Rory Kennedy, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, is the youngest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children. “Ethel,” her lively and very loving tribute to her mother, allows her to combine work and family. It airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on HBO.
A more accurate title would be “Ethel and Bobby.” The documentary is as much about husband as wife. That’s inevitable. Robert Kennedy was an influential Senate staffer, presidential campaign manager, US attorney general, US senator, and presidential candidate. Ethel, now 84, was a wife and mother. “You were pregnant for 99 months out of your life,” Rory says to her in the documentary. Ethel responds that she’d never thought of it quite that way before. In a film clip showing her and Bobby on “The Tonight Show,” Jack Paar quips she’s “given birth to her own precinct.”
Ethel didn’t become a public figure in her own right, as her sister-in-law Jacqueline Onassis did, or become involved with an institution or cause, as her sister-in-law Eunice Shriver did with Special Olympics.
Further complicating things for Rory is that her mother, while cooperative, wasn’t exactly forthcoming. “Why should I have to answer all these questions?” she asks early in the documentary. “We’re making a documentary about you,” Rory tells her. “That’s a bad idea,” Ethel evenly replies. Later she says, “Introspection, I hate it!”
Fortunately, Rory has her eight surviving siblings to rely on. Along with Ethel, they’re the sole interview subjects. The documentary otherwise consists of vintage still photographs, news footage, and numerous home movies. Many of the clips are endearing, unexpected, or both.
“Ethel” feels a bit like one big home movie. The director, who doesn’t have much of a speaking voice, provides the mostly banal narration. When she says “By the mid-1960s, race relations in the United States were badly strained,” she sounds as though she’s reading from a history paper she wrote sophomore year. Far worse is Miriam Cutler’s relentlessly chipper score. It’s like a concerto for Percodan (except for when it has occasion to turn lachrymose).
Constant references to “Mummy,” “Daddy,” and “Uncle Jack” can get a bit wearying. The documentary sugarcoats Bobby’s work for Joe McCarthy and the reputation for ruthlessness of his “Bad Bobby” side. Discussing life at Hickory Hill, the family’s northern Virginia home, Courtney Kennedy says, “The word that comes first, of course, is ‘magical.’ ” That “of course” is a bit rich.
“Ethel” introduces all the siblings at the beginning. It’s an amusing way to start, and quite practical, too, helping to sort out all those overbites. It does feel a bit “Brady Bunch,” though. And were there intrafamily negotiations as to who got how much screen time?
Ethel and Bobby met through his younger sister, Jean, Ethel’s college roommate. Jean also introduced Ted Kennedy to Joan Bennett, his first wife. Unlike Joan, Ethel more than held her own with the Kennedys. “Mummy is the most seriously competitive person I have ever met in my entire life,” Kerry Kennedy says of her mother. We see Ethel sailing, horseback riding, swimming, and playing touch football. Her grin may even have been toothier than Bobby’s, no small achievement.
The segment on her husband’s funeral and the train ride transporting his body to Arlington National Cemetery is notably moving. Hearing several of the children discuss how they learned of their father’s death and their response to it is very powerful. The remaining 15 minutes of the documentary seem anticlimactic. There are brief references to the death of Rory’s brother’s David, from a drug overdose, and Michael, in a skiing accident. Otherwise, the 44 subsequent years of Ethel’s pass by in a flurry of tributes to her devotion and skill as mother and how she has tended her husband’s legacy.
Is it too much to suggest that this part of Ethel’s life, the least known to the public, would be the most rewarding for a documentary? Considering her reticence, that probably wasn’t feasible. Still, one wonders. As it is, Kennedy buffs will enjoy “Ethel” enormously. Others likely will think it’s about half an hour too long.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.