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Howard Rosenberg

Are We Still Smitten With Camelot?

November 03, 2000|Howard Rosenberg

Presidential hopefuls are inescapable on television, from 30-second spots and guest shots on entertainment fare to Sunday's weak Showtime movie, "The Last Debate," and a handsome but same-song CBS miniseries dwelling on the U.S. family that sees power apparently as a birthright.

A sample:

"The Kennedys! Hear! Hear!"

Highly symbolic in this new CBS biography of Jackie You Know Who is a scene in which the family's men gather in their elegant tails after a round of inaugural balls. Still heady with 1960 election success, they raise their glasses and salute themselves, the same clan that bubbly media and much of America have now spent more than four decades toasting, in one way or another. And coming to NBC in February is "Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot."

So . . . maybe it's time for a moratorium?

It's true that Kennedys, past and present, generate good soap opera along with epic history. They're rich, they're attractive, they're powerful, they're flawed, they're tragic. More significantly, they're stale news.

Just for diversion, how about giving Herbert Hoover a TV shot next time? Or Grover Cleveland. He expanded the civil service. Could be something juicy there.

"Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis" is a worshipful two-parter into which November Ratings Sweeps Blockbuster has been deeply gouged. After all, this is the storied Jackie, widow of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and billionaire Aristotle Onassis, and in whose tasteful TV shoes Jaclyn Smith, Blair Brown, Francesca Anis and "Touched by an Angel" star Roma Downey have previously walked. And Jill Hennessey will walk in next year's "Women of Camelot."

Playing the tallish Jackie now is troll-sized Joanne Whalley, whose stiff bouffant barely reaches the shoulder of Tim Matheson's generic Jack Kennedy. Whalley, who was Scarlett O'Hara in another CBS miniseries, is one of many able Brits working in U.S. movies and TV as American characters (Downey herself is Irish).

A good enough actress to ultimately erase her size distraction, Whalley also has going for her Jackie's whispery voice and the look, including brows that rise like twin Golden Arches above wide-set Bouvier eyes. Often encumbered by turgid dialogue written by Tina Andrews and Eric Overmeyer, though, she still acts at times less like a human than someone bronzed by historians.

For a more memorable first lady, check out Joan Allen as Pat in Oliver Stone's 1995 film, "Nixon." Or (if you can locate them) Jane Alexander's sterling performances in ABC's two "Eleanor and Franklin" miniseries from the late 1970s.

And for a smarter, deeper take on royalty than these four hours of Jackie and the Kennedys, see Judi Dench's fabulous work as Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown," the 1997 film that PBS is running Sunday night disguised as "Masterpiece Theatre."

Directed by David Burton Morris and based on Donald Spoto's recently published book, "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis," the coming week's CBS miniseries is too reliant on familiar Kennedy memorabilia to be even "Masterpiece Theatre"-lite. With too few exceptions, it offers only nostalgia and kneepads for reverence at the altar of a heroine rising from wealth and privilege like a lustrous bloom.

It is more watchable than "A Woman Named Jackie," the 1991 NBC miniseries with Downey that was much less a story of Jackie's time than of her lavish taste in clothes and furniture. That shamelessly thin work featured binge shopping by an indulgent Jackie, who charged exorbitant amounts to Onassis even after they were estranged and he was no longer in her plans.

A kinder, gentler Jackie arrives via flashback in the flattery "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis." It's 1952 when she and Jack, then a congressman running for a Senate seat that he would win, meet at a party. When his back goes out, she drives herself home in his Hudson with him in the rear seat. Soon he's leaning across and kissing her arm, then her lips, and so on and so on right up to the wedding that her notorious playboy dad, Black Jack Bouvier (Fred Ward), is too boozed to attend.

*

It's Jack's power-brokering father, Joe Kennedy (Tom Skerritt), who's the antichrist here, though, buying elections and Machiavelling his way through this docudrama up to his paralyzing stroke. When Jackie weighs leaving her aloof, oft-absent, philandering husband, Joe worries about the political fallout and offers her a million bucks to stay. She rejects the payola but remains, becoming one of those quintessential political wives who hangs around, at least in part, for the good of her husband's career.

Meanwhile, this account has her assisting Ted Sorensen in writing "Profiles in Courage," the Pulitzer-winning book credited to Jack. And soon it's 1960, as Jackie, all A-lined and Oleg Cassinied, gets on with being the most elegant woman on Earth and dressing the White House as her favorite designer did her.

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