Shortly after John Fitzgerald Kennedy‘s assassination, his widow, Jacqueline, remarked that her late husband’s life “had more to do with myth, magic, legend, saga and story than with political theory or political science . . . You must think of him as this little boy, sick so much of the time, reading in bed, reading history, reading The Knights of the Round Table, reading Marlborough.”
This is an observation that writer-performer Michael Shannon might have employed to some benefit in his voraciously researched, emotionally removed yet strangely fascinating impersonation of the late president, JFK on JFK (now at Hollywood‘s Stella Adler Theater). Shannon attempts to have JFK “set the record straight” in his own words. Many of the words are indeed Kennedy’s — or at least words Kennedy uttered and therefore must have endorsed, even if they were penned by speechwriter Theodore Sorensen.
Much of Shannon‘s play also consists of carefully considered speculation, especially by way of telephone calls: to his kid brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was roping in the mob (not helpful for JFK’s alliance with the Rat Pack); to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who tried to help finesse the president through the rage of the Cuban-exile community after Kennedy had all but abandoned their fighters to Castro in the Bay of Pigs fiasco; and, finally, to Martin Luther King Jr., whose civil rights movement was coming on a bit too strong for the president.
Yes, there are candid admissions of extramarital trysts made somewhat awkward by the consequences of two back surgeries. Yes, we hear Marilyn Monroe saucily croon, “Happy birthday, Mr. President,” in an interpretation that Shannon‘s chief exec admits annoyed the first lady, and following which he was compelled into damage-control mode in order to buttress the moral pillars of his presidency. Shannon supplements all this with bedside confessions to Joe Kennedy Sr., an invalid (we imagine him somewhere downstage left), cut down by a stroke.
We are left pretty much where Oliver Stone placed us in 1991, with the president embarking for Dallas in late November 1963, having committed himself to withdraw U.S. soldiers from Vietnam (“In the final analysis, it’s their war”), to stay out of Cuba and to strive for peace with the Russians (“We must re-examine our own attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Our most basic link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children‘s futures, and we are all mortal”) — placing him smack in the rifle scope of America’s war industry.
Shannon remarks in press notes that he‘s been doing JFK imitations since he was a child, and that habit certainly pays off here. His vocal rhythms and tonality create an uncanny aural mimicry, to such a degree that, though the actor bears little physical resemblance to Kennedy, the sounds carry it off. When Shannon’s profile and the Oval Office desk appear in silhouette against a wash of crimson light (art design by Caitlin Shannon), the effect is indeed an eerie conjuring of Kennedy‘s spirit — at least its majestic lone-warrior aspect. For that quite remarkable accomplishment, director Vickery Turner deserves credit. But the singling out of that aspect misses a large part of the human being, a choice for which Turner must also bear responsibility.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy redefined the role of the president from that of father figure to that of leading man and mythmaker, drawing on Hollywood connections that reached back almost a decade. (When, in 1954, JFK, then Democratic senator from Massachusetts, was recuperating in the hospital from a near-fatal back surgery, Grace Kelly turned up to serve him dinner. “I’m the new night nurse,” Kelly whispered in his ear, though he was reportedly too groggy to recognize her, and Kelly left convinced that she was “losing it,” i.e., her sex appeal.)
Shannon comes off here more like a college professor delivering a very entertaining lecture to his first-year history students than as a prober of a human soul, to say nothing of the soul of a profoundly shifting era: Camelot was, after all, a dreamy set of ideals largely generated by Kennedy‘s charisma. Following the president’s death, the Vietnam War, to which he first committed troops but about which he was at least very ambivalent, would continue to wrench at the country, as would the civil rights and women‘s movements that he supported. The social tenet of service (“Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”) would slowly be transmuted into a tenet of entitlement.
Change Shannon’s dialect and his reference points, and his JFK could just as easily be Teddy Roosevelt or even Warren G. Harding. If Kennedy was indeed our first romantic president, what‘s missing here is the romance — that quality Shannon might have traced back to a sickly and belittled child reading heroic fantasies, the spirit of which would one day filter into public policy.
At age 2, Kennedy, after almost dying from scarlet fever, spent nearly three months quarantined in Boston City Hospital. His childhood was plagued by an array of illnesses and injuries that some biographers have speculated were a neurological reaction to his macho father’s habit of comparing the “elfin” Jack (Rose Kennedy‘s description) to his brawny, patrician older brother, Joe Jr., who was reputed to have hurled footballs at young JFK with cruel velocity and to have beaten him for the most specious of reasons.
JFK’s response to this was what biographer John Hellman describes as a “hopeless but ongoing duel” with his parents and older brother. In one telling incident, the rival siblings raced on bicycles around their house in opposite directions, resulting in a head-on collision: “Joe emerged unscathed, but Jack needed 28 stitches to his head.” (In World War II, however, it was Joe Jr. who died in a fiery explosion over the English Channel, while JFK survived the sinking of his PT boat in the South Pacific.)
Compared to athletic, studious, self-possessed Joe Jr., JFK was a slovenly, undisciplined dreamer. Rose‘s preference became evident when JFK outscored Joe Jr. on a school intelligence test and she suggested that there must have been some mistake. JFK would eventually become so contrary that, when Rose proffered an analogy to Jesus entering Jerusalem, JFK demanded to know what happened to Christ’s donkey.
If it was this defensive belligerence that later aided the president in his ongoing war of nerves with Khrushchev, in his resolve to keep West Berlin in Allied hands, and in his holy crusade to land an American astronaut on the moon before the end of the decade, you wouldn‘t know it from JFK on JFK.
Admittedly, Shannon was having a terrible time on the night I attended. It was an evening punctuated with gaffes like “See what we can do to make [Vietnamese President] Diem behave less like a democrat and more like a demigod . . . I mean, less like a demigod and more like a democrat.” Still, Shannon is obviously a fine actor, and it’s reasonable to speculate that he will strengthen his command of the material in the weeks to come. However, the question remains whether the material itself probes deeper than a Cliffs Notes to a presidential biography, or actually gets to the heart of Camelot.