If Rory Kennedy’s main goal was introducing her mother to the world as an amazing figure in her own right, count Ethel as a successful venture. At the Film Forum discussing the movie, Kennedy’s ode to her mother was described as amazing and tear-jerking.
Roberta Berson, a Massachusetts transplant who came to the screening of Ethel because of her interest in Bobby and Jack, left with a complete love of Ethel Kennedy. “She was just so ahead of her time in child-rearing.”
Ethel the film, of course, told the story of Ethel the woman, who was raised by conservative Republicans who made their own fortune in coal, then married Bobby Kennedy and became a figure on independence and strength.
I couldn’t help but notice the amazing difference in the way Ethel Kennedy was apparently raised and the way she raised her 11 children. Surely, the series of tragedies in her life, from her parents death in a plane crash to her husband’s historic assassination during his campaign for president. But there also seemed a transformation for Ethel as she was exposed to a world of social problems.
The way that the elected Kennedy brothers turned so much attention on the poor has been well-documented in the past, but the impact witnessing poverty and social injustice had upon Ethel Kennedy is a subject largely untouched before now.
That isn’t to say that Bobby’s story isn’t told extremely well with this film. Before the screening, Rory Kennedy brushed off questions about whether this film helped her better understand her father. She did so again when a similar question was posed during the Q&A after the film. This is her mother’s story, Rory Kennedy says. And yet, a deep understanding of Robert Kennedy, who died before Rory was born, seems to be uncovered with special form by a daughter digging through archive tapes.
Of course, the star remains Ethel. It is this family matriarch, not Bobby, who drags her children to Congressional hearings, who makes them discuss current events at the dinner table, who send her children as they get older on foreign exchange trips to some of the more desolate parts of the globe.
There are noticeable gaps in the film. The deaths of Ethel’s sons David and Michael receive only short mention. During five days of interviews done by Rory with her mother, it was clear the subject was off limits.
But filmgoers at the Forum all said that was a small price to pay to get a glimpse at the real Ethel, who hasn’t done sit-down interviews with anyone else for decades. “Other filmmakers would have sensationalized this,” said one guest.
Indeed, talking about Bobby’s death, an inescapable portion of her life story, Ethel nearly shuts down. The description of funeral processions is difficult. She tells Rory, “Ask another question.” Most likely, any other filmmaker would never have been allowed this much of a peek into these dark moments of her life.
Where Ethel the film succeeds subsequently is not in prying out the darkness so well-tread in Kennedy biopics but in finding the optimism and strength that carries the family forward. Ethel the woman leads by example and with strength, and the power of that personality was projected on the big screen in way no other filmmaker likely could.
I asked the question at our forum if any other storyteller should have done this film instead of Rory Kennedy. The answer. It seemed clear nobody else ever could tell this tale, much less tell it so well.
Keep an eye on this blog to see some footage from the Film Forum and for more news on Rory Kennedy’s visit to Sarasota. On Monday, Ethel will be shown to special youth audiences at Sarasota High School and at a special screening at the Hollywood 20. Rory Kennedy’s In Conversation will begin at Sarasota High School at 5:30pm.