect­ing to feast on the splen­dor of a fash­ion icon in the movie “Jackie” may feel mis­led. The pro­mo­tion shows ac­tress Natalie Port­man in a copy of the Dior­in­spired red dress Jackie Kennedy wore on her fab­u­lous White House tour. But the out­fit at the cen­ter of this story is the pink Chanel-like suit splat­tered in her hus­band’s blood.

The Jackie we see of­fers a les­son not on how to dress but on how to use im­age to achieve public goals. To­ward that end, ap­pear­ance played a para­mount role.

“Jackie” fo­cuses on the days right be­fore and af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Sit­ting next to John in a con­vert­ible rolling through Dal­las when a bul­let tore his head apart, Jackie sees her seem­ingly charmed life fall into the abyss of a na­tional trauma.

As first lady, Jackie be­comes the fo­cus for a public sub­sumed by fear and shock. As a mother of two small chil­dren, she must ex­plain and com­fort. And as a wife vi­o­lently ripped from her hus­band, she must grieve while per­form­ing.

The Jackie we see re­fuses to dis­ap­pear into seclu­sion. Tragedy trans­forms her from the em­bod­i­ment of a new Amer­i­can el­e­gance (though many of her clothes were Amer­i­can­made rip-offs of French de­signs) to a piteous widow. But dress still mat­ters. On the flight back from Dal­las, Jackie spurns of­fers to help her change out of the blood­stained suit. She’s pho­tographed in it as Lyn­don B. John­son is sworn in as pres­i­dent. She wears it de­scend­ing from the plane in Wash­ing­ton and right up to the front door of the White House.

“Let them see what they’ve done” is her ex­pla­na­tion.

This Jackie is an­gry and want­ing con­trol of the funeral spec­ta­cle. She’s no longer the breathy debu­tante de­scrib­ing her dec­o­rat­ing choices to the TV cam­eras. But the crum­bling struc­ture of her life pro­duces not a crack in her groom­ing, her pos­ture or her care­ful use of lan­guage.

She in­sists on walk­ing be­hind JFK’s cas­ket in the funeral pro­ces­sion through Wash­ing­ton — and against the ad­vice of as­so­ci­ates con­cerned for her safety. They wor­ried that she could be ex­pos­ing her­self and other dig­ni­taries to as­sas­sins pos­si­bly still at large.

The early ’60s were about half­way be­tween the Vic­to­rian era, with its elab­o­rate for­mal rules for mourn­ing, and re­cent ef­forts to sup­press grief. Nowa­days, joy­ful “cel­e­bra­tions of life” of­ten re­place somber church fu­ner­als. In Bri­tain, the BBC re­ports, Monty Python’s “Al­ways Look on the Bright Side of Life” has be­come the most re­quested funeral song, re­plac­ing Verdi’s “Re­quiem.”

For her ap­pear­ance in the funeral cortege, Jackie re­tains the Vic­to­rian mode. She wears all black. The veil cover­ing her face re­veals just a hint of the white skin un­der­neath.

“Jackie” is very in­com­plete his­tory. Au­di­ences un­aware of the back al­leys where JFK ca­vorted with call girls and mob molls might think it was all love and glam­our. Jackie her­self made ref­er­ence to what she called her “Asi­atic” mar­riage.

Nonethe­less, Jackie’s post-as­sas­si­na­tion agenda in­cluded ham­mer­ing into per­ma­nence the myth of the Kennedy years as a mod­ern-day Camelot. This has to be said: The or­derly White House of 1963 — even amid a na­tional cri­sis — will con­trast sharply with the crash­ing vul­gar­ity about to take it over.

So­cial me­dia and the fu­ries driv­ing na­tional anger are chop­ping up a civic cul­ture that took cen­turies to build. But the more norms get smashed the more con­spic­u­ous are those who up­hold them.

The word “sur­face” is of­ten un­fairly paired with “shal­low.” But how we show our­selves to the public re­ally does con­tain mean­ing. “Jackie” of­fers a re­minder that man­nerly ap­pear­ance and be­hav­ior can be used in the ser­vice of power.

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