Over "the course of four or five days" at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port in summer 2011 -- with the iconic images of the current clan sailing and playing touch football -- "I think that she was able to move beyond the cameras and the crew and be herself," said Kennedy, whose husband, Mark Bailey, wrote the script for the documentary. "One of her driving characteristics is that she has a genuine love of people and a joy of life. She really makes the best of every moment. The hard times and the difficult moments, she sees as learning opportunities. She's really funny, she's athletic, competitive, outgoing, feisty. She's got moxie."
If Robert Kennedy grew up in a household run by matriarch Rose Kennedy -- where dinner was on the table at 7:15 "and that did not mean 7:16" -- his wife grew up in the rascally Skakel household (Republicans, mind you), where the kids were never sure if dinner would be at 5 p.m. or at 10. In college, Ethel started each day spending half an hour reading odds on race horses. And when her daughter presents her with a demerit book kept by her school, "Mummy" launches into a story about the day she and buddy Jean Kennedy (later her sister-in-law) decided to attend the Harvard-Yale game.
"But if you had racked up a certain number of demerits, you were campused. So we took the demerit book and threw it down the incinerator."
Later, such rebelliousness turned to social action that complemented her husband's, even if the timing was occasionally inopportune. Take the time when her husband was a U.S. senator from New York, his wife and children had been out riding horses and came across a malnourished and mistreated horse. She asked her groom to take the horse to her home, the owner sued, and Ethel, pregnant with her 10th child, was hauled into court for horse theft.
Such stories delight her daughter. But in making the film, Rory Kennedy also learned something about the mother who raised her as a single parent. "I obviously knew the story points of her life, but I came to appreciate them from a different angle." Before his brother was president, Robert Kennedy served as chief counsel for the Senate Labor Rackets Committee and famously went after Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa. Today his daughter marvels at her parents' courage, as she learned to understand "the threats made on my mother and the children." A reporter covering the investigation had acid thrown in his face. "It was a pretty intense time. There were real threats on my family."
If this is a film that is a marked departure from Kennedy's other work, it is one she's happy with. And her mother? "She deflects from herself and focuses on me making the film. 'She did so much with so little,' she tells people."