Ethel Skakel Kennedy, 84, who was married to Robert F. Kennedy for 18 years and has been keeping his work and memory alive for another 44 and counting since his death in this very city, looks warily at the digital recorder I’ve taken out of my front inside pocket. That doesn’t seem like such a good idea, she makes clear.
Her youngest daughter, Rory, 43, who has made a name for herself filming and recording people’s words and actions, is seated next to Ethel on the sofa and offers a sympathetic, even collegial half frown, as if to say: Tough break — don’t waste your time trying to sway my mother. Look how long it took me.
Rory — who has made plenty of notable award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentaries on topics as varied as Appalachian poverty, the U.S.-Mexican border and torture at Abu Ghraib — has finally made the movie many thought she would never make. The one about her family.
“Ethel,” premiering on HBO on Thursday night, perhaps isn’t what fervent students of the Kennedy mystique (which is still about half the checkout lines of America) may have hoped. People who think the Kennedy cake has been overfrosted surely won’t fall for it, even though the film is undeniably moving. No one in the film tells all, certainly not Ethel.
In the first few minutes of the film, Rory leads her mother to a chair in a well-lit sitting room in Hyannisport. “Why should I have to answer all these questions?” Ethel wants to know.
“Well, we’re making a documentary about you,” Rory says.
“Such a bad idea,” Ethel says with a grimace.
Kennedys don’t cry (as eldest sibling Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, now 61, notes in the film), and they don’t divulge. Ethel hasn’t granted an interview of any length or depth in more than two decades.
On this particular August afternoon, she’ll give several short interviews to outlets besides The Washington Post — revealing little — and then she and Rory will sit on a stage for 20 minutes before a couple of hundred critics and reporters during HBO’s session at the TV industry’s summer press tour. The writers are free to ask anything they want, including whether Ethel’s grandson, Conor, might one day marry the singer Taylor Swift, to whom he has been linked in gossip columns. (“We should be so lucky,” Ethel says. “You can just leave it at that,” Rory says, baffled.)