Jackie (2016)

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threehalfstar

I was recently praising Jeff Nichols’s muted drama Loving for putting a realistic, knowable face on history & not chasing the broad showiness of typical Oscar bait productions. In a lot of ways Jackie upstages Loving at its own game. An intimate portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the days immediately following her husband’s assassination, Jackie is a loose, dreamy indulgence in sights, sounds, and character quirks instead of the broad dramatic beats we usually associate with our historical fiction. The quiet grief Natalie Portman brings to the titular role is supported by the fuzzed out color saturation of Carol and an unnerving score by Mica Levi (of Under the Skin & Micachu and the Shapes) to subvert what you’d typically expect from an Oscar season costume drama profiling one of history’s most important First Ladies. Here’s where I get hypocritical, though. As much as I admire Jackie‘s search for small character beats over broad dramatization, I think it could have benefited from the campy touch of a drag queen in the lead role. Jackie is delicately beautiful & caustically funny as is, but I’m convinced that with a drag queen in the lead (I’m thinking specifically of Jinkx Monsoon) it could have been an all-time classic.

Natalie Portman is perfectly suited for the lead role as Jacqueline Kennedy. She brings the exact kind of delicate caution & building anger to the role that she used to convincingly sell a difficult to balance performance in Black Swan, except now with a quietly crazed confidence that only comes with age. I don’t mean to detract from her performance in any dismissive way. I just think this is the exact kind of material that needs a drag queen’s touch. Jackie is a conversational work, a disjointed story told through various interviews: one with a reporter, one with a priest, one with her brother-in-law, and the famous televised one where she gives a tour of the White House. As Jackie navigates these multiple lines of inquiry, especially in the ones where “the whole country would like to know what she’s going to do next,” she’s trying desperately to control her own image, keeping a cool face during her First Lady PR duties, even when speaking her mind. This kind of detached personal caricature, where a woman intentionally creates a fictionalized, cartoonishly genteel version of herself, is already a sort of a drag routine. Imagining Jinkx Monsoon in the role, reviving the heavy East Coast accent she brought to her impersonation of Grey Gardens‘s Little Edie on RuPaul’s Drag Race, adds a whole other layer to that poised style of self caricature. While Jackie drinks, smokes, cries, and verbally jabs her way through the painful days following her husband’s death, I felt as if I were watching a delicate carbon copy of a low-key drag routine, when in all honesty I would have preferred to see the real thing.

I greatly respect a lot of Jackie‘s stylistic choices, especially when they push the film into unfamiliar art house territory. Its nonlinear format (in which you hear gruesome detail about the assassination before you ever see it), combines with its hazy digital photography (designed to match America’s memory of the televised footage of the events depicted) to amount to a singular aesthetic-over-accuracy experience I found fascinating & consistently striking. I just think this portrait of an image-conscious woman defiantly refusing to hide from the public in the days following her husband’s death could have been vastly improved by drag queen artistry, particularly of the Jinkx Monsoon variety. Drag queens doing Jackie O routines date at least as far back as Divine in 1968’s Eat Your Makeup (just five years after the assassination, yikes) and I feel like Jackie is only going to fuel that fire more once some modern & future queens get a chance to absorb what Natalie Portman’s doing in the role. I honestly don’t think it’s too late to make a second cut of the film with a drag queen shoehorned in, either. Jackie makes a point to Forrest Gump its star into some archival television footage from the real life events and after the CG actors brought back to life in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, we’re officially living in a post The Congress society where we can plug whatever actor we damn well please into films they never even signed up for. I nominate Jinkx Monsoon to be digitally imposed into the titular role in Jackie: The Redux. I like the film a lot as is, but there’s no way that minor alteration wouldn’t make for a much more memorable picture.

