Peculiar accents can make or break a performance, especially when an actor slips into the skin 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 actor’s career. Portman ultimately satisfied movie critics and linguistical scholars while nabbing her third Oscar nomination, providing a touching tribute to the legendary figure behind America’s Camelot.
Natalie Portman went all-in to find Jackie Kennedy’s voice
When Natalie Portman agreed to play the lead in Pablo Lorrain’s biopic Jackie, she didn’t think she looked or sounded much like Kennedy.
“[S]he was almost our queen,” Portman told Vanity Fair, pointing out the larger-than-life nature of stepping into the First Lady’s fashionable shoes. Portman relied on the hair and makeup team’s expertise to help her grow into the role and begin the transformation.
But looking like Kennedy turned out to be the easy part. When she began focusing on Kennedy’s accent, Portman recognized the high-class New York manner of speaking and began poring over available footage.
“The accent is almost like a diagram of her background,” Portman added, stressing how fundamental it was to understanding Kennedy’s essence.
Much of the footage Portman studied was from the famous White House tour Kennedy gave in 1962 — the moment when the First Lady became a star in her own right.
As Portman pointed out, the tour showed off Kennedy’s graceful etiquette and helped win over those who didn’t care for her upper-crust mannerisms.
After her husband, John F. Kennedy, won the presidency in 1960, Kennedy’s accent became endearing instead of dividing — a bridge to highbrow culture for reluctant homemakers from much different backgrounds.
Scholars have picked apart Jackie Kennedy’s accent
Taking on a new accent is challenging, but that holds doubly true for one that has been scrutinized by scholars worldwide. For starters, Jackie Kennedy dropped her r’s and shortened her a’s (traits called non-rhoticity and a split short-a system, respectively). According to Vox, these are linguistic styles you might hear around the U.S. Northeast and South, though the traits are often associated with working-class Americans today.
But in Kennedy’s world, her accent was an old New York style of speaking that showed off her affluent roots. Especially before Word War II, speaking like Kennedy was fashionable and prestigious around New York City — particularly for someone who went to an elite private school in Manhattan. Per Equestrienne, Kennedy bounced among exclusive schools in New York and eventually Connecticut before heading to Vassar and George Washington University to study French literature.
Her “finishing school” accent that Portman mentioned even appeared early in the AMC series Mad Men, which is rife with Jackie Kennedy references that align with Portman’s viewpoint. Though multiple characters chide Kennedy, including for her accent, she ultimately wins over the show’s main characters on her way to tragedy. Betty Draper (January Jones), originally not a fan of Kennedy, even ends up sending her daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) to Kennedy’s real-life Connecticut boarding school, CBS News reported.
Many actors have taken on the challenge of playing Jackie Kennedy
Although her performance carries the most acclaim, Natalie Portman is far from the only actor who has portrayed Kennedy. More than a dozen have tried, playing Kennedy in everything from indies and TV movies to popular shows like The Crown. But a consistent theme runs throughout the many performances: Figuring out her accent was challenging.
According to People, Minka Kelly struggled with the accent for Lee Daniels’ The Butler despite minimal screen time.
Taking on one of the most expansive versions of Kennedy was Katie Holmes, who portrayed the former First Lady in two miniseries.
Maybe the most acclaimed take — besides Portman’s — came in 2017 from Jodi Balfour, who boldly played an atypical version of Kennedy in The Crown Season 2. Appearing opposite Michael C. Hall, Balfour plays Jackie during a 1961 visit to Buckingham Palace, where she’s critical of Queen Elizabeth. For the role, Balfour needed a dedicated dialect coach to help her shed a South African accent for Kennedy’s unique affectations, Vulture reported.
But Natalie Portman might end up with the definitive take on Jackie Kennedy. Although not a huge hit with audiences, Jackie generated enough critical acclaim for Portman to grab her third Academy Award nod, ultimately losing to Emma Stone for La La Land. But for Portman, the acclaim was secondary to the opportunity of providing a fresh perspective on Kennedy.
“The great thing about the movie,” she told Vanity Fair, “is that you get to see her in many different shades and in many different aspects of her personality. And I think that’s really rare to see on film.”