ESSENTIAL TELEMOVIES: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981)

Folks, we cannot avoid the Kennedys forever.  The miniseries all but created a subgenre out of them and in 2011, there is a new one (if it ever airs).  I know, I know, Bj, you’re saying, you did “Onassis: The Richest Man in the World.”  Yes I did.  But, Jackie didn’t enter that one until midway through and frankly, Francesca Annis was way out of her league even trying the Jackie whisper.

So we go back to 1981 and “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy” for a smothering and adoring portrait of Jackie Kennedy as delivered by Jaclyn Smith, who can always be counted on to be proper and polite in her acting.  This is also relatively safe territory (remember, Jackie was still alive) because this miniseries is about her childhood, marrying into the Kennedys and the Presidency.  So, none of that money-grubbing Onassis stuff.  This is still the pure Jackie, the nation’s darling.  It’s gooey loving stuff, perfect for Jackie-philes.  I can’t imagine even the Onassis family wouldn’t be charmed, that’s how sugary sweet it is.

Oh, and I should warn those who expect Jackie’s early life to include her most enchanting relatives, Big and Little Edie Beale, they aren’t in it.  That’s how rosy this story is.

If it’s not safe yet to bash Jackie, it’s okay to get digs in on her parents.  Black Jack Bouvier (Rod Taylor) is a charming sot who stays out all night and only makes it to Jackie’s horse show by accident, having spent the night away from his wife Janet (Claudette Nevins).  “I want a divorce, Jack,” Janet says as soon as he shows up at the show, “tired of the debts and the drinking and…the whores!”  The discussion is put on hold as Jackie is thrown from her horse.  She’s okay, she’s okay.  Breathe, folks.

The parents to get divorced, though they argue over custody of the girls.  Girls, plural, but sister Lee has yet to make any appearance.  Poor Lee, always passed over for Jackie.  While Jackie sits alone on a swing, Black Jack gives her a goodbye speech that even she doesn’t believe (and I don’t understand).

We next encounter Jackie as a teenager, now finally played by Jaclyn Smith.  Yes, I said a teenager.  Obviously, they should have gotten a younger actress to take on Jackie at this age, but viewers wanted their Jaclyn as quickly as possible, so get out the teased fright wig with the bows and the saddle shoes, because one of Charlie’s Angels is in disguise as a pre-debutante.  She’s unhappy that her mother is marrying Uncle Hughie Auchincloss (Donald Moffat).  It’s not such a bad life.  She inherits three siblings (at the expense of the one she has) and Hugh is wealthy, whereas Black Jack can’t spend money fast enough.  But, best of all, Uncle Hughie has horses, and there’s nothing Jackie loved more than horses until she found books late in life (that includes two husbands, a dream job and, by some reports, her kids).  That doesn’t mean that Jackie doesn’t still love her father.  The rogue takes her shopping and buys her whatever she wants (Lee too, though she doesn’t have any lines), but the bills get sent to the Auchincloss household.  Janet decides to send Jacqueline to Miss Porter’s School, far away from father.  “I don’t mind seeing her that often,” she says to Uncle Hugie’s logical statement that they will also be far away, “as long as he doesn’t see her.”

She prefers to be Jacqueline to her roommate Sue Norton (Julie Johnson), who informs her all students actually work at the school.  She waits tables, though not very well.  She’s something of a rebel at school, and when the rules come down on her, she calls Dad to sympathize, one free spirit to another.  “All I can do is speak French and that won’t get me a husband.”  She wants someone like her father, but he steers her away from that.  “Your Adonis is getting old, I’m afraid,” he says, leading her in a direction away from his type.

After graduating Vassar, she wants to work in publishing, at a newspaper run by Waldrop (Dolph Sweet).  With her hair cut short, Jackie is off to become “The Inquiring Photographer.”  Unfortunately, though she’s good with pictures, her questions scare off the subjects.  “Noel Coward said…” or “Winston Churchill said…” put off normal Americans.

Jack Kennedy (James Fransiscus) shows up at a dinner party, the two arriving together by accident.  He is charming and she’s engaged!  She is intrigued by this gutsy man who seems to think being President is a fait accompli.  “Oh, you speak French, do you?” noodle-headed Jack asks.  He invites her to lunch to discuss his presidential aspirations over lunch in his office.   “Do you mind being a replacement?” Jackie asks knowing that Papa Joe had originally wanted his older, now deceased son, to have the position.

