“Ethel” is a documentary about director Rory Kennedy’s (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”) mother. But it also, of course, covers a tumultuous swath of U.S. politics from a unique perspective — Ethel Kennedy, née Skakel, married into America’s most famous family in 1950, when she wed Robert F. Kennedy in Greenwich. Extroverted and seemingly tireless, she first helped his brother John F. Kennedy campaign and later worked at her husband’s side as he went from Attorney General to U.S. senator to presidential candidate, while giving birth to and raising 11 children. (Rory, the youngest of the siblings, was born six months after her father was assassinated in 1968.)
“Ethel” combines newsreel and home movie footage with interviews with the Kennedy children to tell the story of this fiesty matriarch and sometimes reluctant film subject from the perspective of both a public figure and a familial one.
Indiewire sat down with the filmmaker to talk about “Ethel” on the eve of the documentary’s broadcast premiere on HBO tonight, October 18th, at 9pm.
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Was this a project that you first wanted to do or was this sparked by HBO?
HBO approached me to do this film — Sheila Nevins. And I said “No.” And she came back — we had a back and forth, and finally I figured I’d ask my mother, because she doesn’t like doing interviews and hasn’t done one in 25 years. She’s never really told her life story and she’s always resisted. So I just figured she’d say, “No,” and then I don’t have to keep saying “No,” to Sheila. I asked her and she said, “Yes.”
Why had your mother chosen to not do interviews for so long?
You know, I think she’s shy, believe it or not. I don’t like to talk for her, but I have been in interviews with her and what she tends to say, you know — I think she feels like she’s been around people who have had enormous accomplishments, and that it’s really their story and not her story.
That’s interesting. “Shy” isn’t a word I’d have thought to describe her in the film. She seems very comfortable.
It’s a complicated shy, because she’s very outgoing and, you know, she’ll say anything to anybody, but she’s not comfortable publicly speaking and she’s not comfortable being interviewed, and she doesn’t particularly enjoy it.
Beyond the fact that she’s your mother, as an interview subject, did that pose its challenges?
I think it shows [in the film] in what she says. I’m trying to ask, “Well, how did you feel about this?” “Oh, I hate this introspection. Stop asking me all these questions. Why do I have to answer them?” You know, she’s uncomfortable.
This is a film about your family and your mother in particular, but it’s also obviously about the political history of the U.S. in that era. How do you approach it? As a political film first? As a personal film?
I think it’s both. It’s definitely a POV film. It’s my perspective on my family. It’s not meant to be the objective film about Ethel Kennedy — not that I think one can achieve objectivity, but you can certainly strive for it, and I don’t particularly in this. I try to weave together these historical events that my family was on the front lines of that I think we all share as a country and experience together, interweaving with those what was happening on the homefront during those times as well. There’s a lot of home movie footage, there are a lot of photographs that have never been seen before.
And then it’s told through the perspective of my siblings, my brothers and sisters, and my mother exclusively, so there’s no outside voice in the film. It was intended to be that. It’s showing it from a very particular perspective. So there are a lot of things that it’s not. But there are a lot of other films out there in the world that address similar events from an outside perspective, so I felt like what I could do that was unique and different was go from the inside out.
Was that part of your awareness in making the film? Your family has obviously been scrutinized by the media a lot. Is this a chance to offer that inside perspective?
It was really intended to just tell the story of my mother — that was where it was coming from. I was willing to do it in part because my mother was willing to do it, and also because I felt like her story hasn’t been told, and that she has something to say and to add to the mix. But that said, I think people watch it and they see my siblings and some of these events, or our family from a different perspective… Because there is a lot of media attention — of my siblings, or whoever it is — and they can be skewed and make you feel like they’re different people than they actually are. Which I think is probably more honestly portrayed in the film. So it’s adding, hopefully, to a more complex, truer picture of who we are and what we’ve gone through.
One of the things that was striking about the film was the presence of family on the campaign — there was a real sense of coherence that seemed remarkable. That doesn’t seem like the norm, for anyone else at that time.
Yeah, I don’t think it was the norm of the time, or even now so much. I think there is a lot to be said for the respect that our parents had for children, and for my brothers and sisters and me at a very young age, and for exposing them to the world and what’s out there. You see the choices that my siblings have made as adults, and I think that that exposure and integration was a huge part of that. Honestly, it was such a busy time that you were then having to make a choice between not being with your children at all and dealing with work, or taking them along for the ride. So it was also just on a practical level that both my mother and father — and they had so many children because they really enjoyed children — just on a selfish level enjoyed having everybody around.
The film presents a portrait of this rich partnership in terms of both a marriage and in a political sense. What are your thoughts on how that role of the politician’s spouse and the perception of it has shifted, particularly in terms of the first lady?
Well, it’s evolved. I was listening to a story a few days ago that was about the scrutiny of Michelle Obama and what she wears — you know, that sometimes she wears sweatpants or casual wear and that she should really be more like a first lady.
Oh, yeah? [laughs]
Right? There was that quote that somebody in the Romney camp had said — she should act more like a first lady, she doesn’t look like a first lady. And then everybody thought it was racist. Then they did a follow up and it was like, “Well, no. It was just that she wears sweatpants and she goes running and she’s, you know, not doing things that first ladies should do.”
I think that there’s a scrutiny to what we think first ladies should be based on pictures from a hundred years ago. Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton are really smart, empowered women, and it’s like what Helen Thomas says, “You only have one shot at the barrel, you’ve gotta take it when you’re there and try to make the changes you can.” I’m all for having an empowered first lady who can really use that position to improve conditions, be a role model and make change.
I thought it was interesting that your mother came from a Republican family. Did she have a political awakening in terms of her initial involvement with the Kennedy family? What were her political stances like in the beginning?
She wasn’t political at all. She came from a Republican background, but as the film shows, she met my father and got very excited about working in Jack’s congressional campaign. She just loved it. She had a knack for it and she was inclined towards it and she went with it. I think she also saw the potential of change and how you could impact that from an elected position and was really excited about that. She was excited about Jack and who he was. She knew him intimately, and I think she felt like he was a spectacular person who could do wonderful things in this country. The same with my father. I think she shifted totally and completely and ended up on a path that she didn’t expect, but jumped into wholeheartedly.