September 20, 2012
When Robert F. Kennedy was U.S. attorney general, his wife, Ethel, would take their children to the FBI building to watch sharpshooters at target practice. It was fun for the kids, though they risked running into FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who disliked Robert Kennedy and didn’t care for children. So when Ethel came across a suggestion box, she wrote, “Get a new director,” on a piece of paper, and slipped it in the slot.
Directed by her Emmy(R)-winning daughter, Rory Kennedy (HBO’s “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”), ETHEL celebrates the remarkable life of the Kennedy matriarch, highlighted by revealing, little-known anecdotes from those who know her best: her family.Debuting THURSDAY, OCT. 18 (9:00-10:45 p.m. ET/PT) on HBO, the feature-length documentary had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Other HBO playdates: Oct. 18 (4:30 a.m.), 21 (1:45 p.m.), 24 (6:45 p.m.), 27 (9:45 a.m.) and 29 (3:15 p.m., 10:30 p.m.)
HBO2 playdate: Oct. 31 (8:00 p.m.)
This personal portrait, featuring candid interviews with Ethel – her first extended interview in more than two decades – and her children Kathleen, Joe, Bobby, Courtney, Kerry, Chris and Max, spans her political awakening, the life sheshared with Robert Kennedy and the years following his death, when she raised their 11 children. ETHEL is the first film made about the Kennedys from within the family.
Now 84, Ethel is described by one of her daughters as “the most fiercely competitive person I’ve ever met.” On camera, she comes across as a force of nature who is also self-effacing.
Given the Kennedys’ place at the forefront of many of the pivotal events of the modern era, the documentary’s sweep is vast, ranging from the McCarthy hearings and the Civil Rights movement, to Vietnam and the anti-war movement, to theassassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and beyond.
ETHEL includes rare home movies and dozens of personal photos, tracing the off-again, on-again courtship of Irish Catholics Ethel Skakel and Robert Kennedy, who married in 1950 and began raising a family. Having grown up more interested in sports and horses than public affairs, her political conscience didn’t stir until the Kennedy family poured itself into John Kennedy’s various campaign efforts, culminating in his 1960 presidential victory.
By then, she was hooked. Ethel hosted hugely popular tea parties to mobilize women voters, worked tirelessly on the campaign trail and traveled the world withRobert after he became attorney general, even though it meant disowning herconservative roots. “I just totally put the Republican part behind me,” Ethel says, quipping that her family thought she was “a little Communist.”
When the country and the world were in upheaval, Ethel’s unflagging spirits and mischievous sense of humor were often the perfect antidote to the stresses of Robert’s job. She had regular run-ins with the police, earning speeding tickets and even a court appearance for “stealing” a group of starving horses to save their lives. At many parties she hosted, Ethel had members of President Kennedy’s cabinet pushed into the family swimming pool.
“My father really had the weight of the world on him, and mummy was funny and fun and full oflaughter,” recalls Kerry Kennedy.
Drawing on her deep Catholic faith, she was inspired by Robert’s fearless commitment to justice, whether he went after labor racketeer Jimmy Hoffa or tried to end racial segregation at the University of Alabama.
Following Robert’s lead, Ethel took pains to instill in their children the same courage and sense of social justice. The kids went along on campaigns, sat in on crucial hearings, and, when Robert Kennedy ran for senator from New York State, visited the Bronx and Harlem to appreciate how the less-privileged lived. No teachable moment was wasted.
ETHEL revisits the heartbreaking moments that tested her most. John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 unleashed, she says, “a tidal wave of grief… It was six months of just blackness.” Asked to comment on her husband’s assassination at age 42, five years later, Ethel demurs, except to say that her children, along with her faith, helped her get through it. “I’d wake up every morning and imagine him up there with Jack,” she says, referring to the late president.
“That’s carried her, I believe, through everything,” says Courtney Kennedy, including the deaths of Ethel’s sons David from a drug overdose in 1984 and Michael in a skiing accident in 1997. Rory’s birth, six months after Robert’s death, also helped with the healing, Ethel says.
Just as John Kennedy’s death moved Robert to step up to a greater level of public service, Robert’s death pushed Ethel to do the same. She founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and Justice to help carry on his work, and has participated in human rights delegations all over the world.
Today, many of her children work for social justice, which is often attributed to their father’s influence, but as Rory reminds Ethel, Robert Kennedy died when they were very young. She’ll have none of it. “I just don’t feel I can take the credit,” Ethel says, adding with a wisdom forged from hardship and triumph, “Nobody gets a free ride…so have your wits about you, and do what you can and dig in because it might not last.”
One of the final sequences of ETHEL shows her at the helm of the family sailboat, which is filled with her children and many of her 33 grandchildren, cleaving throughchoppy ocean waters. In spite of all she has lived through, Ethel Kennedy has stayed afloat, moving forward through buffeting winds and changing tides.
Co-founder and president of Moxie Firecracker Films, Emmy(R) winner Rory Kennedy has directed or produced more than 35 documentaries. Her films range from poverty to politics to human rights, and have been shown on HBO,A&E, MTV, Lifetime and PBS. She was a producer of the 2011 HBO documentary “Killing in the Name,” which was nominated for an Academy Award(R) for Documentary Short. Kennedy also directed and produced the HBO documentaries “The Fence (La Barda)” (2010); “Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House” (2008); “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” (2007), which won a Primetime Emmy(R) for Outstanding Nonfiction Special; “A Boy’s Life” (2004); the five-part series “Pandemic: Facing AIDS” (2003); and “American Hollow” (1999).