Saturday, November 25, 2017

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Jackie" (2016)

Natalie Portman in Jackie
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Jackie (2016)
Directed By: Pablo Larrain
Written By: Noah Oppenheim
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 100 minutes
Summary: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband's historic legacy.

The Movie

The year 2016 was fraught with political tension not only socially, but in its entertainment. The United States presidential election brought forth many feelings regarding the many candidates as well as general ideals held by the eventual front runners of the Democratic and Republican parties. For the Democrats, it was a symbol of a future in which Hillary Clinton emphasized the power of women. She was the first major female political candidate to lead the ticket, and that gave many hope for the potential future when women were as eligible to be president as men had been for centuries. Clinton also was a former First Lady, whose personal experience couldn't help but parallel with director Pablo Larrain's Jackie, about Jacqueline "Jackie" Kennedy in the days following President John F. Kennedy's assassination. On its surface, it was a notorious political allegory, and one that felt primed for an election season.

It helped that Natalie Portman's depiction of Jackie was impeccable, with many praising her authentic cadence and physical embodiment. The film came out strong and primed Portman for her second Oscar Best Actress win, following 2010's Black Swan. For an indie film, Jackie did well at the box office, grossing $25 million internationally. The idea of the film being a front runner seemed predictable after its early September shows. Kennedy was a strong woman who got through grief and legacy with poise and confidence. It was how the film was marketed. The only issue is that if one was to maintain the Clinton/Jackie parallels, things would quickly diminish as the election not only became fraught with debilitating controversy, but also saw Clinton lose. If Jackie symbolized anything, it was something more bitter and tragic. Much like her Camelot-based imagery of a White House utopia, the fantasy of Clinton creating a bright new future was gone.

By some irony, Jackie's future in the awards season ended up mirroring Clinton in some unfortunate ways. After being predicted the front runner for a few months, Portman began to disappear in favor of emerging front runners such as Emma Stone (La La Land) and Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins). By the time that Golden Globes and various other awards groups came along, Jackie's status had faded. Even if critics stood by the film and placed it among their Top 10 lists for 2016, the proverbial Camelot of its awards season wasn't as perfect as it once was. It would fade into the runner-ups of the race, barely being remembered as the darling that it once was only a few months ago. 

- The Campaign -

The film's premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in September 2016 set things off on the right note. The reviews were glowing, with many predicting Portman to be the front runner for Best Actress. Its haunting portrayal of her days following the assassination quickly became the film to see. In a time where the race had yet to be formed, Jackie looked like a shining beacon. It helped that America was going through its own presidential election with a woman candidate and former First Lady. There were small details that suggested that the film would be significant to the moment. The buzz continued to build. If nobody else won from the film, Portman would make it to the stage on Oscar night.

In the time following its breakout acclaim, the marketing began to focus on the accuracy of the portrayal. Portman would emphasize watching older videos of Jackie Kennedy and noticing the differences of her cadence. She would notice when her voice would get deeper during certain emotional moments. There was even emphasis on how accurately she captured the mannerisms of Kennedy's work in the documentary A Tour of the White House, of which was referenced heavily in Jackie. While the opinions of critics differed on how well the vocal portion added to the performance, the gist was that she was the best part of the film, which Larrain would claim was a biopic made by someone who didn't like biopics. Speaking as Larrain was also promoting his Pablo Neruda film Neruda at the same time, he would use the other film as a comparison for how to approach biopics in different and exciting ways.

As he claims, Jackie wasn't a traditional biopic and instead was a film that explored the Kennedy legacy through a nonlinear story. It had a poetic structure in its dialogue, and the structure was more dreamlike. The film would be reverent to the Kennedy legacy, but it was also challenging to the style of film making it existed within. With the first trailer presenting a powerful film that highlighted the assassination and its bloody aftermath, the film sold itself as an emotional force of nature. There had been political films before, but there hadn't been any as mesmerizing and challenging as that of Jackie. The only matter was waiting for the release in December. If word of mouth was that strong in September, then odds were that it would build over the month ahead.

Even the score had a unique approach. Instead of hiring someone with a classical background, Larrain chose Mica Levi: a composer whose previous work was minimal and included Under the Skin. It was an unnerving score, and one that was as contradictory of the biopic nature as the emotional subtext. The classical strings sounded warped, creating a sense of unease that built to a stable middle. It embodied an emotional connection with Jackie, whose journey through the film was fraught with unease. Much like Larrain discussing the movie's authenticity and uniqueness, Levi's score stood out as being an ambitious take on something familiar, which in the process created something poetic and beautiful in its haunting nature.

The only catch with a film that gains acclaim in September is that this buzz has to last until Oscar night, which is usually five months away. Jackie did well at film festivals, but it premiered in early December against a stiffer competition that had made its voice more prominent over the past October. Films like Arrival had developed a more successful word of mouth; Moonlight broke specialty box office records; and La La Land was on track to become one of the biggest films of the year. Jackie meanwhile would open in limited release and have the weight of a presidential election over its symbolic victory lap. It was now seen as an outright tragedy of a movie, even if it wasn't a box office bomb by any means. It didn't help that Portman's pregnancy made her press time very limited (she wouldn't be available on Oscar night). Despite the love that was bestowed on Jackie, its metaphorical Camelot as the front runner would fade fast once awards began being handed out, and its status as the film to beat would be nearly diminished.

- The Payoff -

To the film's credit, it did receive three Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for Portman, and a Best Original Score nomination for Mica Levi. Still, it had failed to even get a Best Picture nomination, and its chances of winning its three categories was increasingly impossible. Levi became the first female composer to be nominated in 20 years (as of this publication, only three composers have won the category). Even with the acclaim thrust upon Jackie in the interim, the attention had shifted and nobody cared as much for the film as they did Moonlight, Arrival, La La Land, or even surprise hits like Manchester By the Sea or Hacksaw Ridge. Jackie's biggest issue was that it couldn't maintain its acclaim, and thus peaked too early with its Oscar buzz. While the presidential election was theoretically not a benefiting factor to its failure, both's descent into runner-up symbolized something unfortunate about the culture even as Moonlight's Best Picture win symbolized something greater about where The Academy was heading.

In a more rational sense, Jackie was an indie film that worked hard to get its nominations. Its dark subject matter was always going to be difficult for Oscar voters, and Portman's performance was largely acclaimed but faced some divisiveness. It was always going to be difficult for the film to be taken as seriously as films with more accessibility that would allow audiences to make them sleeper hits. Speaking as the political tension in America also made the film more difficult to fathom and market to audiences experiencing election fatigue, Jackie was a revolutionary biopic that maybe had the same inconvenience as the real Jackie. It was a time of change, and it was sad to see what it changed into. Still, the film's chances could've been greater, but it was never going to be the biggest film of the year. That alone may have been its biggest and toughest hurdle to clear, no matter how great Portman actually was.

1 comment:

  1. Jackie deserved all three of its Oscars (especially Mica Levi's haunting score, which arrested me emotionally from the first notes of "Intro"). I was so sure Jackie would at least leave with Best Costume Design if winning either of the other two categories was hopeless. Why oh why did the Academy have to choose the Harry Potter spinoff to finally give a statuette to the franchise?

    Oh well. Still my 3rd favorite film of 2016 (below Eye in the Sky and above Your Name.). :)