“There are so many times in my life,” filmmaker Rory Kennedy tells her sister Courtney in the movie “Ethel,” “where people have said, ‘I want to introduce Robert Kennedy's daughter. ...” To which her sibling replies: “Oh, it makes me so mad! What about the one who delivered us and carried us for nine months and then has been with us the last 40 years?”
“Ethel,” the HBO documentary debuting Thursday about the wife of Robert F. Kennedy (and the mother of their 11 children) aims to remedy that to some extent, and last week Rory, along with her mother (now 84) and brother Christopher (who lives in Kenilworth with his wife and children) were in Chicago, drumming up interest at a preview screening.
At 43, Rory is the youngest sibling (born six months after her father's assassination), and she is an established documentarian with credits that include previous HBO projects “Thank You Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House” and the Emmy-nominated “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.” This is the first time, however, that she has made a film about her own family. Her mother's story, she says early in the film, is a personal one — “but because her life was intertwined with history, more than that.”
It is a family that continues to be intertwined with history — or at least news cycles. Two of Ethel's children have died. Also, Rory's cousin John F. Kennedy Jr. died in 1999 (along with his wife and sister-in-law) as he was flying to her wedding. Mary Kennedy, the estranged wife of third-born Robert F. Kennedy Jr., committed suicide in the spring; their son Conor, a senior in high school, is currently dating pop star Taylor Swift, who attended a screening of “Ethel” at Sundance in January, prompting this observation from the Los Angeles Times: “After a handful of Ethel Kennedy's ... children posed for pictures, Swift came out to join her, gripping her arm as if she were one of Kennedy's own grandchildren.”
The sixth of seven children, Ethel was born in Chicago, the daughter of coal baron George Skakel. As a family, they were — in her words — “conservative Republicans” — but just as sporty and larger-than-life as the Kennedys. Old home movies of Ethel and Robert reveal a couple destined to be together if for no other reason than their matching smiles: big, toothy and mirror images of each other.
“Lots of dancing, lots of dogs all over everything,” Ethel says when Rory asks about their wedding in the film. By dint of personality or cultural upbringing, Ethel is not a forthcoming interview subject. “I wasn't a very deep thinker,” she says, then adds dryly, “Like I am now. ...” Nor is she one for public introspection. There's an impenetrable veneer that she maintains, which keeps everything at arm's length, and Rory doesn't do anything out of the ordinary with her camera to counteract that or capture unguarded or unexpected moments. The movie only goes skin-deep. But her interview subjects hold your attention.
Stitched together as a series of talking heads (laced with archival footage), the film relies on Ethel's children to fill in the gaps. In it, Chris offers this observation: “Mummy's a Skakel, and as a Skakel, inherited a healthy disregard for authority in all its forms.” RFK Jr. recalls his mother's lack of cooking skills, including the time she sauteed bananas in petroleum jelly. There's a terrific eccentricity that she seems to have brought to the household, whether she was carting her children to Capitol Hill to watch their father conduct Senate Rackets Committee Hearings, or amassing pets that at one point included 19 dogs, goats, chickens, horses and a seal.
Kathleen, the first-born, seems most comfortable reflecting back on the family: “Trying hard didn't cut it. People now say, ‘Well, just try hard.' No. Win. That was important. Trying hard, not part of the culture. As well as the idea that Kennedys don't cry. You cannot show weakness — you always had to be tough.”
When I sat down with Ethel, Rory and Chris, the trio proved expert at the art of deflection. No one is obligated to be introspective on demand, and the Kennedy family story isn't necessarily anyone's business. But then why make the film?
(The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.)
Q: Rory, a lot of your documentaries require journalistic skills. When you have a personal, emotional connection to the people you're talking to, how did that impact you as a filmmaker?
Rory: Well, I think I often have an emotional connection to the people in the stories in all my films.
Chris (to me): Probably just like you're having now with all of us. (Everybody laughs.)
Rory: I mean, this is different, obviously. But I guess I would say I bring a journalist's integrity to everything I do. But that's probably not really what you're looking for, which is: How is this film different? You know, this project was not something that I had pitched. It was something HBO and Sheila Nevins (who runs HBO Documentary Films) had come to me and asked me to make this film.
And I was resistant to it because ... it is personal, and it is about my family and I wasn't particularly interested in telling that story. But (Nevins) was very persistent. And at the time, we were really encouraging my mother to write a book, because I think we all felt like she has lived through so much and she's such a great character and she has these extraordinary stories. You know, she's so wonderful and she really hasn't shared herself with the rest of the world — and we all love her and adore her and know her. So she wasn't going to do (a book), that was clear. And so I did feel that this was a story that should be told, and it probably won't be told unless I told it.
I didn't think she would do a documentary, but I figured if she would, then I should do it. But I thought she would say no. And so I asked her and she very nicely said yes, which I think was largely because I asked her to do it, so ...
Ethel: Nina, this is so boring, you have to move it along.
Q: What do you mean?
Ethel: No, I adore her and love her, but ... (long silence).
Q: Right, you want to move it along. I get it! I have a few questions for you, are you ready?
Q: OK! Rory, when your mom agreed to do the film, were you taken aback?
Chris: Well, basically what happened was, HBO wanted to make the movie. Rory didn't want to say no to HBO because no one wants to say no to HBO. So she figured my mother would say no to HBO because she said no to everything else. And my mother said yes, and Rory had to make the movie. That was the deal.
Ethel: See, that's what I mean about moving it along.
