The legend is that the Kennedy family was cursed. The reality is that the Kennedy family was blessed with an unmistakably odd style of speech.
"It doesn't really sound like anybody else from Massachusetts," says Amy Stoller, a dialect production designer and accent/dialogue coach. "It's the Kennedy sound. And people have always—always—remarked on it."
The Kennedy sound, or whatever you like to call it, is practically another character in Jackie, director Pablo Larraín's masterful portrait of the grief-struck first lady after her husband's assassination. If you're not old enough to remember the 1960s—which is to say you probably have not heard Jackie Kennedy speak—you'll be struck by Natalie Portman's unusual manner of speaking throughout the film. It's a delicate, breathy sigh of a voice that reflects Kennedy's high-class background as well as her Long Island upbringing. Since the movie unfolds in a dreamlike state of shock and grief, the dialogue is accentuated by the character's severe emotional condition.
"It's a very specific accent," Portman remarked during a recent Tonight Show appearance. "I'm from Long Island, so I can go back to my roots quite easily, and she's got some of that. Like, she says taalk and waaalk and haaall." (The 35th president's own recognizable accent is a nonentity in the movie, since the film picks up immediately after his death—JFK appears only in fleeting flashbacks.)
Does she get it right? We asked several experienced dialect coaches to break down Portman's accent and assess whether it's successful.
Stoller, whose film credits include working with Carmen Ejogo (as Coretta Scott King) in 2014's Selma, was effusive in her praise.
"I don't think she sounds exactly like Jackie," Stoller says after watching clips from the film. "What I think she's achieved is an absolutely remarkable and very credible, persuasive job of capturing the essence."
So why does the accent sound so unusual to modern ears? "It's an accent from a fairly small region. Meaning a particular area of Long Island. Most people who were born and raised in the United States speak nothing like that and may very well go their entire lives not meeting anyone else who speaks anything like that. It's a minority speech pattern," Stoller says.
Plus, it's a speech pattern that emerged during the earlier half of the 20th century. "You're not going to hear somebody who's gone to high school in the Five Towns [on Long Island] in the last five years who sounds anything like Jackie Kennedy," Stoller adds.
So did Portman go too far in mimicking this speech? "I don't think it's exaggerated at all," Stoller says. "[Jackie Kennedy's] personal speech pattern is extremely distinctive. It's clearly related to a certain class and locale in Long Island, and speaking more broadly, the New England speech pattern area. It also displays signs of a certain kind of private school, upper-echelon presentation, where people are taught how to present themselves and how to modulate their speech."
Kennedy, who served as the country's third youngest first lady, spent her formative years at several Northeast private schools: The Holton-Arms School, in Bethesda, Maryland, and Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut. The best way to experience her haughty, finishing-school accent is to watch her 1962 tour of the White House (which is creatively incorporated in Jackie):
"Alan Smithee," a dialect coach with years of experience, also praised Portman's approach—with some small quibbles. (For work-related reasons, he is not identified by his real name in this article.)
"You can feel and hear the design throughout," he says. "[The performance captures] a lot of the features of Jackie Kennedy's voice—the breathy quality of her voice, that sort of gently falling lilt. And the very interesting vowel system she had, which was pretty unusual. To a large extent, it's what's called that mid-Atlantic speech that we hear in old movies that she probably learned at finishing school.
"But there's still some very obvious Long Island in it," Smithee continues. "I think the most obvious place is in that "Aw"—"coffee," "thought"—vowel. Unlike what I just did now, if you listen to Jackie, it didn't actually have much of that, what we call the "aw" glide. The "uh" sound at the end. For her, it was more [of a] quite pronounced, long "aww" vowel. It's quite distinct from that mid-Atlantic version of the vowel."
In other words, Portman's approach, Smithee says, "sometimes does have a little wiggle or a little off-glide after it, in a way that I don't think you hear in Jackie's actual speech."
When I point out that the finishing school accent seems to signify class more than anything, Smithee points out that all accents encode class. "Accent is identity," he says. "That accent is very, very much associated with upper classes and a high level of social status and/or education."
But today it's almost completely gone. "That particular speech pattern is an interesting and weird one because it wasn't really spoken natively by almost anybody. It was kind of a constructed synthetic speech pattern," he says.
Though Smithee admires the clear design of Portman's accent, "I'm not sure there was quite enough attention paid to the overall shape and feel. We have some places where I feel like she's trying to go for certain targets, but because she doesn't have the underlying mouth logic, [she misses the mark]. There's an underlying shape and feel and basis for every individual mouth, and that's what sounds arise out of."
Any other critiques? "I think she has a tendency to overdo the breathiness a little bit. Also, her voice often ends up getting pitched a little higher during the places where she includes a lot of breathiness. If you listen to Jackie, I think she actually pitched her voice a little lower, which is literally lowering her larynx a little bit rather than higher."
You can hear the breathiness in this scene, in which the fictionalized Jackie speaks with Jack Valenti, whose company assisted in the Kennedy-Johnson presidential campaign, in the White House:
But those critiques are trivial. Overall, Smithee was immensely impressed by Portman's work in embodying Jackie Kennedy in mannerisms and speech. "My God, it is so brave, in so many ways. I'm in awe of the risks that she took in her performance."
Portman has already snagged a Golden Globe nomination, and she has a clear shot at winning an Oscar for the performance as well.
Stoller concurred and praised the work of Portman's dialect coach, Tanya Blumstein. "Any dialect coach would be proud of someone who had that attitude to the work and who did so well at it."
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