Emmys: Raising the Curtain – Finally – on Ethel Kennedy

The long road to making the mother/daughter "Ethel," on the Oscar shortlist and now an Emmy hopeful

This story appears in TheWrap's EmmyWrap Reality Issue.

Rory Kennedy’s moving documentary “Ethel” has traveled a long road. 

Last August, it opened the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks showcase. Then it had a short theatrical run to qualify for the Academy Awards before premiering on HBO. Then it made the Oscar shortlist of 15, necessitating another round of screenings and Q&As for Kennedy.

Now it’s one of the HBO Documentary Films submissions in the Outstanding Nonfiction Special Program category. 

But then “Ethel” has already been on a long road. Made by the youngest of the 11 children born to Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy, it came about only after HBO Docs chief Sheila Nevins kept bugging Kennedy to make a film about her mother, who hadn’t given an extended interview in more than 20 years.

“I immediately said no, but Sheila was insistent, and I realized that my mother does have a really interesting story,” Kennedy (below, with her mother) told TheWrap. “My siblings and I had encouraged her to write a book about her life, but she clearly was not going to do that. So I figured I might as well ask her about a movie."

Kennedy, who won an Emmy for “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” and was nominated for “Bobby Fischer Against the World” and “American Hollow,” thought her mother would decline. “But she surprised me by saying yes. She later told me, ‘I did it because you asked me to do it.’”

The film has a gentle touch and a keen eye for the best way to illuminate the humor, heartbreak and indomitable spirit of a woman who deserves to be known for far more than just being the widow of the onetime U.S. Attorney General, senator and assassinated 1968 presidential candidate.

“So many people around her had made such significant contributions, and she didn’t even realize the contributions she had made,” Kennedy said.

Ethel Kennedy emerges in the film as a vibrant, playful presence, and as a woman who not only raised 11 children largely by herself and was dubbed “Washington’s No. 1 hostess” by one newspaper, but who served as an sometimes invisible but often invaluable sounding board to her husband during his lifetime, and became an active crusader for human rights and social justice after his death.

“She became a force of nature in her own right,” says one of her children in the film.

Ethel sums up her tragedies with a simple, "Nobody gets a free ride," and the film carries a strong sense of melancholy that comes from seeing her as the survivor of a key moment in history when the country went inexorably down a dark road. But it is also richly detailed and funny.

“Obviously, history has focused on the men in my family," said Kennedy. "To be able to ask my mother what was it like at home during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Jimmy Hoffa hearings, that produces a new dimension and richness to the history.”