-Brandon Ledet

Drag Becomes Him (2015)

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fourstar

One of my favorite aspects of the drag queen reality show competition RuPaul’s Drag Race is that the system works. A lot of viewers believe a (completely believable) conspiracy that the show’s winners are predetermined & cherry picked for success (yet another theory that supports my contention that drag & pro wrestling are essentially the same thing), but I don’t really care if that’s true. My favorite contestants on the show are generally the queens crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar (except maybe in the recent case of Kim Chi), which is good enough for me, no matter what mechanism produces that result. I was curious, then, when I discovered a documentary on Jinkx Monsoon, the winner of season 4, lurking on Amazon Prime, as they were my favorite contestant on their season of the show. Truth be told, Drag Becomes Him is an interesting doc whether or not you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race with any regularity. It’s essentially a portrait of an artist who happens to make it big in a crowded field of similar talents. Although ostensibly a vanity project, the film has very little vanity as it mostly shows drag performer Jinkx Monsoon in various stages of undress & overwhelming stress. It’s a low-key document of a significant time in the unglamorous life of a performer embedded in one of America’s most glamorous & most underappreciated art forms. And even as a standalone film divorced from Monsoon’s celebrity, Drag Becomes Him still commands an interesting, unique vision & narrative, a surprising feat for a film obviously crowdfunded & cheaply made.

Jinkx Monsoon states nakedly, both in a figurative & a literal sense, that they desire “to be known as an artist, not just a female impersonator”. A Seattle queen from a very artsy, performance-based scene (as opposed to the appearance-obsessed world of “pageant queens”), Monsoon has a kind of put-on, Old Hollywood demeanor that makes it difficult to differentiate between performer & character. A theater kid type who’s always “on”, Monsoon might be a bit much to have around as close friend, but they’re a joy to watch onscreen & seem to be very sweetly sincere in an art scene that seems prone to very jaded personalities. The film is structured around Jinkx explaining the basics of drag as an art form as they slowly apply makeup & accessories, making that awkward transition from looking like a Buffalo Bill-type psychopath while in half drag to becoming a larger than life persona. Simultaneously, a narrative emerges of both Monsoon’s personal life in a broken home & their professional career from performing at the age of 15 to cutting their teeth at local clubs to becoming an enterprise with several dedicated employees. Drag Becomes Him has the benefit of a wealth of footage from every stage of Monsoon’s career, but the way it juggles all of those narratives without seeming overburdened or reading like an A-B linear Wikipedia article points to a surprisingly adept team in terms of directing & editing. This is a small scale, low stakes documentary, but it’s one done exceedingly well.

One thing I did not expect form Drag Becomes Him was how wild Jinkx Monsoon would come across in their personal life. On RuPaul’s Drag Race they were kind of pigeonholed as a relatively tame personality in contrast with their competitors. Here, Jinkx does sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll as convincingly as any queen, getting stoned & partying in celebration in a newfound high point of their career (and deservedly so). The film has a completely different tone from Drag Race, skewing kinder & more gently sincere, but it does traffic in the same unapologetically gay headspace. The way it openly leers at masculine bodies is refreshing, since this kind of content can often be phonily de-sexed in order to put a wider audience at ease. Still, Monsoon’s life is far from one continuous, glamorous party and the film finds humor & fascination with the inconveniences of the logistics of drag: the indignity & discomfort of tucking, the machinations of taking a piss while buried under layers of clothing, typing while wearing cartoonishly long nails, etc. The only aspect of Monsoon’s life the film skips over is the narcolepsy revealed during their reign on television, which seems like a curious detail to avoid. Everything else is laid bare.

I don’t think you have to be a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race to enjoy Drag Becomes Him. The film carves out its own space entirely separate from the show’s very particular camp aesthetic. I was especially surprised by how it establishes a sort of digital pastel look all of its own that both serves its subject’s personality & helps distinguish the film as a work of art. I do think, however, that you’d be hard pressed to finish the doc without being at least somewhat a fan of Monsoon. They bare so much of their vulnerabilities as a real-life personality & their artistic sensibilities as a drag performer that it’s difficult to leave the film without feeling intimately connected. I entered Drag Becomes Him as a previous convert to all things Monsoon & I left as an even bigger, more dedicated fan. Jinkx is a talented artist & Drag Becomes Him makes a convincing, intimate case for how significant their art form can be.

-Brandon Ledet