Ethel Kennedy isn't one to share, in spite of film about her

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Ethel Kennedy

Ethel Kennedy and her daughter Rory Kennedy. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune / October 11, 2012)

“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 documentary debuting Thursday about the wife of Robert F. Kennedy (and the mother of their 11 children) aims to remedy that to some extent, and last week Rory, along with her mother (now 84) and brother Christopher (who lives in Kenilworth with his wife and children) were in Chicago, drumming up interest at a preview screening.

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 White House” and the Emmy-nominated “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.” This is the first time, however, that she has made a film about her own family. Her mother's story, she says early in the film, is a personal one — “but because her life was intertwined with history, more than that.”

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 John F. Kennedy Jr. died in 1999 (along with his wife and sister-in-law) as he was flying to her wedding. Mary Kennedy, the estranged wife of third-born Robert F. Kennedy Jr., committed suicide in the spring; their son Conor, a senior in high school, is currently dating pop star Taylor Swift, who attended a screening of “Ethel” at Sundance in January, prompting this observation from the Los Angeles Times: “After a handful of Ethel Kennedy's ... children posed for pictures, Swift came out to join her, gripping her arm as if she were one of Kennedy's own grandchildren.”

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 Republicans” — but just as sporty and larger-than-life as the Kennedys. Old home movies of Ethel and Robert reveal a couple destined to be together if for no other reason than their matching smiles: big, toothy and mirror images of each other.

“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 Senate Rackets Committee Hearings, or amassing pets that at one point included 19 dogs, goats, chickens, horses and a seal.

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.)

Q: Rory, a lot of your documentaries require journalistic skills. When you have a personal, emotional connection to the people you're talking to, how did that impact you as a filmmaker?

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.

Q: What do you mean?

Ethel: No, I adore her and love her, but ... (long silence).

Q: Right, you want to move it along. I get it! I have a few questions for you, are you ready?

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