For Hollywood it's been no walk in the park
Published 17/11/2013 | 01:00
One of the most famous segments of film ever recorded was shot by an amateur cameraman called Abraham Zapruder in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. No TV stations were on hand to film John F Kennedy's visit to Dallas, because it was considered uninteresting and routine. Zapruder, a lifelong Democrat and ardent fan of the Kennedys, had turned up in downtown Dallas to film the president's visit for posterity.
Instead, Zapruder ended up capturing the only extant images of one of the most shocking events in American history. His 26 seconds of film shot on an 8mm Zoomatic camera caught the awful moment when a bullet entered Kennedy's head and the 35th president of the United States slumped sideways lifeless.
The following day he sold the footage to Life Magazine for $150,000, but gave $25,000 to the widow of a Dallas policeman killed on the same day as Kennedy, and remained traumatised by what he'd seen until his death seven years later. Zapruder's film would later become a key part of both official investigations and unofficial conspiracy theories, and the footage, which is in the hands of the American National Archives, was recently valued at $16m.
Thanks to Zapruder, the Dallas shooting could be considered the most cinematic political assassination of all time. Odd, then, that moviemakers have been so uninterested in directly depicting the incident on film. Indeed, for much of the 1960s, national grief meant the Kennedys were more or less a taboo subject in Hollywood, especially after Bobby's assassination in 1968.
Schlock B-movie director Larry Buchanan did release a dodgy little legal drama called The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald less than a year after the Dallas shooting, but even he didn't have the bad taste to directly depict JFK himself, and generally speaking Hollywood left the Kennedys alone for most of the 1960s.
And in the 1970s and 1980s, it was television that was quickest to dare to directly dramatise the glamorous lives of Jack, Jackie, Bobby and the rest of Camelot's cast.
The problem filmmakers faced in approaching the lives of Jack and Bobby Kennedy was the troubling fissure between myth and reality. Justly celebrated for their political achievements, both brothers also died young (Jack was 46, Bobby just 42), thus ensuring an effective public canonisation.
But both men had complex private lives, particularly Jack, and for a long time Hollywood was understandably reluctant to take their stories on.
Instead, we got the odd hagiography, films based on popular conspiracy theories, and fictionalised versions of their assassinations.
Films like Executive Action (1973), Winter Kills (1979) and The Parallax View (1974) all dramatised the growing public conviction in America that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have acted alone in killing Jack Kennedy, and that a second assassin would have to have been involved.
Alan Pakula's cult conspiracy thriller The Parallax View starred Warren Beatty as a newspaper reporter who investigates a high level cover-up in the killing of a presidential candidate, and its theories about a second shooter were obvious references to the JFK shooting. In William Richert's dark satire Winter Kills, a character clearly based on Lee Harvey Oswald's killer Jack Ruby makes a deathbed confession about his role in the assassination of a fictional American present 10 years before.
David Miller's 1973 film Executive Action approached the JFK assassination more directly. The film, which was written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, starred Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan as members of a sinister right-wing cabal that decides to kill Jack Kennedy because of his liberal policies and reluctance to go to war. It was entertaining enough, but seemed a little farfetched. And the cherished beliefs of Kennedy conspiracy theorists would be expounded much more forcefully and effectively in Oliver Stone's JFK (see panel).
The earlier TV movies and dramas based on the Kennedys tiptoed around the more controversial aspects of the family's legacy. Jaclyn Smith played a resplendent younger Jackie in the 1981 TV movie Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, which painted a fairly rosy picture of her courtship and marriage to Jack. And Blair Brown starred as Jackie opposite Martin Sheen's Jack in the solid and respectable 1983 miniseries Kennedy, which concentrated on JFK's political achievements and drew a discreet veil over his less salutary hobbies.
Over time, TV producers became slightly less timorous in their treatment of the Kennedys. William Petersen from the forensic show CSI was cast as the family's hardnosed patriarch Joe in the 1990 miniseries The Kennedys of Massachusetts, which addressed Kennedy Senior's extramarital affairs and his strong influence on Jack, Bobby and Ted's development.
JFK's affairs were hinted at in dramas like A Woman Named Jackie (1991), which starred Sarah Michelle Gellar and Roma Downey and portrayed Jackie as a put-upon but resourceful secular saint.
But the controversial 2011 TV mini-series The Kennedys pulled no punches in terms of Jack's personal shortcomings, and outraged Kennedy loyalists and the political left in America, who suspected an ideologically motivated stitch-up.
Their concerns centred on Joel Surnow, the show's producer. Surnow, who co-created the hit TV series 24, is a vocal right-wing Republican, and even before The Kennedys was filmed it was angrily attacked for its inaccuracies and politically motivated agenda. The History Channel eventually dropped plans to screen the show, which starred Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as his sainted wife.
According to its critics, the show made things up as it went along, and portrayed Jack as a disorganised sex addict.
At one point in the show, the secret service try to locate the president on an urgent matter of state and find him having sex with a strange woman in a swimming pool. "It's not just sex scenes," one commentator complained, "it's sex scenes combined with demeaning every achievement that Kennedy ever did."
In fact no one seems to have been able to get the balance right between Jack Kennedy's public achievements and private failings, and the better films and dramas about have concentrated solely on his career.
One of the very best is Thirteen Days (2000), a Roger Donaldson movie that dramatises the most serious incident in Jack Kennedy's political life. In October of 1962, the Kennedy administration was shown U-2 surveillance photos proving that the Russians were in the process of installing nuclear warheads in Cuba.
The world watched in horror as a nasty stand-off developed between Washington and Moscow that everyone feared would end in a nuclear war. But as Thirteen Days shows, JFK and his advisers were secretly involved in back-channel communications with Nikita Khrushchev in an effort to avoid conflict without giving in to Russia's schemes. It's a gripping thriller, and a fine cast included Bruce Greenwood as Jack Kennedy, Kevin Costner as his key adviser Kenneth O'Donnell, and Stephen Culp as Bobby.
In 2006, Emilio Estevez attempted to assess the significance of Robert Kennedy's assassination in an ambitious ensemble drama set in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles. It was there, just after midnight on June 5, 1968, that Bobby was shot by a lone assassin called Sirhan Sirhan.
In Bobby, disparate guests and employees at the Ambassador find their lives brutally interrupted by the Kennedy killing, which is presented as a tragedy for the nation. Estevez's film was honourably intentioned and boasted an all-star cast, but didn't really work.
A new film called Parkland that's released here next week attempts to do something similar around the JFK assassination. Parkland stars James Badge Dale, Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton and Jacki Weaver, and dramatises the effect of Jack Kennedy's death not just on his family and associates, but on the medical staff at the hospital to which he was rushed, and even the mother and siblings of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Parkland even includes a role for Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti plays him), the mild-mannered clothing manufacturer who briefly became the most famous cameraman on the planet.