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Kennedy Tragedies Revisited in Weepy ‘Women of Camelot’

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Believe all of it at your own risk. But “Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot” is serviceable melodrama and a heckuva good cry. As was much of the history it tells.

This NBC two-parter is drawn from J. Randy Taraborrelli’s book of the same title, covering a 27-year period ending in 1980. By this time, Jackie (Jill Hennessy) has married Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis after burying the assassinated Jack Kennedy in 1963, Bobby’s Ethel (Lauren Holly) has been a widow for a dozen years, and alcoholic Joan (Leslie Stefanson) is nearing the end of her grim marriage to Ted.

Although this is the screen’s umpteenth Jack and Jackie, much less attention has been given the younger Kennedy brothers and their wives. In this account, regal Jackie and blunt, plain-folks Ethel clash repeatedly, and the pressure of being a Kennedy robs earnest Joan of her luminance and zest for life.

David Stevens’ script has testosterone as much as politics driving Jack and Ted, and winks slyly about Bobby too. All bosomy and breathy, Marilyn Monroe arrives on cue to coo her famous birthday serenade to Jack in 1962, and in fact, “Women of Camelot” dwells predominantly on those many reports of Kennedyesque hanky-panky.

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When Jackie threatens early in their marriage to leave her senator husband over his flings, patriarch Joe Kennedy (Harve Presnell) will have none of it, saying that “would do too much damage to Jack’s political future.” Ever pragmatic, she negotiates a deal with “Grandpa Joe,” as he’s called, allowing her to live as independently as possible “in the appropriate style.”

And when much later she renews her complaints about Jack, Rose Kennedy (Charmion King), played here as impenetrable, replies: “Great men have great flaws.”

Looming just ahead is Dallas, as Kennedy tragedies began mounting, and much of Part 2 is a virtual funeral cortege that director Larry Shaw plays to the hilt. This family’s story is packed with such genuine heart-wrenching theater that special skill and restraint are required to keep sentiment from thickening oppressively. In this case, though, it’s our tear ducts that are in the cross hairs.

If anyone transcends this brooding, it’s the alluring Hennessy, who hasn’t done a lot since leaving “Law & Order” in 1996 but shines here, opposite Daniel Hugh Kelly’s Jack, in a role that others have generally botched. Hennessy has the cheekbones, neck and angularity, and all the surface nuances, too, while giving Jackie a cool resilience.

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Emotionally fragile and easily wounded, Stefanson’s Joan is the saddest of anyone here, treated badly by Ted (Matt Letscher) while surrendering to her neuroses and drunkenness.

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Talk about over the top, though. Holly plays Ethel like Mammy Yokum, doing everything but smoking a corncob pipe and dancing a jig to project a lack of airs. Brittle, fidgety and shrewish, Ethel spends much of her time producing kids, the rest dreaming ambitiously of the White House. She is the one who pushes Bobby (Robert Knepper) to run for the U.S. Senate in this biography, and wants him to be president more than he does. She’s the whisper in his ear, Iago to his Othello.

On come the stiff bouffants, pillbox hats and A-line dresses, and the historical footnotes and calamities that defined this era. Even so, what “Women of Camelot” somehow lacks most is nubby texture.

When Bobby suggests to Jackie that her public involvement with Onassis may harm his 1968 presidential effort, she angrily replies that she won’t be a recluse to be “dragged out like some old warhorse when the nation needs a good cry.”

It’s happening to her posthumously, though, for a good cry is what “Women of Camelot” is mostly about.

* Part 1 of “Women of Camelot” can be seen Sunday at 9 p.m. with the conclusion airing Monday at 9 p.m. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).


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