Destiny hangs, decidedly shroud-like, over “Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot,” an NBC mini that’s had its airing delayed a couple of times, most recently due to an unwise proximity to the election. Focusing on the three wives of the three Kennedy brothers, the pic flirts rather perilously with campiness early on, but lets its more heartfelt side take over as it proceeds from JFK’s election as president in 1960 to Ted Kennedy’s defeat for the same office in 1980. This isn’t exactly classy stuff, washing plenty of familiar dirty laundry in public, and it covers too much ground to bother with insight, but it achieves moments of genuine poignancy nonetheless. After all, it’s a helluva tale.
Jill Hennessy, of “Law & Order” fame, portrays the inimitable Jackie, icon of elegant suffering. It’s not ideal casting. Even with costume designer Arthur Rowsell’s carefully re-created garments and hairdos that give her the right look, Hennessy simply doesn’t possess the right natural grace. But this pic has a habit of telling us more that it shows us, and the actress manages to communicate the most important elements of the story without ever making it especially convincing.
As Robert’s wife Ethel, Lauren Holly (“Picket Fences”) is clipped and notably unrefined, transforming this lesser known figure into a potentially catty villain, before we realize over time that she means well.
David Stevens’ teleplay, based on J. Randy Tarraborrelli’s book, effectively captures the contradictions in the relationship between these two women, who were so very different that they struggled to get along, but who could count on each other in the worst times of distress. Leslie Stefanson (“The General’s Daughter”) plays Ted’s first wife Joan, who struggled with alcoholism and seems happiest when Ted’s in traction.
Overall, it’s relatively well-done. It does hold your attention, particularly when, leading up to the assassinations, the dramatic irony comes to the forefront.
Director Larry Shaw lingers too much over Jackie’s blood-stained glove after JFK (Daniel Hugh Kelly) is shot, but that’s a forgivable indulgence. The second evening takes off from that point, and obsesses less with the husbands’ affairs and more with the women finding their own identities.
The question remains: Exactly what purpose does a TV movie like this serve in our culture? Is it an opportunity for people to purge their grief once again, to mix an injection of nostalgia with their sadness? Or is it intended to allow the audience to look down on, or at least pity, the people who once seemed so admirable and glamorous? Is this soap opera, or grand tragedy?
It’s both, of course, and this combination gives this entire endeavor, and others of its ilk, a distinct layer of seediness. One minute, husband and wife discuss saving the free world from nuclear destruction, the next they’re engaged in a fleeting domestic quarrel.
This mini, as it must, equates these issues in scale, unwittingly reducing both. While the mini gives the Kennedy boys their due as political leaders, it not surprisingly seems determined to avoid a real point of view on the times it depicts, and even avoids too harsh a judgment on the male philandering it consistently alludes to.
Shaw wants to leave the moral evaluations to the audience, and therefore works hard at making sure the film has no ideas of its own.
Still, when the tragedy starts hitting, and then hits again, and again, it becomes more and more difficult to resist the sense that this story does cover some deep dark human ground worth exploring.
This is the story of the most famous American family of all. It’s a story of ambition attained, dreams deflated, ideals compromised, but above all, it’s a story of pure, unrelenting resilience. What makes the Kennedy women dramatic heroes? They endured.