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‘Jackie,’ ‘The Crown’ and what we expect from women in power

Caspar Phillipson as John F. Kennedy and Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in "Jackie."
(William Gray / 20th Century Fox)

Powerful women have always captivated the world, from Cleopatra to Catherine the Great, but this year their stories felt more vital than ever.

Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential run fell short, but she still has the distinction of being the first woman to win the nomination of a major party. Germany’s Angela Merkel remains one of the most prominent and influential world leaders, and each time Michelle Obama delivers a speech, her supporters clamor for the first lady to run for office.

But when fiction tackles iconic women, it too often misses the mark, as 2011’s bland Margaret Thatcher biopic, “The Iron Lady,” proved all too well. Two 2016 projects bucked that trend, drawing complex portraits of the steely women at their center.

“Jackie,” Pablo Larraín’s stylish film examining Jackie Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, introduces us to a woman amid a seemingly insurmountable crisis.

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Guided by an impeccable performance by Natalie Portman, the audience sees the first lady through new eyes. She is a widowed wife of an unfaithful husband, a newly single mother, who suddenly finds herself unemployed, evicted and alone as the entire world watches.

In the Netflix series “The Crown,” we meet another woman who was expected to put on a brave face and overcome profound grief.

Claire Foy plays a young Queen Elizabeth II as she ascends to the throne after the death of her father, King George VI, and is forced to learn that her own sense of self comes second to God and country.

In both “Jackie” and “The Crown,” the protagonists learn to accept that their true power lies in the ability to maintain their flawless facade while working tirelessly behind the scenes to protect their legacies.

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Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Matt Smith as Prince Philip in "The Crown."
Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Matt Smith as Prince Philip in “The Crown.”
(Robert Viglasky / Netflix )

For Kennedy, that means planning a funeral that will single-handedly memorialize her husband and shape the narrative around their time in the White House. For Elizabeth, that means dressing down elder statesmen and repeatedly disappointing those closest to her in order to preserve the integrity of the monarchy.

Both “The Crown” and “Jackie” exhibit the difficulty of being a woman in power in the 1950s and ’60s, how women had to present as docile while doing the dirty business of politics.

Viewed through the lens of 2016, these tales of strong women who predated the rise of second-wave feminism are revelatory not necessarily because they show how far we’ve come, but because they’re evidence of how far we still have to go.

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libby.hill@latimes.com

Twitter: @midwestspitfire


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