I ate half a can of Planter's Cheese Curls while screening ABC's "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy." I guess that means I enjoyed the show; it was a half-canner, however, not a full-canner. "Empty" calories? True. That's what makes things like "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy" and Planter's Cheese Curls so munchable and yet so steadfastly unsatisfying.
The three-hour film, a Jackie Paper-Doll Cutout book, airs tonight at 8 on Channel 7. It's an idiotic but diamond-studded account of Jackie's life from tothood to the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, and it probably isn't any better than it has to be. Viewers can fill in the film's shallow outlines and line drawings with details from their own memories and from the nation's inexhaustible treasure trove of Kennedy lore.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis reportedly first approved and later, during production, de-authorized this glossy biography. One can understand her desire to steer clear of it, but the filmmakers have been too, too kind in their treatment of her on the screen; they're gentler than Puffs, or Ivory Snow. Yes, Jackie is a trifle naughty when she goes away to private school, making a face at a ballet instructor and spilling food on a teacher in the cafeteria (love that Jackie!). For these fey outrages, she is promptly labeled "rebellious."
But by-and-large, nothing ruffles the immaculate Vogue image some people still have of her royal highness. In the title role, Jaclyn Smith -- miscast, boring and ineffectual -- floats through the innumerable costume changes and stages in Jackie's life looking love-lee and sounding every now and then a little like Katharine Hepburn, which is probably the way Smith thinks the high-born talk.
There is something fascinating about the way nouveau-riche Hollywood treats old-money characters like the Kennedys, the way it imagines they must behave, and the lame Hollywood idea of what class is. When John F. Kennedy (James Franciscus) first meets Jackie at a Georgetown dinner party and makes reference to his plans to occupy the White House, she tells him, "You said it as if it were a fait accompli," and he, impressed, gushes, "Oh, you speak French!" Presumably if he had sneezed and she'd said "Gesundheit," he would have exclaimed, "Oh, you speak German!"
Writer-director Stephen Gethers keeps it all on that ridiculously trivial wavelength. Watching this movie is like going shopping; it appeases a certain asexual voyeurism. The trappings of wealth and power pass by in review, and a reputed $4 million production budget does indeed show on the screen. One sees such iconographic rituals as touch football at Hyannisport reenacted. Perhaps the film could evolve into a ride at an amusement park: "Jackieland," where you sit in a plush bumper-car and ride past images of glamor and money.
Also, of course, "Jacqueline" is this year's Kennedy movie. A filmed biography of Robert F. Kennedy is already planned by another network for next year. Franciscus, who does such a stiff and innocuous job of impersonating JFK, already played a blatantly JFK-like figure in the theatrical film "The Greek Tycoon" and Stephen Elliott, cast as Joseph Kennedy Sr., played the very same part in the ABC movie "Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy" a couple of seasons ago. We have the beginnings of a Kennedy stock company here. Hollywood can keep this up until America runs out of Kennedys.
There is, upon this film's frothy field of taffeta, one genuine and dimensional performance -- Rod Taylor as Jackie's ne'er-do-well but adored father, "Black Jack" Bouvier. Now that Taylor is too old for the macho muscleboy parts, his face has suddenly become interesting and full of character, and with a little, Gablesque pencil mustache he makes a touchingly downtrodden old sport, grandly keeping up appearances and telling his daughter to get up and walk after she falls off a horse.
One begins to long for Taylor's reappearances since he is about the only excuse for a human being in the picture. He pops back into the story when the Bouvier-Kennedy engagement is announced, trying to bum a cutaway coat off a clothier so he can pridefully give the bride away. But while the wedding ceremony is taking place, the camera searches him out in his hotel, where he has fallen asleep drunk.
"I have no real talent, other than maybe a talent to charm," he had said earlier. "That wears pretty thin after awhile." It's a good summation of his character but, more damagingly, of the movie, which in the third hour becomes ludicrous in the same vapid way that Smith plays Jackie. When JFK wins the presidency and they walk along the seashore and she tells him, "I'm numb; Jack, I'm actually numb," it's the only believable line of dialogue she has in the movie.
Political issues and realities of the time are ignored; there's no Cuban Missile Crisis or any other such stuff to interfere with the fluff, nor, on a gossipy level more suited to the film, is attention paid to JFK's fabled amorous swashbuckling. However, the filmmakers are big on portents. Immediately upon winning the election, when the Secret Service men appear and Jackie expresses fear for her husband's safety, JFK says, "Relax. Nothing's going to happen." Soon there's a nutty old man with dynamite in his car who almost blows it up near the presidential limousine -- an insignificant occurrence of which much is made in the film.
Fortunately, though, the events in Dallas are not dramatized. The plane taking the presidential party there is freeze-framed in midair and we hear some shots fired. Then everything goes blurry, and when the narrative resumes, Jackie is being interviewed by "Mr. White" (Teddy, one assumes) and recalling the nightmarish day in close-up. Jaclyn Smith couldn't act her way out of a Gucci bag, which this movie is, and in this scene she proves it conclusively.
But everybody will watch this movie, probably, and its gingerly way of dealing with the subject may be entirely appropriate; certainly there's precedent for it. Though the British are, it's true, fairly tough on their royalty of centuries ago, they go pretty easy on such subjects as the duke and duchess of Windsor, those empty-headed brats who came off pretty well in "Edward and Mrs. Simpson," soon to be rerun on PBS. American royalty tends to enjoy the same privileges when its members are turned into grist for the TV movie mill.
The idea is to give people what Hollywood assumes they want to see: the purported account of a real life that has been bent and shaped to fit precisely the contours of a soap opera. Audiences like these films because they know exactly what to expect of them. When you open a can of Planter's Cheese Curls, you don't want to find a tin of caviar or a spinach salad inside. You bought junk and you want junk. From "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy," you get it for free.