Sarah Sands: The enduring, and very British, appeal of Jackie O

A new film, plus six hours of 1964 interviews, will shed more light on Camelot
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The Independent Online

Is it wise for Rachel Weisz to take on the role of Jacqueline Kennedy in a film directed by her husband? Husband-and-wife movie teams have taken a knock since the Mendes-Winslet marriage foundered on Revolutionary Road. And why should a British actress play one of the most famous American women of all time?

It is not the first time that the role of Jackie Kennedy has gone to a Brit. She was famously played by Jacqueline Bisset in America's Prince and less notably by Joanne Whalley in an American television mini series.

While we are so unhinged about class that Lord Mandelson can attack the Tory leader for his "long toffee nose", America still reveres the Kennedys as the nearest they got to a royal family. Thus an American legend is also something of an honorary Brit. The words most often applied to Jacqueline Kennedy are "style" and "class".

One amusing line in an online biography of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis quotes a "Lady Jean Campbell" reporting in the London Evening Standard on the Kennedy union: "Jacqueline Kennedy has given the American people... one thing they have always lacked. Majesty."

British upper-class manners were not imposed on Kennedy. He had a taste for them himself. His father was appointed ambassador to Britain in 1937 by President Roosevelt, and Jack spent a postgraduate summer working at the US embassy. His biographer, Robert Dallek, writes: "For Jack, the lifestyle of these British aristocrats was not so removed from that of his father."

Jack wrote to a friend: "Things have been humming... Met a gal who used to live with the Duke of Kent and who is, as she says, 'a member of the Royal family through injections'."

He also saw world affairs through a pleasingly British prism. He found lessons for America in Britain's dangerously absolute faith in democracy. He wrote of France in his diary: "The distinguishing mark of the Frenchman is his cabbage breath and the fact that there are no bath tubs."

When Jack Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier, their European credentials were burnished further. Jackie Kennedy, a Vassar-educated debutante, bought her dresses from France, until ordered not to, and her reserved but witty East Coast manner transferred seamlessly to the UK. Every woman in the world may have wanted to be Jackie Kennedy, but the British female saw a thinner, more polished version of herself. The homage to her can be seen still, from Anna Wintour to Victoria Beckham.

The British prime minister of the time, Harold Macmillan, had a fond, fatherly relationship with J F Kennedy, describing him as "very friendly and rather humble. He is courteous, amusing and likes a joke or a neat turn of a phrase." These are qualities one might almost describe as Etonian.

Macmillan's ambassador to Washington, David Ormsby-Gore, had a less fatherly relationship with Jackie Kennedy. They were friends, and according to some reports, lovers after the president's assassination.

So if you want to imply British class to a US audience, Rachel Weisz is a good choice. She is beautiful and educated, which is of course not the same thing at all as being upper class. Actually, she is a north London, Jewish intellectual. If you wanted solid British upper class, you would choose someone who lived in the country and was cheerfully philistine.

The Duchess of Devonshire, for instance, radiates these characteristics, and was a close friend to Jack Kennedy. But this did not stop her mocking America. Debo Devonshire wrote to her friend Patrick Leigh Fermor of her invitation to watch a presidential parade. "I can't tell you what an odd feeling it was sitting there with him like a consort while majorettes from Texas and crinolined ladies on silver paper floats went by the thousand in the bitter cold. Jack asked me what I do all day. I was stumped."

Jackie Kennedy had taste and wit but would not see the funny side of her country. Neither do I think would Rachel Weisz. She is able to play the part because she has enough of America in her soul since moving to New York with her American husband, Darren Aronofsky.

Rachel Weisz's other qualification for playing Jackie Kennedy is that she is a first-rate actress and this is one of the greatest dramas in history. The film will reportedly centre on the four days from 22 November, 1963.

The camera footage of the Dallas motorcade; the crowds lining the street, the slump of the president's head and Jackie climbing across the back of the car to retrieve the splattered brain tissue, is still the most shocking scene in postwar history. Jackie Kennedy claimed the remains of her husband and, like the great book editor she became, she stamped the word Camelot on their existence together.

It had been a bumpy marriage, latterly threatened by Marilyn Monroe. Jackie Kennedy's biographer Sally Bedell Smith quotes a girlfriend of the president shrugging that womanising was integral to him: "It was a compulsion, a quirk in his personality. He was out of control."

He bragged happily about his success with women to a friend while he was at Harvard. "I can now get my tail as often and as free as I want."

Another Kennedy friend said the difference between Jack and Jacqueline was that "his love had reservations and hers was total".

In the years following the president's death, when his widow took up with Aristotle Onassis, the spurned Maria Callas said bitterly of her romantic rival that Jackie Kennedy had "Greek stars in her eyes".

But for the four suspended days after the assassination, Jackie Kennedy's grief was as terrible and grand as any Greek tragedy. She pushed aside nurses at the hospital who feared the hideous physical state of her husband would be too much for his wife. "It's my husband, his blood, his brains are all over me," she said.

Jackie put her wedding ring on to her husband's finger and whispered: "Now I have nothing left." She refused to remove her blood-stained pink wool suit, even for the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One. She told the new president's wife: "I want them to see what they have done to Jack."

She was reluctant even to wash the blood from her face or from her white gloves. In her interview for Life magazine she said: "I saw myself in the mirror my whole face splattered with blood and brains. Later I said to Bobby [Kennedy], what's the line between histrionics and drama? I should have kept the blood on."

Rachel Weisz won the Evening Standard theatre award last year for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Her fragility and dignity in the role were remarkable. Here is a beautiful woman haunted by a marriage, fighting against mental disintegration.

Although Jackie Kennedy told her priests that she wanted to die to join her husband, there was no collapse, not even public tears. Her reserves of strength and self discipline were profound. This was the greatest show of class. She put her blood-splattered pink suit into a box with her white taffeta wedding dress. She withdrew from public life to care for her two children, John and Caroline. But first she called her friend Theodore White from Life magazine to give an interview. As a sceptical American writer observed: "She wanted to take control of history."

White was criticised by some for his unquestioning acceptance of Jackie Kennedy's narrative of events, but what an interview. They talked until 2am and White dictated his piece from the Kennedy kitchen. Jackie Kennedy was both graphic in detail and determined in larger purpose. "His head was so beautiful... I'd tried to hold the top of his head down, maybe I could keep it in. I knew he was dead. I kept saying Jack, Jack, Jack. Jack. Jack can you hear me? I love you, Jack."

I doubt that a screen writer could improve on this script. The widow may have been felled by grief but she could describe piercingly the fact that in Dallas she had unusually been given red rather than yellow flowers."So all the seat was full of blood and roses."

Then she spoke of the magic of Camelot. To stress the point, she scribbled beneath White's notes "and it will never be that way again".

Last week it was revealed that Caroline Kennedy had given permission for the release of a further six hours of interviews recorded in 1964 with Jackie by family friend Arthur Schlesinger. These interviews, to be published in 2011, will illuminate further the Kennedy magic.

Rachel Weisz, like all actresses, is a woman in search of a great part. Fiction has nothing to match the moment that a president's widow had the presence of mind to embalm her husband in the myth of Camelot.