She sends him a fancy lunch and he asks her on a date, for which she’s very excited.  Unfortunately, he brings along a campaign strategist and the two chat all night, leaving Jacqueline to seethe.  “Don’t you ever think of anything but politics?” she yells at him when they argue on her doorstep.  “I just like what I do, I guess,” he says and Jackie asks him if his “other girls” mind his work ethic.  She’s about 10 years too early for that crack, because soon enough those girls will become his work ethic!  But, they kiss and she melts.

In short order, she has to break up with her fiance and get over to London to cover the coronation.  Don’t ask one coronation.  There was only one in the 20th Century that mattered.  On a double-decker bus, she finds people horrified at the money wasted on the coronation.  Jackie then has another problem: their fathers.  Black Jack hates Joe Kennedy because he blames him for losing his money when Joe was head of the SEC, not to mention a host of other sins (some of which Joe probably committed, some of which Black Jack probably committed).  A phone call in Foggy London Town excites Jackie, until she realizes the purpose of Jack’s call is to remind her to bring home books on foreign politics she promised to get him.  She has to drag them all the way back and she’s not happy.  In the middle of a harangue right there at the airport, he asks her to marry him.  “You sure you’re not doing this to get out of paying for the books?” our super sassy soon-to-be Senator’s wife asks.  She says yes, and is then told to keep it a secret so his image as an eligible bachelor can be kept, at least for now.

Black Jack is not happy!  He’s raging about hating the Kennedys when John shows up to meet the old buzzard.  It start uncomfortably, until Jack Kennedy asks Black Jack to turn on a fight on the TV and they can drink over the fight.

That was easy.  Now it’s time to meet the Kennedy clan, playing football when first encountered.  Joe Kennedy (Stephen Elliott) loves nothing more than competition and they force Jackie to play, in heels and pearls.  After Jackie is knocked to the ground, that’s it for her.  Her aversion to sports at Hyannisport would be legendary.  “I’m afraid your family will kill me before I marry into it,” she tells Joe Kennedy, who can only think of her class and “ziparoo” in order to boost Jack’s career.  Jackie then lets loose with her terms for marrying Jack.  It’s a high-energy speech and Joe approves, saying, “you’re gonna be a great wife…and more importantly, you’re going to be one hell of a First Lady.”  Note what’s missing in this exchange, the infamous financial bargain apparently struck between them that would appear in Kennedy miniseries.  No, no, this one is still the Camelot-approved version.

Plans for the wedding turn into a series of stroke-inducing battles between Joe Kennedy and Janet Auchincloss, but done as a comic montage.  Poor Black Jack has to beg a store for a cutaway, his credit long gone at any store.  “That girl, my daughter, is all that is holy to me…a cutaway…I want to prove to that mob who Jacqueline’s real father is,” he says to the store owner, who agrees.  He’s full of bravado for the press, but nervous enough to head straight for the bar.

Janet insists that Hugh give her away.  “He’s earned the right,” she says, and tells Jackie how nervous Black Jack is, playing doom-and-gloom by saying he may not even show up.  And of course that’s what happened.  Jackie puts off the walk down the aisle as long as possible, but when Black Jack is nowhere to be found, Hugh steps in to walk Jackie down the aisle.  Lee looks.. .oh, wait, sh doesn’t seem to be at the wedding anywhere.  The Kennedys are sort of cut in half too, but it’s far more obvious to lop off an only sibling.  As the couple pronounces their vows, the hotel manager finds Black Jack passed out on his bed.

Jackie chooses a gorgeous house for her family, gets pregnant and is then horrified at how it’s used by Jack’s cronies discussing his political future (feet on the table, cigar ash on the rugs and more).  Jackie as Martha Stewart is appalled.  Political disappointment comes quickly when Jack loses a bid for Vice President.  Old Joe never wanted it for him anyway.  But, Jackie doesn’t get to comfort her husband.  That’s handled by a political team member who comes barging into the hotel suite.  Jack gets a summons from his father in France, but Jackie says she can’t go.  He tells her to stay with her mother.  “I can’t play nursemaid and be in politics,” Jack yells at her, but it makes no difference.  “You seem to have forgotten one thing, Jack.  When things go wrong and you go running to your family, that’s what I am,” but it falls on deaf ears.

