As a filmmaker, Rory Kennedy -- Ethel and Robert Kennedy's youngest child, born six months after his assassination in 1968 -- has turned her camera on AIDS in Uganda and Thailand, rural poverty in Appalachia, the nuclear power plant at New York's Indian Point, and Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
But she has resisted filming her own family, a family that is as close to royalty as Americans get, a family whose every move is chronicled in headlines -- be it Mary Kennedy's suicide; Kerry Kennedy's sideswiping a truck on a New York interstate, sparking allegations of Ambien in her system; or Conor Kennedy's romance with Taylor Swift.
So when Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO documentary films, asked Kennedy to do a film about her mother, Kennedy said no.
And she said no again, and again. "It was a combination of knowing that my mother didn't like doing interviews and doesn't like talking about herself, and it would not be comfortable for me or for her. Our family has had a lot of joy but also a lot of very sad times," said Kennedy, a mother of three who lives in Los Angeles after many years in Brooklyn.
But Nevins was "very persistent," so Kennedy came up with a strategy certain to set the matter to rest: "I would ask my mother, and she would say no.
"But my mother, surprisingly, said yes, and she said yes because I asked her."
The result is "Ethel," a 98-minute film that is a combination documentary and love letter to her 84-year-old mother; it received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past February and airs tonight on HBO. "Ethel" moves seamlessly, touchingly and often humorously from Ethel Kennedy's early childhood (she was mischievous); through her courtship and marriage to Bobby (he went out with her sister first); and through the sobering years of Jack Kennedy's presidency and assassination, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and her own husband's 1968 campaign for the presidency and assassination ("Can we talk about something else?" she says when the subject comes up).
Although she has spent half her life as a widow, "Ethel" covers largely the years with her husband, as an engaged political spouse, mother, and social activist in her own right. The "initial concept," said her daughter, "was to do more of a balanced film, present day and the past. But we went through all the archival material, and it was so evident -- with Jack's campaigning, the McCarthy hearings [Robert Kennedy was briefly counsel to anti-Communist Sen. Joe McCarthy] to the civil rights movement, to all these international trips -- my mother is there. I really felt like exploring that territory and understanding what it was like to live through those times."
Despite such rich material, Ethel Kennedy is a reluctant interviewee. "Why should I have to answer all these questions?" she asks at the outset.
"Well, we're making a documentary about you?" responds Rory.
At that, "Mummy" throws her head back and laughs. And it turns out she is nothing if not game.
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."