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Representations of Women in Film & TV: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., is a freelance writer with 42 years combined experience as a journalist, author, photographer, and editor.

Jacqueline Kennedy at her 1953 wedding to John F. Kennedy. Jackie is throwing the bouquet. This photo was taken on September 12, 1953.

Jacqueline Kennedy at her 1953 wedding to John F. Kennedy. Jackie is throwing the bouquet. This photo was taken on September 12, 1953.

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis Represented in Movies and TV

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (July 28, 1929-May 19, 1994) was the former First Lady of the United States, married to President John F. Kennedy. She was also a journalist, successful book editor, and fashion icon.

In the 1960s, she was known as Jackie Kennedy, wife and mother, the woman who redecorated the White House and influenced women's fashions around the world with her elegant style--she once retained fashion designer Oleg Cassini to create her First Lady wardrobe! In the 1980s, she was known as Jackie O, the beautiful, evasive wife of one of the richest men in the world, Aristotle Onassis. She was a remarkable woman--admired, respected, and well-loved.

It must be a tremendous challenge for any actress cast in the role of Jackie Kennedy Onassis for film or television because what we remember of Jackie Kennedy is her image. It's an image so deeply ingrained in our minds that any attempt to portray her in a different light will be carefully examined, but rarely admired, and sometimes completely rejected.

For many of us, any attempt to change this image in our lifetimes has come too soon.

Jacqueline Bouvier, 1934, by David Berne in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Jacqueline Bouvier, 1934, by David Berne in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

A Young Mother Suffers Great Tragedy

Jacqueline Bouvier was born in Southampton, New York, the oldest daughter of John Vernou Bouvier III, a Wall Street broker of French/English descent, and Janet Norton Lee, whose ancestors were Irish. Jackie's parents divorced when she was seven and her mother remarried Hugh Auchincloss, Jr., heir to Standard Oil. Jackie was surprisingly outgoing considering that she and her sister spent most of their childhood at the secluded New York estate of her mother's family and attended private schools. She was an expert equestrian and loved to write.

Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy were introduced by mutual friends at a dinner party in 1952 and announced their engagement in June of 1953. They were married on September 12, 1953.

Ironically--considering her early journalism career--for the first time in history, Americans shared vicariously in the life of their First Lady through the broadcast news. John and Jackie Kennedy seemed to be living a magical life during their time in the White House, which many referred to as Camelot. And yet, in spite of her fame and social status, Jackie Kennedy also lived a life of tragedy.

The first child of John and Jackie Kennedy, a daughter named Arabella, was stillborn. Their second daughter, Caroline Bouvier Kennedy, a writer and lawyer, was born in 1957 and is the only surviving member of the family. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr., born in November of 1960, died in a plane crash in 1999, five years after the death of his mother.

On August 9, 1963, Jackie's youngest child, Patrick, was born prematurely. He died at Boston's Children's Hospital.

Photo of Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, John Jr, Caroline and Peter Lawford at the funeral of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, November 25, 1963.

Photo of Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, John Jr, Caroline and Peter Lawford at the funeral of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, November 25, 1963.

The Death of John F. Kennedy

On November 22, 1963, three months after the death of her son, Patrick, Jackie Kennedy joined her husband in Texas on a visit that was supposed to help in her recovery.

Jackie Kennedy was seated next to her husband in the presidential limousine wearing a bright pink Coco Chanel suit (this famous dress suit was a source of great attention from journalists) when she heard what she thought was a motorcycle backfiring. Then she heard a scream. She leaned into her husband for protection.

A few seconds later, President John F. Kennedy was shot in the back and head. Jackie turned in her seat, then climbed onto the trunk of the car. Some believe she was in shock. Her Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, told the Warren Commission investigating committee that he thought she was reaching for a part of her husband's skull, which she later gave to the doctor at the hospital.

Jackie was still wearing the blood-stained pink suit on Air Force One when President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office and Cecil W. Stoughton with the White House Press Office took one of the most memorable photographs of all time.