Q: Rory, did you feel like you needed to get the OK from your brothers and sisters?
(Big laugh from the room.)
Rory: To do a film about my mother? No.
Chris: Apparently not.
Rory: No. I did not feel like I needed their approval to do a film about my mother.
Chris (joking): We have a family call every Thursday to discuss global Kennedy family issues.
Q: On the Bat Phone?
Chris: Right! Who's gonna run (for office) from where? That's what we talk about during those calls.
Rory: No, you know, at some point I decided — in looking through all the archival footage — that the kids were always in the footage, that I wanted their perspective, and I felt like it would add something.
Q: That makes sense. And everybody was automatically like, “Yeah, that sounds good”?
Rory: Yeah, everybody was really ... um ... I think ... I think it was, you know ... part of it is that there are a lot of wonderful things about our story, but there's also a lot of sadness, right? So it's hard to ask family members to revisit some of these more difficult moments. So that's a hard thing for me, and probably a hard thing for them, but I don't want to speak for them. But it's hard on that level. But I think everybody has so much respect and love and admiration for my mother that they wanted to help tell her story.
Q: I understand. Ethel, let me turn to you. I know your family is from Chicago. Tell me about your Chicago origins.
Ethel: I was born here, and I grew up here until I was 4 years old.
Q: Do you remember what part of town you lived in?
Ethel: The South Side. Drexel Boulevard.
Rory: You remember the parish, right?
Chris: St. Ambrose. And your neighbors from Drexel Boulevard came to the party tonight.
Q: Oh, wow.
Ethel: Yeah. The Dwyers. And I can remember their apartment — there was a little alley, and I remember their apartment pretty clearly.
Q: So Rory and Ethel, when you sat down for the interviews in the film, was that done on five consecutive days?
Q: That had to have been intense. Ethel, at the end of each day, what sort of frame of mind were you in? What sort of things did you think about at night?
Ethel: Why did I do this?
Q: Did you ever think, “Tomorrow I'm going to tell Rory that we're done”?
Ethel: If what?
Chris (to his mother): Did you ever think of quitting? (To me): In her life, my mother's never thought of quitting.
Ethel: But did Nina ask if somebody came up and said would you do another one?
Chris: What would be your response?
Ethel: I'd take poison first!
Chris: “Ethel” the sequel!
Q: Ethel, how would you compare being on the campaign trail for the various campaigns you worked on with doing a campaign of sorts for this movie?
Ethel: The truth is, I don't remember being interviewed (during those early years). Are you sure about that?
Q: In the movie there's a clip of you talking with Edward R. Murrow and another of you talking with Jack Paar. And you reached out to a lot of people with those tea parties for John F. Kennedy's 1952 Senate race.
Ethel: Well, I speak to people!
Chris (joking): Just not reporters, who aren't people, quite frankly. I mean, other than you.
Q: I was struck by the way Jack Paar addressed you as “this lovely little girl here.” I think you had seven children by that point.
Q: You kind of laughed it off, and I think that's one instance where your sense of humor comes through in the movie. You also gave a great response to a reporter outside the courthouse after you were accused of horse thievery when you rescued some horses. The reporter asks you what your husband had to say, and you quipped, “I don't think he's going to let me off the property again.”
Ethel: Nina, you are really scary. Why are you reading all this terrible —
Chris and Rory: She watched the movie!
Ethel: Oh. Sorry. (Noticing a gesture from a publicist) — what is she saying, it's over?
Q: Uh, not quite yet. Let's switch gears a little. Sometimes hindsight changes how we view past events. Ethel, did you find that your perspective changed at all as you were revisiting these different periods in your life?
Chris: What did she just ask you? What was that question?
Ethel (long pause): I don't think I'd do it again.
Chris: Your life? (Everybody laughs.)
Q: The impression I get is that you're not one to reminisce.
Q: So I would imagine that you haven't told many of these stories. Recounting them for the movie, did it spark a different perspective on anything?
Ethel: No. What happened happened.
Q: Fair enough. Can we talk about the bananas?
Ethel: What bananas?
In the film, one of your children talks about the time you cooked bananas in Vaseline.
Ethel (Looking at Chris): That would be typical of your brothers.
Chris: That was totally fabricated. Did he say she cooked with Vaseline?
Rory: You guys are all being really helpful. Thank you for helping to promote my movie. (Everybody laughs.)
Chris: What was the question?
Q: Rory, I wonder if there was a desire to reach out to your mother's siblings who are still with us and get their impressions?
Chris: Like with a seance?
Sheila (Chris' wife): She said those who are still with us!
You guys are a tough crowd!
Rory: We have a very big family, so once you open it up beyond just the kids, then you're opening it up to a whole range of people. When I was initially thinking about it, it was just going to be an interview with mummy. And then I felt like it would benefit from having the kids' perspective, my brothers and sisters. But I wanted it to be really narrow. And I think coming from the siblings and myself and my mother is different than what the Skakels would bring to it, or what the Shrivers would bring to it.
Chris: It would have gone basically from a documentary to a series. “Week Three: The Shrivers' Perspective!”
(Tribune photographer Terrence James asks a question of Ethel): Which of the children is most like you?
Ethel: Are you a reporter, suddenly? Or a photographer?
Q: OK, I'll ask it! Which of your children is most like you?
Ethel (jokingly equating my repeat of the question to cheating by using a reference to the lined paper used during college exams): That's looking at the other guy's blue book.
The documentary “Ethel” premieres 8 p.m. Thursday on HBO. For more info go to ethelmovie.com.
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