BOSTON —Ethel Kennedy has not granted an extended interview in decades. Last year, she made one exception and sat down with her Emmy-winning filmmaker daughter, Rory. The result is a new documentary film called Ethel, which debuted this week on HBO.
Asked by HBO to shoot a documentary about her mother Ethel, filmmaker Rory Kennedy expected her mother would answer with a resounding “No”.
“And then she said yes,” Kennedy said. “I think in part because I had asked her. But in any case she said yes and I’m really happy that she did because even though I was resistant to telling this story, mostly for personal reasons, I do feel that it’s important to be out in the world. [My mother’s] life has really been on the front lines of the most important historical events of the 20th century.”
The film largely spans the duration of Ethel’s marriage to Robert Kennedy before his assassination in 1968.
“I have a deeper appreciation of the relationship between my mother and father, how close they were. The role she played in his life and what they were and what he was able to accomplish—alone, but also what they were able to accomplish really together,” Kennedy said.
Theirs was also a marriage of political passion, the film reveals, with Ethel doubling as mother to an ever-expanding brood and as a campaigner at times better than her husband.
“Even though she was comfortable giving speeches, she was definitely not on the forefront. Their dynamic worked really well in those times and at that place in our history. There are insights and contributions that women make over the years that are hard to necessarily compare in today’s standards, but to look back and to see the difference that they made in those times and how they contribute to where women are today, I think, is sort of the important lens through which to see that,” Kennedy said.
Theirs was also an energetic, madcap family. From tales of racing through the White House on John F. Kennedy’s inauguration day, to managing a veritable home zoo, including 19 dogs and a seal. Those are the times that balance the family’s overwhelming moments of sadness.
“I think that she was able to go through those more difficult moments in part because she was thinking of something other than herself. Some combination of the social justice that she was focused on as well as having eleven children, at the end of the day you gotta pick ‘em up from school and change diapers, and do the daily routines that children demand. I think that gets you out of your own headspace,” Kennedy said.
For all the sensitive topics, however, it was Ethel as the subject who could be most difficult of all, Kennedy says.
“She’s feisty,” Kenney exclaimed. “And she doesn’t necessarily answer all the questions in the conventional way. You know, she was great and it was so much just to spend that amount of time with her. She’ll answer a question, but not in the way I want her to answer it. Twenty years of documentary filmmaking, and all the techniques—throw them away when you’re with your mother.”
Ethel Kennedy remains a reluctant subject. At a recent screening of the film at the JFK Library and Museum, she confessed her uneasiness as the focus of the film, but sounded confident in her daughter’s skills.
“[Rory is] great company and just to be with her is really fun.” When asked how it felt to go public, Ethel Kennedy said, “A little uncomfortable, but she’s so great and tells it so well.”
Watch Jared's interview on Greater Boston.
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