While on a yacht with his father discussing politics, Jack gets a wire that the baby was born stillborn.  Husband and wife have no words for each other, but in the car ride home, Jackie, in her big sunglasses, does accept when Jack grabs her hand.  But, the next scene has Jack back at the political game.  Jackie is pregnant again.  At a luncheon for glad handling, Jackie is summoned to a hotel where it’s obvious her father is dying.  This miniseries is not exactly subtle.  Good is followed by bad is followed by good is followed by bad.  St. Jackie doesn’t even admit to her father she came to see him, but that she has been out shopping, so as not to embarrass him.  She confides in her father she she’s afraid like he is, of being watched, of doing the wrong thing, and Black Jack, in Rod Taylor’s best Australian accent, tells her, “when you walk into the White House, remember who you are.  Smile.  Chin up.  Eye straight ahead and when you take center stage, create an aura around yourself, maintain a certain influence, with hold a little something, tease a little bit, be mysterious and above all, never let them know what you’re thinking.”  Her entire career is summed up in that convenient little speech.

Baby Caroline comes out completely healthy.  Jack gives her minute of paternal pride and then it’s off to the campaign in a montage that has both Jack and Jackie looking utterly ridiculous.  She’s pregnant again, but exceedingly popular, and because she speaks so many languages, she’s invaluable.  The clan gathers at Hyannisport to await the election returns.  Jackie has a rather unbelievable speech that when she voted she voted only for him.  Essentially, she didn’t vote in any other category so as “not to dilute” the vote for her husband.  That’s the sort of pretty speech that can only come from TV writers.

When they Kennedys move into the White House, she has her first press conference.  Poised and eloquent, she wants to be supportive of her husband and her children.  When a reporter asks her how much she spends on clothes in a year, she snaps, “really, is that the most important question you people have?”  Her press secretary jumps in to say that Jackie will wear only Oleg Cassini, only American-made and will wear her out fits multiple times.  The press has no other questions.  “Pretty dogs,” one says, to break the silence.  “What do they eat?” another asks.  “Reporters,” she deadpans.

Now the movie has to stick to paint-by-numbers, which means Jackie complains about the reporters, the condition of the White House, which is almost set on fire when she and Jack insist a fireplace be used that hasn’t been used in decades.  Now she has a project, to turn the White House into a cultural show place, “the prettiest home in America,” she calls it.  So whitewashed is this piece that Jackie’s notorious TV showing of the White House lacks her bumping into the walls and slurred speech.

Arriving in Paris, the mobs are there calling her name, not his, and of course we can’t leave out Jack’s famous quip while meeting with DeGaulle that “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris and I have enjoyed it.”  Paris goes hog wild for Jackie in a glittering montage.

Unfortunately, after that, Jack insists Jackie go with him to Texas to shore up political support “and show those damn broads what good taste is really like.”  Air Force One takes off in slow motion and as it hits the sun, a gunshot goes off and that’s all we know of the assassination.

She tells the story of what happened to friendly reporter Theodore White (Will Hunt).  Her monologue is shot in extreme close-up, holding back tears properly, but sticking to the facts.  It’s well-delivered by Jaclyn Smith, probably the only time here she’s allowed to actually develop a character.  “What do you want me to write, Mrs. Kennedy?” White asks.  She quotes Alan Jay Lerner’s lyric from what she mistakenly calls a “musical comedy” (funny though it may be in certain moments, it’s musical drama).  “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot, for once brief shining moment known as Camelot,” she coos.  “There will never be another Camelot again,” is her final word on the matter and the legend is born.

Categories: Essential Telemovies

2 Comments to “ESSENTIAL TELEMOVIES: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981)”

  1. Tony Richmond 17 October 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    Does anyone know what the red Sports Car was in the Kennedy Film, driven by Rod Taylor playing Black Jack Bouvier?

    • Bj Kirschner 19 October 2014 at 11:51 am #

      Yikes! That’s a very specific question and my eyes are well trained for detail, but knowing nothing about cars, I don’t have an answer, but I can go back and check.