Quirky accents can make or break a performance, especially when an actor steps into the shoes of a real-world icon. For the 2016 biopic jackie, Natalie Portman had to master Jaqueline Kennedy’s unique and famous accent, creating one of the biggest challenges of the actress’s career. Portman finally satisfied film critics and linguistics scholars as she earned her third Oscar nomination, providing a moving tribute to the legendary figure behind America’s Camelot.
Natalie Portman went to great lengths to find the voice of Jackie Kennedy
When Natalie Portman agreed to play the lead in Pablo Lorrain’s biopic jackiehe didn’t think he looked or sounded much like Kennedy.
“[S]she was almost our queen,” Portman told Vanity Fair, noting the extraordinary nature of donning the First Lady’s fashionable shoes. Portman relied on the expertise of her hair and makeup team to help her grow into the role and begin her transformation.
But looking like Kennedy turned out to be the easy part. As he began to focus on Kennedy’s accent, Portman recognized upper-class New York speech and began poring over the available images.
“The accent is almost like a diagram of his background,” Portman added, emphasizing how fundamental it was to understanding the essence of Kennedy.
Much of the footage Portman studied was from Kennedy’s famous tour of the White House in 1962, the moment the First Lady became a star in her own right.
As Portman noted, the tour showcased Kennedy’s elegant etiquette and helped win over those who didn’t mind his upper-class mannerisms.
After her husband, John F. Kennedy, won the presidency in 1960, Kennedy’s accent became endearing rather than divisive: a bridge to intellectual culture for reluctant housewives from very different backgrounds.
Academics have broken down Jackie Kennedy’s accent
Adopting a new accent is challenging, but that’s doubly true for one that has been scrutinized by scholars around the world. To begin with, Jackie Kennedy eliminated her r’s and shortened her a’s (traits called nonroticity and a short-a division system, respectively). According to Vox, these are linguistic styles you might hear in the Northeastern and Southern US, though the traits are often associated with working-class Americans today.
But in Kennedy’s world, his accent was an old New York way of speaking that showed his rich roots. Especially before World War II, speaking like Kennedy was fashionable and prestigious in New York City, especially for someone attending an elite private school in Manhattan. According to Equestrienne, Kennedy bounced between exclusive schools in New York and eventually Connecticut before heading to Vassar and George Washington University to study French literature.
His “finishing school” accent that Portman mentioned even appeared early in the AMC series. Crazy men, which is riddled with references to Jackie Kennedy that align with Portman’s point of view. Although several characters scold Kennedy, including for his accent, he ultimately wins over the show’s main characters on his way to tragedy. Betty Draper (January Jones), originally not a Kennedy fan, even ends up sending her daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) to Kennedy’s real-life boarding school in Connecticut, CBS News reported.
Many actors have taken on the challenge of playing Jackie Kennedy
Although her performance is her most acclaimed, Natalie Portman is far from the only actress to have portrayed Kennedy. More than a dozen have tried it, playing Kennedy in everything from indies and TV movies to popular shows like The crown. But one constant theme runs through all the performances: discovering her accent was a challenge.
According to People, Minka Kelly struggled with Lee Daniels’ accent. The Butler despite minimal screen time.
Taking on one of the most expansive versions of Kennedy was Katie Holmes, who played the former First Lady in two miniseries.
Perhaps the most acclaimed take, aside from Portman’s, came in 2017 by Jodi Balfour, who boldly played an atypical version of Kennedy in The crown Season 2. Appearing alongside Michael C. Hall, Balfour plays Jackie during a 1961 visit to Buckingham Palace, where she criticizes Queen Elizabeth. For her role, Balfour needed a dedicated dialect coach to help her shed the South African accent for Kennedy’s unique affectations, the Vulture reported.
But Natalie Portman could end up with the definitive version of Jackie Kennedy. Although it was not a great success with the public, jackie generated enough critical acclaim for Portman to earn her third Academy Award nomination, ultimately losing to Emma Stone for the earth. But for Portman, the acclaim came second to the opportunity to provide a new perspective on Kennedy.
“The great thing about the movie,” she told Vanity Fair, “is that you get to see her in so many different shades and in so many different aspects of her personality. And I think that’s really rare to see in a movie.”
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