Friday, November 17, 2023

Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Television Miniseries



Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, later dubbed Jackie O after her marriage to Greek shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis, is more an American Sphinx than America's Rani. Visible yet opaque, Mrs. Onassis forever remained out of reach. She has been the subject of fascination, not just for the public, but for film and television producers even before her death in 1994. Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, based on the Donald Spoto biography, manages a surprising feat. It takes a well-respected, well-researched biography and turns it into a snoozefest. 

Paying respects at the grave of her first husband, former President John F. Kennedy, his widow Jacqueline (Joanne Whalley) remembers her extraordinary life. Daughter of wealth and privilege, she soon finds herself romanced and won over by Congressman John Kennedy (Tim Matheson). His father, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy (Tom Skerritt) is won over by the elegant Miss Bouvier. Not won over is Jackie's mother, Janet Auchincloss (Frances Fisher). She thinks the Kennedy men are all like her first husband, John "Black Jack" Bouvier (Fred Ward).

The fact that Jackie adores her flawed father might have been a clue to why she found Jack Kennedy someone worth loving. Once in the White House, they both plot schemes: he political, her fashion. Their rocky relationship is sorely tested but perhaps healed by the death of their newborn, Patrick, before President Kennedy's own death. After the assassination of her beloved brother-in-law Robert "Bobby" Kennedy (Andrew McCarthy), Jackie essentially flees America. She finds refuge with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis (Philip Baker Hall), eventually having her own big fat Greek wedding. While never fitting in with Onassis' children, particularly Christina (Melanie Sara), Jackie found true love in beau Maurice Tempelsman (Jerry Adler) before her own death.

I did read Donald Spoto's biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and thought it was up to his excellent standards. As such, I am amazed that Eric Overmyer and Tina Andrews' adaptation could be so bland. There was no sense of drama, very little conflict, and a very rapid pace to what should be interesting, even fascinating lives. 

I think a good part of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' failure is in the casting. Almost everyone in the film is miscast. Whalley barely looks like Mrs. Onassis, but that is not the worst of it. She does have the soft speaking style that Mrs. Kennedy was known, at times parodied, for. However, it was surprisingly nasal. Moreover, Whalley never made a case as to what made Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis such a figure of fascination and interest. She came across as rather dull for the most part. There was one good scene, where she has to tell her children Caroline and John, Jr. that their father won't be coming back. It was a well-acted, even moving, moment.

That, however, was about the only time that Whalley came close to being Jackie. Most of the time, she was not interesting. 

Almost everyone else is equally bad. Probably the worst is Hall as Aristotle Onassis. Looking nothing like Onassis or even a plausible Greek, Hall did not bother trying to sound Greek either. He clearly was slumming through a third-rate television biopic. Matheson, to his credit, gave former President Kennedy's distinctive Massachusetts accent as good a go as he could. However, there was no sense of his being charming or the shameless lothario that he was. McCarthy's Robert Kennedy was bordering on laughable. He did not look like Bobby, he did not sound like Bobby, and the mixing of gunshots as Bobby fell while playing football was both too overt in its symbolism and a surprisingly dumb way to move past the assassination.

Skerritt's Joe was equally unconvincing, as if he thought the whole thing was a lark versus a calculated way to get his son into the White House. Diane Baker's Rose Kennedy and Fisher as the snobbish but shrewd Janet were the sole bright spots acting-wise. Baker's side-eye glance at Joe when he appears to flirt with Jacqueline is perfect. 

Well, maybe Sara's psycho-bitch Christina Onassis was effective if perhaps more operatic than her father's longtime mistress Maria Callas.

It may be that Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was almost too reverential to be interesting. Joseph Conlan's opening "stirring" score was so overdone as to be slightly comical. 

The curious thing about Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is how devoid of drama it is. The miniseries rushes through both the death of her son Patrick and two assassinations and treats the Onassis marriage like a blip. The offer of a million dollars to stay in the Kennedy marriage has surprisingly somber music with it, which is a strange dichotomy.

In the end, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is charming but with no drama, having little conflict and no insight into the former First Lady who enchanted the world. 



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