"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
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
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
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
"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
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.)
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.
Ethel: No, I adore her and love her, but ... (long silence).
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.
(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.
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.
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.
Ethel: I was born here, and I grew up here until I was 4 years old.
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.
Ethel: Yeah. The Dwyers. And I can remember their apartment — there was a little alley, and I remember their apartment pretty clearly.
Ethel: Why did I do this?
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!
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
Ethel: Well, I speak to people!
Chris (joking): Just not reporters, who aren't people, quite frankly. I mean, other than you.
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?
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.)
Ethel: No. What happened happened.
Ethel: What bananas?
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?
Chris: Like with a seance?
Sheila (Chris' wife): She said those who are still with us!
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?
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 stars of the 1987
Epic golf trip
About a year and a half ago, three middle-aged Chicago guys raised a few bucks on Kickstarter for a project described thusly: "Four buddies drive to the arctic to play golf. One of them is dead." After the death of their longtime friend Mike Allen, they conceived this epic 5,500-mile road trip (with Mike's ashes in tow) as a fitting send-off. Maudlin schmaudlin — this goofball trio of retirees (Vic Zast, Jim Thompson and Dan Johnson) brought a film crew along as they traveled by RV from Chicago to play golf together one last time on a rough-looking three-hole course just north of the Arctic Circle. The footage from their trip has been shaped into a six-episode TV series called "Our Longest Drive" debuting this week (9:30 p.m. Tuesdays) on the Golf Channel.
Horror movie fans have more than one 24-hour marathon to choose from this month, including one coming up Oct. 20 at the Portage Theater as well as another this weekend at the