The Queer Camp Appeal of Jackie

A lot of queer folks, men in particular, love Pablo Larrain’s Jackie. Here’s why.

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Late in Pablo Larrain’s film Jackie, Natalie Portman wanders around her opulently decorated home – The White House – while the cast album to Camelot plays. She slaps on a black, jewel encrusted gown and drunkenly vascillates between reenacting routines and procedures that seem both embedded in Jaqueline Kennedy’s being as well as now totally useless. She screams, but it’s inaudible to the audience, the sounds of her dizzying sorrow drowned out by Richard Burton. But it feels full throated anyways. And utterly, tragically ludicrous.

In the last week alone, I have talked to half a dozen queer people, men in particular, that sing the film’s praises. They talk about Jackie herself, Portman, and the film as if to anoint them collectively into queer cultural sainthood. There might as well be a halo around Portman’s head on the poster undoubtedly hung upon the wall of whatever coastal elite queer.

There are obvious reasons as to why a film about the First Lady would have a queer appeal – such a practiced presentation, the transformation of the White House interiors with kitsch branded as history, and that voice, which reads as both elite/bourgeois as well as like an a sock puppet impersonation of that class elucutional style – but one of the most fascinating things about the way Jackie, shall we say, panders to a particular audience in adoration of camp and its progeny is in the way it is obsessed with spinning fiction from the very ludicrousness it revels in.

In certain circles, Jackie Kennedy was already emblazoned as a queer icon, her cultish interest in surface itself a beacon for the demographic. It’s not that gay and queer men like surface for the sake of depthlessness, but they, like she, found depth in exteriority, substance in style, and meaning in the twee and corny. The things disregarded by others, she plastered the White House walls with. Larrain’s Jackie recreates the filming of the landmark White House tour, and there’s not a detail left unappreciated in Jackie’s overview. Repeatedly, she notes that these objects – totems of history and, in a grander sense, American mythology – risked being lost or ignored. It’s ironic that these doohickeys, paintings, sculptures, chairs, etc. should risk being ignored as they, like some of her fans, exist in ostentation, imploring to be appreciated and to have depth read into them.

She moves, in this scene, from item to item, being sure to smile, hold herself as poised as possible, trying to facilitate, successfully or otherwise, a level of intimacy between her and the viewer. There’s a certain level of failure at this, given that Jackie, or at least Portman’s iteration of her, is so preoccupied with the performance for an audience that intimacy, or an approximation of it, doesn’t really register. And isn’t that just a coastal elite queer social scene anyways? A performance that’s almost perfect, but affected in a way that everyone knows it’s a performance and the lovingly familiar inwardness doesn’t matter? You, like her, become a show, which is not by any means something wrong, but something all the same. Her hair is coiffed, a string of pearls wrapped around her neck, and her outfit is so red it nearly bleeds. And then she opens her mouth…

What is it about Jackie Kennedy’s voice that has made it so much the focus of how we talk about her and, in turn, how we talk about this film (and any other interpretation of her)? It sounds like a cat who has sharpened her teeth on marbles in her mouth, or like brushing one’s tongue with a mixture of garlic and salt and pepper and sugar, or perhaps like the Nuevo riche. Dollars and cents, not so newly minted, but not with as deep a history either. Jackie is new money trying to pass herself off as old money; there is a certain amount of calculated excess involved. It is, in essence, camp.

But what to make of all of these elements in this one film? The most important thing is that Jackie, and Larrain, are cognizant of the way she’s putting herself together, of the very presentation to the audience. That is what Jackie is about, as it tells us time and time again. It’s framed around her interview with Life’s Theodore H. White, the copy of which she had a hand in editing. The interview was conducted mere days after John F. Kennedy’s and what she does during this, at least in the film, is spin fiction from tragedy. That’s the key to its queer appeal. Fiction, gradiosity, and glorious opulence from the worst of times.

The Elusive Good Biopic

Jackie is about the conflict of constructing an identity that is uses struggle and tragedy as its foundation, where melancholy and a facsimile of lavishness converge to become one. Larrain employs horror film techniques to amplify the psychological and emotional ravaging, and the film has to walk the line of earnestness, but inevitably slips into nonsense. True, the emotions are real, but the execution nonetheless makes it so these emotions are heightened to the point of excess.

“Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it,” David Sedaris once wrote. That is, to some degree, the lesson of Jackie. In spite of the control she tries to wield in the fiction making, in the legacy making, in the myth constructing, she still rides home in a car and looks out of a window to see something resembling a factory line of Jackie-like mannequins, faceless and lifeless yet made in her image. Her story is not her own, and, in many ways, that fight to control one’s own narrative, the very struggle of it, is not only deeply human, but incredibly queer.