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TV REVIEW : NBC’s ‘Jackie': Oh, No!

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

The private phone in the White House rings, and Jackie Kennedy picks it up.

On the line is Marilyn Monroe, drink in hand, lying on white satin sheets, coyly asking for her lover, the President.

Jackie attacks, mockingly volunteering to step aside if the two of them really want each other: “Then you two can get married and you two can live in this damned White House!”

Hearing no response from the speechless Marilyn, Jackie continues: “Because if you’re not ready to live in this fish bowl as man and wife, then I suggest you forget all about my husband!” Then she hangs up.

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Cut to an astonished Marilyn: “What a bitch!”

You might say that. Rarely has the “B” word more aptly described the protagonist of a miniseries than in “A Woman Named Jackie,” airing at 9 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39). Throw in the “E” word--empty--too.

In fact, this essentially unflattering six-hour biography, based on C. David Heymann’s best seller, is so rampant with unsympathetic characters--headed by Jackie, and including John F. Kennedy--that just watching it becomes a chore. All the storied tragedy and anguish are here. But in this scenario, Camelot not only means suffer-a-lot but also play-a-lot (Jack) and spend-a-lot (Jackie). And hardly ever think-a-lot.

As a bored young socialite, Jackie (Roma Downey) asks herself: “Who am I, and what am I doing with my life that’s worth a damn?” Unfortunately, that question never gets answered in this treatment. And given the way it hermetically seals its characters--Vietnam is never even mentioned, for example, even though it occupied J.F.K. and wounded the Lyndon Johnson presidency in a way that made Robert Kennedy’s candidacy possible--"A Woman Named Jackie” is less a story of her time than of her lavish taste in clothes and furniture.

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The story glides effortlessly along the surface under Larry Peerce’s direction, from Jackie’s pampered childhood in the 1930s among the horsey set, with her snooty, demanding mother, Janet Bouvier (Wendy Hughes), and notorious bottle-chasing, skirt-chasing father, Black Jack Bouvier (William Devane), to the occasion of her first grandchild in 1988.

We see her adapt to her mother’s second marriage to Hugh Auchincloss (Bob Gunton), briefly try a career as a photo-journalist and get engaged, then break it off after meeting young Jack Kennedy (Stephen Collins). We see her as the wife of the young congressman, shunning the family pressures and media attention that comes with joining the Kennedy clan.

Joining Jaclyn Smith, Blair Brown and Francesca Annis in the tiny club of actresses who have played Jacqueline Kennedy on TV, Downey speaks in a stiff and affected way that is grating but which does capture a hint of Jackie’s stilted, whispery voice and her “frosty regality” described by author Heymann.

This Jackie is refinement in the ugly extreme, an elitist caught up in her own social whirl, someone who wants to transform the presidential quarters into the people’s White House, yet contemplates erecting a brick wall around it to shield her children from photographers. About Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, she sniffs, “These people are crude,” referring to them as “Col. Cornpone and his little pork chop.”

Jackie appears to have no compelling interest beyond the accouterments of “culture” and spectacular spending, first as a Kennedy, then as the wife of Greek billionaire Arisotle Onassis (Joss Ackland). With Onassis, she descends into the abyss of vulgar tabloids and truly marathon shopping, charging exorbitant amounts to him even after they’re estranged and she vetoed resuming their relationship.

Downey’s performance, Peerce’s direction and Roger O. Hirson’s teleplay are never able to pierce this thick glaze of superficiality.

They come closest in the story’s depiction of J.F.K.'s assassination in Dallas and its aftermath. These deeply affecting scenes are by far the best of the entire six hours, giving us a dazed, tearful Jackie in an atmosphere of quiet, penetrating sadness that represents a defining moment in U.S. history.

Collins’ glib Kennedy defines nothing. It’s an especially perilous role given J.F.K.'s indelible stamp on the public consciousness, and the script provides no safety net. Although his political career turned on intriguing subtleties, Kennedy’s only stresses here, even in the White House, are back stresses, and he appears to have no agenda other than womanizing (with Monroe among many others).

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No wonder, then, that so much of “A Woman Named Jackie” reminds you of calendar pages being flipped. Along the way, Devane injects a jolt of vitality as Black Jack Bouvier, and Josef Sommer brings an interesting twist of ruthlessness and vulnerability to dictatorial family patriarch Joe Kennedy. But Ackland’s Onassis is a curious bit of casting, the bearish actor towering over Downey, whereas in real life Jackie towered over Onassis.

Meanwhile, the story ends with Jackie, a month shy of 59, looking as youthful as she did at 29. Perhaps she got a face lift. Perhaps “A Woman Named Jackie” needs a face lift.


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