There are films out there dealing with the world of professional wrestling, plenty of them decent enough, from the intensely melancholic The Wrestler to the inspirational documentary The Resurrection of Jake the Snake. They capture the devotion performers have to that artful and artificial way of life, and how the highs keep people in the lows. No film is able to portray the appeal of immersing yourself in the world of professional wrestling as a fan the way Pablo Larraín’s Jackie does.
Kids who still believe professional wrestling is real only need the spectacle and the drama to find themselves eagerly awaiting the next instalment. The old adage of good vs evil, David vs Goliath, is enough for them. After a number of years and that crushing realisation it is all staged a type of cynicism emerges. It is weekly live entertainment, an interactive theatre show, dependent on who sells, who gets the crowd on their feet, and most importantly, backstage politics. Suddenly you no longer want someone to win because they are the good guy, but because their skill and professionalism far outstrips the more marketable factors. You are no longer on the side of the physical underdog, but the relatable underdog, the person we all know who works their ass off but never receives the promotion.
A certain respect is reserved for wrestlers who completely commit to their character. When announcing their return to New Orleans in 2018 for Wrestlemania, the WWE’s press conference ended with The Undertaker, dressed in his typical all-black attire complete with goth coat and mobster hat, emerging from smoke and ominous music to simply say “let the good times roll” in a sadistically silly way. Mark Calaway, the man behind the persona, is not the marketable and intimidating icon, but he is there under the makeup and leather.
Compare this to Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy. Centred around an interview carried out by Billy Crudup’s Theodore H. White, Jackie’s assertive control over the conversation means she is always The Undertaker, never Mark Calaway. Every time she denies White the chance to print something candid, she effectively slips into the black coat and hat, hiding behind the performance.
Professional wrestling has a term for this – kayfabe. To break kayfabe would be for a performer to appear out of character in a public setting, or to, in some way, break the fourth wall. Jackie is a film about a person controlling the kayfabe of her character.
Fans hold those who commit to kayfabe in high regard. Current WWE Universal Champion Kevin Owens has managed to build his career on who he is as a person, amplifying parts of his personality that never seem to clash regardless of whether he is a goody or baddie. Underneath it all, Kevin Steen the man appears to be a loving and respectful individual, briefly glanced in documentaries and out-of-character tweets.
Natalie Portman elegantly commands her character. There is an Inception-sized level of depth to her Jackie, from the person she is at heart, to the commanding figure she is in politics and society as JFK’s wife, to another layer on top of that where she engaged with the public, depicted in the film through the documentary Jackie records giving a tour of the White House. If the Jackie who restricts content from the press and the Jackie who speaks to her priest is Mark Calaway, the political figure is The Undertaker, and she goes another layer deeper still when recording the documentary.
Wrestling fans love to look for the real in the fiction. When a real life domestic issue arose (Matt Hardy’s girlfriend, Amy Dumas, cheated on him with his friend Edge, Adam Copeland) the company worked this real life scenario into on-screen storylines. Watching Jackie, the viewer longs for a glance of who Jackie is, and not the persona she shows to the world. There is honesty and authenticity in her motivation to create a legacy for her family, driven by pride and love, but the character of Jackie Kennedy is always ‘on’ during these scenes. Despite the death of her husband hours prior, this Jackie is in-character, acting like a politician and a public figure. Her grief and need to be with her family are reserved for later, and even when she finally tells their children, the camera’s clinical presence in the scene makes it a cold affair.
This has an impact on emotional resonance too. Jackie follows a tragic time in someone’s life, yet never feels all that sad. Mica Levi’s horrifying score communicates Jackie’s stress and the crumbling of her world, but the film itself rarely pulls at the heart strings. We know we are watching a performance, and so when she finally lets her guard down, she feels like a totally different character. Talking to her priest, she effectively breaks kayfabe in the eyes of the viewer, expressing the fears and sorrow one would expect of a grieving partner. We are finally asked to sympathise with her, where before we are expected to marvel at the strength of someone who would not show weakness to anyone.
Professional wrestling is more engaging as an adult when you pay attention to the para-text; that is, everything outside of what is told through the main narrative. When CM Punk ‘aired his grievances’ it sent shockwaves through the fandom because no one could tell whether it was a work (kayfabe deliberately acting as reality) or a shoot (someone going off-script). That in itself was more interesting than the content of his speech because it blurred the lines of character and performer. Jackie’s appeal is the same – the Jackie who created a legacy, navigated political and personal tragedy, and who stepped up to the plate when no one would have begrudged her otherwise is the character, while the Jackie who admits her struggles privately is the performer. Jackie is the film that totally understands what it is to be a fan of professional wrestling.