'The Kennedys': The Accent Strikes Back
by Stephanie Earp, posted Apr 4th 2011 8:30PM
By now, you've probably heard a lot of things about the miniseries 'The Kennedys.' You've likely heard that's it's wildly inaccurate and that's why History Channel dropped it. Or maybe you've heard it spun the other way -- that it's too close to the bone, and the remaining Kennedys fought the production. You're probably aware that Katie Holmes plays the legendary Jackie O. and does a terrible job. If you've been following it very closely, you may also be aware that the series was produced by a conservative (Joel Surnow, '24') and a whole bunch of spin has been applied to that angle too.
All of these things are true, but none of them get the heart of what makes 'The Kennedys' so deliciously bad.
Let's start on the surface, with the accents. The Massachusetts accent is a hard one to imitate. Push too hard and you veer off into New York territory, and don't push hard enough and you just sound like you're missing a bunch of teeth. It doesn't seem possible that this is a purposeful element of the series, but you can pretty much tell what degree of evil someone is by how close their accent is to the real thing. Joe Sr. (Tom Wilkinson) has a British accent therefore he is most evil. JFK (Greg Kinnear) occasionally remembers to drop an 'R' here or there. He is next-most evil. Jackie (Katie Holmes) has developed an accent she didn't have in life, which falls somewhere between Boston and an 8-year-old waiting for the tooth fairy. She is married to evil. RFK (Barry Pepper) nails the accent -- he is the good guy.
The miniseries opens by explaining that it was never supposed to be JFK that headed Camelot, but instead his brother Joe Jr. This plays out with the same subtlety and sophistication we might expect from a 'Star Wars' prequel. Joe Sr. is our Darth Vader -- the Kennedy boys are the hapless Skywalker boys, except with raging libidos. The series paints JFK as extremely reluctant to take up the mantle of his father's political aspirations. He says he'd rather be "chasing girls." And there are lots of girls, but funnily enough, he doesn't seem to chase them at all. They throw themselves at him, and he is the obliging pillow onto which they fall. Between the bullying he gets from his Dad and the complete indifference with which he handles his love life, this JFK may be the youngest president ever elected, but he seems utterly powerless.
By the time we hear -- inevitably -- that Jackie wants a divorce, we're not surprised. Nor are we surprised when Joe Sr. tries to bribe her to stick around to the tune of a million dollars. What did surprise me was my inner monologue: "Don't worry Jackie -- he dies in a few years and you'll be free." That's right. This miniseries had me rooting for JFK to bite it, and right quick.
I wrote earlier that Katie Holmes was terrible as Jackie, and she is. But I admit that while everyone else was flabbergasted by her casting in this role, I thought I got it. Who better to play a trapped wife of a charismatic-but-perhaps-untruthful man, loved by the masses, but despised by a select few? Who would better understand the long silences and downcast eyes required by a woman married to an infamous philanderer? If Katie could have drawn on her own experiences, it might have been a rich performance, but I'm not sure she would recognize any similarities in their positions. One assumes she's drunk the Kool-Aid. And times have changed. Jackie was a hero for what she did -- standing by her man and putting the country first. Katie is widely seen as a woman who sold herself in marriage for the chance at increased box office revenue. That it didn't work out the way she may have hoped is besides the point. We may feel sorry for her, but she made her bed.
All this said, I enjoyed watching the series. It's trashy and fun with lots of great costumes, and there is something of a thrill in seeing people who've always been characterized as heroic brought low -- like an E! True Hollywood Story. It's no secret that JFK slept around, so the only way to shock us is to make him out as ineffectual and uncommitted to the job. Whether it's because of Surnow's political views or not, it's clear this series was made by people who didn't like John and his father. It's like the series is pointing up at this giant of history and saying 'He didn't even like being president!' -- as if that changes his legacy at all.
Perhaps they knew no four-hour miniseries could really change our minds about the guy. Which is why they came up with the final indignity: those terrible accents.
'The Kennedys' debuts Sunday April 10, 9PM ET/PT on History Television in Canada, and Sunday April 3, 8PM ET/PT on Reelz Channel in the U.S.