In Ethel, a new HBO documentary that premiered at Sundance and was screened in East Hampton as the finale of the Hamptons International Film Festival Summerdocs series at Guild Hall, the fascination with all things Kennedy shifts to the legacy of Robert, murdered in 1968 while campaigning for president of the United States. The filmmaker Rory Kennedy, his 11th child, was born a few months later, and while her quest to mine the material of her father's life might have been her mission, she focuses instead on the role of her mother in their remarkable marriage, and in the aftermath of his death.
Ethel Skakel, as seen in archival footage, is feisty and toothsome, a child of privilege with a rebellious spirit. She fell in love with Robert as he was starting to date her sister, and two years later, after he left the States to cover the formation of the country of Israel in the Middle East, the handsome Kennedy fell to her. Seeing her by his side through John F. Kennedy's presidency when Robert was Attorney General, and beyond is to see a force of nature who still has many stories to tell about a time in American history when political figures spoke about social commitment in a way that seems revolutionary and substantial compared to today's politics, just as the platitudes are amping up for our elections ahead. The documentary may also serve as an instruction manual in good, responsible parenting. Rory Kennedy allows her mother to tell their family story in her own words, and also interviews her siblings.
At the Q&A, host Alec Baldwin paid tribute to Ethel Kennedy who was seated in a rear box of Guild Hall by recounting his experience participating in her golf tournament. After encouraging him that he'd do fine, by the third hole, even this ultimate optimist had to admit, Baldwin could not play. Others in attendance were Sarah Davis, Jean Kennedy Smith and her son Michael Kennedy Smith. Needless to say, some tough, edgy questions about tragedy and family scandal are not part of this film inspired by mother love, which is just as well.
The previously screened documentary in this series, The Zen of Bennett, was also made by an adoring son, Danny Bennett. And that film too underscores a remarkable life, enormous generosity and talent as it reveals the back story of the making of Tony Bennett's second Duets albums, featuring Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, among other music legends. Viewers will come away remembering sessions with a life-loving blue haired Lady Gaga doing, "The Lady is a Tramp" and a modestly awed, big haired Amy Winehouse repeating "Body and Soul" until she gets it spine tingling right, channeling Dinah Washington but ultimately her own. Unforgettable is Bennett upon hearing the news of Winehouse's death by overdose, the "zen" of that. Screened at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, the film was followed by a party at the Tribeca Grill hosted by Netflix. Mitch Winehouse attended, and like everyone else, this father was still trying to make sense of inexplicable loss.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.