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Friday, June 10, 2011

The Kennedys: A new TV series portrays America's foremost political dynasty to be riddled with scandal from drug addiction to mafia bribes


Against an evocative musical backdrop of soaring French horns, an American flag flutters in the breeze. The stirring imagery could easily be the opening sequence of Eighties soap-opera Dynasty, famous for its power suits, big hair and catfights.
Until, that is, the Stars and Stripes makes way for black-and-white archive footage, and John F. Kennedy - or, rather, actor Greg Kinnear, complete with impressive quiff - declaiming to an enraptured crowd.
It is certainly a mini-series, with all the attendant glamour and intrigue, but this one is rooted in fact. Or is it? The Kennedys, an eight-part dramatisation of the rise and fall of America’s most famous political family which arrives on BBC2 this week after an unheralded slot on Sky’s History channel earlier this year, has been mired in controversy, not least over its historical accuracy - or lack thereof.
Questionable: The Kennedys, an eight-part dramatisation of the rise and fall of America's most famous political family which arrives on BBC2 this week has been mired in controversy
Questionable: The Kennedys, an eight-part dramatisation of the rise and fall of America's most famous political family which arrives on BBC2 this week has been mired in controversy
It so horrified surviving members of the Kennedy clan that they are said to have campaigned to prevent its broadcast. You can understand why. While the character portrayals are generally sympathetic, many family skeletons - admittedly long since fallen out of the wardrobe, but quietly packed away again - get a good airing.

 

The Cuban Missile Crisis and the President’s fractious relationships with his generals are played out in full, as is his and wife Jackie’s increasing reliance on doctor-administered ‘little helpers’ to get them through the day.
Both Kinnear and Katie Holmes, whose Jackie is a mix of fragile beauty and determination, immersed themselves in historical footage in a bid to make their portrayals as credible as possible. Kinnear says the role was ‘intimidating’ but ‘great’. ‘It was like a six-month history class. Only when I got involved in the project did I realise how little I knew about him and how much work I had to do.’
Making history: US President Kennedy (centre), surrounded by his father Joseph, his mother Rose and his wife Jacqueline, in the early 1960s at the White House
Making history: US President Kennedy (centre), surrounded by his father Joseph, his mother Rose and his wife Jacqueline, in the early 1960s at the White House
It’s a sentiment echoed by Holmes, who says the more she learned about Jackie, the more her admiration grew. ‘She was an editor, an illustrator, a painter, and she spoke many languages,’ she says.
Holmes was struck by the First Lady’s struggle to balance her public and private lives, and maintain dignity amid rumours of her husband’s infidelity. ‘I think the positive thing about these two people is that they really did adore each other. They were a powerful team. But we do touch on his affairs.’
I think there will be hell to pay if anyone is ever foolish enough to put this banal, repetitive old-hat list of libels and slanders on air...
Womanising aside, JFK comes across as a man of principle, something which cannot be said for his father Joe, played by British actor Tom Wilkinson. In one scene, he’s seen negotiating with Frank Sinatra to secure a Kennedy vote from the Chicago mafia and, in another, authorising a lobotomy on his daughter, John’s 23-year-old sister Rosie.
A shy girl who had learning difficulties and mood swings, she was nonetheless able to live a good life, attending tea dances and keeping a diary. The irreversible surgery left her barely functioning, capable only of blank-eyed stares, and she lived in institutions until her death six years ago, at 86.
The series caused disquiet from the outset. After viewing early drafts of the script in 2010, the late Ted Sorensen, JFK’s speechwriter, insisted scenes between his filmic counterpart and JFK never took place. ‘I know dead people can’t sue… but their relatives can, and their heirs and estates can,’ he said. ‘I think there will be hell to pay if anyone is ever foolish enough to put this banal, repetitive old-hat list of libels and slanders on air.’
Admiration: Katie Holmes said it was an honour to play Jackie
Admiration: Katie Holmes said it was an honour to play Jackie
He wasn’t alone in his anger. Robert Greenwald, a prominent American documentary maker, set up a website, www.stopkennedysmears.com, and publicly questioned how producer Joel Surnow, an outspoken Republican best known for small-screen thriller 24, could offer an unbiased portrayal of America’s most famous Democrat.
Yet it seemed the deal was done: by late 2010, the History channel in the US, which is part of a consortium that includes network ABC, had cited its intention to screen the drama early this year - to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration. Then, in a January statement, the channel did an about-turn, describing the ‘dramatic interpretation’ as ‘not a fit for the History brand’, sparking speculation that the Kennedy clan used their influence to get the series pulled.
The New York Post reported that John and Jackie’s daughter Caroline produced a trump card: tapes of previously-unheard conversations with her mother, which she would release through ABC - if The Kennedys was cancelled. For a few weeks it seemed as if the show would slip over the horizon unseen - that is, until the hitherto low-profile cable network ReelzChannel stepped in. Its subscriptions almost doubled immediately after it made the announcement that the series would be shown at the start of April.

Then, the History channel’s UK counterpart decided to broadcast the drama. Now it is coming to terrestrial TV. With less investment in the veracity, the crucial question is: how good is it? Some US critics praised the series as well-researched, guilty-pleasure entertainment, but others accused it of reducing the dynasty to ‘melodramatic ciphers in period costumes and in Jackie’s case, a bad wig’.
Holmes came in for biting criticism, with one reviewer likening her accent to that of ‘a five-year-old Southie [South Boston] girl with amnesia who thinks she was born in a British castle’.
But the actress has come out fighting. ‘I feel good about what we did,’ she said in a recent interview. ‘It was an honour to play Jackie. She worked very hard and made it look effortless. She did it to help her husband and ultimately to help our country.’ And despite all the controversy, it must be said it is also rather good fun to watch her.

 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2000991/The-Kennedys-A-new-TV-series-portrays-Americas-foremost-political-dynasty-riddled-scandal-drug-addiction-mafia-bribes.html#ixzz1OvgEtgfI


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