This is an unusual story of a singular woman during a particularly difficult time in American history. The woman is Ethel Skakel Kennedy: wife of Robert F. Kennedy, US attorney general under his brother JFK until he was assassinated…who was himself assassinated 5 years later while running for US president in 1968. Ethel was the steadfast mother to their eleven children – the last of which, Rory, was three months in her tummy when her dad was killed.
Rory Kennedy, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, made the decision to make this documentary of her mother’s life – a woman who gave no interviews for the next 30 years after her husband died – but gave her life unstintingly to her eleven children, to his many social justice causes, and now her 33 grandchildren. But that was a hard decision, for how do you do that life justice? How do you ask questions of the most incredibly painful moments in one woman’s life history and the history of the US? How do you tell the story of the life of your own mother?
But Ethel is an extraordinary tribute. Ethel glows with vibrant life, glorious wit and an easy-going, fun-loving spirit – from the old family movies that start off the film – to the present-day interviews at the age of 83. Her beautiful face, not as iconized as that of her sister-in-law, Jackie Kennedy, is striking, and always on the verge of laughter, winking or making a silly face. Rory’s siblings’ interviews are full of gentle teasing, funny reflections, and never-told-before anecdotes and insights. It’s marvelous.
One sees more than a few glimpses of the real Ethel – perpetually throwing tea parties to help with the campaign efforts, always getting herself into trouble,* the faithful widow who lived for her children when her husband was killed. [*= horse-thievery in VA was punishable by hanging, but she was just trying to save three starving horses from dying! Fortunately she was not convicted – and all this while RFK was attorney general!]
There is perhaps one moment when the photo montage seems to go on just a bit too long. (The rest of it is so riveting I feel even mentioning this is not quite fair) And the day after the screening, an older woman tells me on the Sundance shuttle bus that she heard Ethel was great, but it’s obviously an idealized account, because Ethel wasn’t known for always being the nicest person (and recounts a story of her demanding a refund on the return of a dress she’d obviously worn for two years). And though it does feel a bit funny to realize, of course, Ethel couldn’t have been a perfect human being (as I felt after watching Ethel) … perhaps Ethel DID have a bit of an agenda … I realize that I don’t care.
I’m all for honesty in film, but the finished product of Ethel struck me as a very honest rendering. It let the general public see into the very (understandably) private world of a family’s very public grief. It gave the remarkable Ethel Kennedy the chance to step out of the shadow of her glamorous sister-in-law as a beautiful individual with incredible merit. It served as a loving daughter’s tribute to her phenomenal mother. And perhaps for the woman herself who has borne such pain and grief for decades – perhaps without the due acknowledgement or companionship of the rest of the world – it seems deeply appropriate and right that we should all finally be allowed to meet and recognize, know and understand, enjoy and celebrate Ethel.