"Ethel": A warm portrait of an unconventional life

Sure, the best kind of documentary is unbiase, impartial, skeptical. Still, there's something to be said for the loving piece by an insider.

Earlier, HBO had an excellent George H.W. Bush portrait, done by his friend. Now it has a delightful Ethel Kennedy one, by her daughter. Here's the story I sent to papers:


To outsiders, Bobby and Ethel Kennedy
seemed like a precise match.

Each was lean, athletic, competitive.
Each grew up in a family that was big, rich and Catholic.

Still, there were huge differences.
“The Kennedys were very organized,” Ethel, the subject of a new
HBO documentary, told reporters. “Dinner was always served at 7:15;
if you were a minute late, it really wasn't worth it. In my family
(the Skakels), you never knew when dinner was going to be. It could
be at 7 o'clock; it could be at 10.”

There were bigger differences, on the
political side. The Skakels were Republicans, the Kennedys were
Democrats; Ethel was a spirited campaigner, Bobby was a reluctant

As they raised their own family, they
came closest to the Kennedy tradition. Dinners were organized,
especially, she said, the Sunday ones:

“Everyone going around the table had
to tell something about what was going on in the world,” she said.
“It was an adult conversation and they responded to it beautifully
.... I think it helped make them aware that there are a lot of people
out there who don't live the way they live and who need help.”

Some of the kids became activists or
politicians. The youngest, Rory, became a documentary-maker who has
received an Emmy (for “The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”) and strong
praise for others, especially “American Hollow,” her classic
Appalachian portrait.

Still, she avoided, films about her
family. Eventually, after much nudging by HBO, she asked her mother
and was surprised to get a yes. “She hadn't done an interview in 20
or 25 years.”

So Rory interviewed her mother and
siblings. Usually, she said, “we're not kind of a 'share all'
family.” So she was hearing things she'd never known, like “the
sea mammal that she would have in the car, picking up the kids”
from school. Or the suggestion.

Touring J. Edgar Hoover's FBI with some
of her kids, Ethel Kennedy saw a suggestion box. Using her
distinctive pen, she suggested: “Get a new director.”

Looking back at that comment now, she's
sheepish. “It was rude,” she said, “and I apologize for that.”

Her daughter, however, finds it
typical. “Throughout my life, my mother has been somebody who
speaks truth to (powerful people), very freely and openly and often.”

Rory Kennedy recalls the time that she
and her brother Douglas wanted to join a Washington protest against
Apartheid in South Africa. She was hesitant to ask her mother.

“Without missing a beat, she said,
'Great, I'll drive you down there. Let's go right now.'

“And, you know, we drove down and we
got arrested and she couldn't have been more proud.”

– “Ethel,” 9 p.m. Thursday, HBO,
repeating overnight at 4:30 a.m.

– Also: 1:45 p.m. Sunday, 6:45 p.m.
Oct. 24, 9:45 a.m. Oct. 27, 3:15 p.m. Oct. 29