Jackie removed her wedding ring and placed it on her husband's finger before he was placed in his casket. At her husband's funeral, she stood quiet, graceful and elegant with her children by her side while the second most memorable photograph of all time was taken of young John Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father's casket.

For five years, Jacqueline Kennedy avoided public appearances, but she was not forgotten by Americans who continued to adore her. Jackie, however, grew increasingly fearful of something happening to herself and her children and became even more reclusive over time.

Jacki Onassis leaving the Claridges hotel in London, 1970.

Jacki Onassis leaving the Claridges hotel in London, 1970.

Jackie Kennedy Becomes Jackie O

In June of 1968, Robert Kennedy, John's younger brother, was assassinated while campaigning for president. Jackie decided that the best way to protect herself and her children would be to leave the United States. She moved to Greece and met the successful shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The two were married in October of 1968 on his private island in Greece.

The marriage must have made Jackie feel safer because the couple later moved to an exclusive neighborhood in New Jersey. Unfortunately, with the marriage, Jackie lost her Secret Service protection and the paparazzi followed her everywhere, affectionately referring to her as "Jackie O." She continued to wow the world as a fashion icon, replacing her pillbox hats with scarves and large sunglasses.

Onassis died seven years later, and at 46 years old, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was once again a widow. She inherited $26 million from her second husband, but chose to continue working as an editor for Viking Press, then Doubleday.

She was still remembered for her efforts to preserve the historic significance of the White House through remodeling and restoration while she was First Lady and she relied on her reputation to campaign for the restoration of other historically and culturally significant buildings in the U.S., such as the Grand Central Terminal in New York City's railroad station.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis died in her apartment from non-Hodgkins lymphoma on May 19, 1994, while a large crowd stood outside, waiting and praying for the woman they so admired.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981)

The issues faced by actresses portraying Jackie Kennedy must be daunting. Jackie's elegance and fashion style was emulated and admired, while her bravery in the face of tragedy won the hearts of many, worldwide.

Nevertheless, in the past two decades, many actresses have accepted the challenge to portray Jackie in films and on television.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was filmed in 1981. It starred Jaclyn Smith, still popular from the Charlie's Angels series. James Franciscus, also popular for his appearances in numerous television series, played President John F. Kennedy. This film focuses on Jackie's time as a photojournalist and ends after President Kennedy is killed in Dallas, Texas.

Jaclyn Smith's portrayal shows the compassionate mother and loving wife, which is how she was perceived by most Americans.

Smith's performance does not show any of the coldness in Jackie, or the aloof personality that some biographers claimed she kept hidden from the public.

Smith's performance is impressive in this film as she shows Jackie to be a strong, composed, graceful public figure.

A Woman Named Jackie (1991)

Ten years later, in 1991, Roma Downey starred in a three-part television miniseries, A Woman Named Jackie, based on the unauthorized and controversial biography by C. David Heymann. The film accomplished what the book could not--it made logical sense.

Roma Downey's portrayal of Jackie was powerful. She also captured Jackie's grace and strength, though she sometimes struggled with Jackie's accent.

The film was divided into three sections. Sarah Michelle Geller played the role of Jackie in her teen years, and Roma Downey played Jackie during her relationship with John F. Kennedy and her marriage to Aristotle Onassis. The film follows Jackie's life into the 1980s.

The film was criticized for failing to portray Jackie accurately in ways that are important to the visual images held by Americans. For instance, Downey's hairstyles during the film were more contemporary, and the interior of the White House, which Jackie personally redecorated, was historically inaccurate.

The most memorable scene in this film is undoubtedly Jackie's last moments with John F. Kennedy, her dying husband, a scene Downey portrayed with great sensitivity.

Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot

The docudrama Jackie, Ethel, Joan was promoted as an honest and revealing portrayal of the lives of three Kennedy women: Jackie, married to John F. Kennedy; Ethel, married to Robert F. Kennedy, and Joan, who was married to Edward "Ted" Kennedy. The series attempted to explore the dynamics involved in the relationships of these three women and the way they interacted in private as well as in front of the public.

In this docudrama, Jackie (Jill Hennessy) is again portrayed as a loving wife and mother in both private and public appearances. The relationship between Jackie and her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy, is explored in more detail in this film than it is in others, revealing a close bond that was not often discussed.

Jackie is the stabilizing force in the family in this film. It is Jackie who the other women turn to in times of pain and struggle. She is also shown coping with her personal pain with grace and strength.

The series was well-received for its careful details of the lives of these three women as well as for Hennessy's performance, which received strong reviews.

The Kennedys (2011)

Released in 2011, The Kennedys was a controversial project from the time it was first announced, primarily due to its harsh presentation of Jackie Kennedy's character, and the way it represented other family members.

Fans of the Kennedy clan started a website in an attempt to stop the production of the miniseries. The website claims the series is historically inaccurate and deliberately slanders the Kennedy family.

The miniseries is loosely based on the book by David Talbot, who also criticized the writing for the miniseries, claiming it failed to accurately reflect the content of his book.

The miniseries was scheduled to be shown on The History Channel, but The History Channel decided not to air the program due to the tremendous amount of controversy.

The Kennedys was passed around between various companies and declined numerous times before ReelzChannel acquired the U.S. broadcasting rights. When the show finally aired, it received mixed reviews and a mid-range rating.

Jackie Kennedy was played by Katie Holmes. Holmes is a talented and creative actress who also accurately portrayed Jackie's strength and grace.

The script, however, portrayed Jackie as rude and brutish to her sister-in-laws in great contrast to previous portrayals where she was seen as the family's source of strength.

The film shows also shows Jackie accepting bribes to remain with her husband after she learns of his many affairs, in stark contrast to her previous loving-wife image. These historical events may or may not be accurate, but the personal life and character of Jackie Kennedy portrayed in this series have little resemblance to the Jackie Kennedy Americans have known and loved for many years.

Official White House First Ladies painted portrait of Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy.

Official White House First Ladies painted portrait of Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy.

The Legend Will Continue

There will, no doubt, be more film and television portrayals of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis in the future, just as the legends of King Arthur and the original Camelot continue to be revised year after year.


A Woman Named Jackie. Dir. Larry Peerce. Perf. Roma Downey, Stephen Collins, Joss Ackland. Lester Persky Productions: 1991. Running Time: 246 min.
Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot. Dir. Larry Shaw. Perf. Lauren Holly, Jill Hennessy, Leslie Stefanson. Hallmark Entertainment: 2001. Running Time: 163 min.
• Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Dir. Steve Gethers. Perf. Jaclyn Smith, James Franciscus, Rod Taylor. ABC Circle Films: 1981. Running Time: 150 min.
• "Life of Jacqueline B. Kennedy." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved December 4, 2011.
The Kennedys. Dir. John Cassar. Perf. Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Tom Wilkinson. Muse Entertainment Enterprises: 2011. Running time: 353 min.

© 2017 Darla Sue Dollman


Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on February 01, 2018:

Thank you, Natalie! I'm sorry for the delayed response--I seem to be having problems with messages. I read a biography by Rose Kennedy when I was a child and I've been fascinated by the family ever since. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to portray someone as popular as Jackie. She survived experiences that were shockingly painful and trying to show her dignity and strength on film would be a challenge!

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on February 01, 2018:

What a great article! I will be looking for the films you discussed to see how she is portrayed. It's always interesting to see how different actors represent a famous individual. Your personal comments also add to the article. Thanks for writing this!

Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on February 01, 2018:

This is true! This article was actually written five years ago, before Jackie was released. The date is wrong. In fact, I noticed Jackie is now on Netflix and planned to watch it this weekend and update the article. Feel free so share your opinions, as well.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on February 01, 2018:

One of the films you didn't list was the 2016 film Jackie, with an Oscar-nominated performance by Natalie Portman in the title role. Perhaps you can add that if you revise this piece. That's still a good list for those who like Jackie Kennedy Onassis.