EXCLUSIVE: Hollywood Reporter Obtains 'The Kennedys'; What the First Episode Reveals
What if The Kennedys miniseries isn’t nearly as salacious as some fear?
The Hollywood Reporter has obtained and viewed the completed first episode of executive producer Joel Surnow’s controversial 8-part mini-series starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes as John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy. The expensive and ambitious project was scrapped Jan. 11 by History channel parent A&E Television Networks and is currently being shopped to other buyers (it will air in Canada and other countries starting in March).
The brisk, entertaining hour is certainly melodramatic in parts, and it does contain allusions to John F. Kennedy’s pill-popping and womanizing, such as one scene in which a young Joe Kennedy, Jr. tells his father he’s headed to lunch with the Foreign Secretary and JFK winks and announces he’s “lunching with the Secretary’s secretary” instead. There also is a general sense that JFK was the unremarkable playboy brother of Joe, who should have been president had he not died in World War II. Family patriarch Joe Kennedy, Sr. (Tom Wilkinson) is painted as a manipulative, power-mad Svengali who helps engineer JFK’s political career as a rebuke to the former president who fired him as Ambassador and to avenge a favored son who died at war.
But the episode differs significantly from an early, racier script that has recently popped up online and was criticized last year by a former JFK aide as “malicious” and “vindictive.” The final version is less sensationalistic and controversial, less concerned with the embarrassing aspects of the Kennedy lifestyle and more focused on moving along a compelling narrative.
THR only has viewed one of the eight hour-long episodes, so the rest of the miniseries could be far more incendiary. But the final version of the first episode suggests that History execs and the miniseries’ creators were telling the truth when they said that the entire project had been vetted by historians before shooting began—which, of course, makes the decision to yank the project all the more puzzling.
After a regal opening theme reminiscent of HBO’s John Adams miniseries, the episode opens with a quote from French Renaissance author Michel de Montaigne: “Ambition is not a vice of little people,” alluding both to the outsized goals and sense of political purpose that have created the Kennedy family legacy. The opening shots intercut a rally during the 1960 presidential campaign with a nervous JFK self-medicating with pills on the day of the election. Then Joe Sr. is introduced, managing the campaign with an iron fist and exerting huge influence over sons Jack, Joe Jr. and Bobby (Barry Pepper). After a nice moment between JFK, Jackie and little Caroline as they rub her pregnant stomach (“Today’s a big day,” Jackie tells Caroline. “Your daddy’s going to become president.”), the action soon flashes back to Joe Sr’s clash with President Roosevelt over what to do about Hitler when he served as Ambassador to the UK—an incident that gets him fired and sets him on a course to amass more power for his sons than he was able to achieve himself. “This country is ours for the taking,” he advises them.
In these scenes, Joe Sr. is depicted kissing his secretary’s neck in his office while his boys look on with mischievous smiles on their faces, as well as questioning his wife Rose's strong Catholicism (she’s the “finest wife a fellow could have, but I don’t understand her faith,” he says. “I admire it but I don’t understand it.”) and teaching his kids to play dirty in politics (“It’s not what you are, it’s what people think you are. And with the right amount of money you can make them think whatever you want”).
But rumored depictions of explicit sexual liasons with his secretary are not in the final episode, nor are scenes of Jack abusing drugs (other than the pills), having affairs or crassly discussing with Bobby his inability to stay faithful to one woman, all of which have been rumored online as being part of the first episode (although they could be in subsequent hours, of course).
At one point, Joe Sr. does confront Jack about his involvement with married Danish woman Inga Arvard, whom J. Edgar Hoover believed was a spy. But any fears the Kennedys or other viewers might have that JFK would be depicted as fearful of joining the military are unfounded. Jack cuts a deal with his father, who allows him to serve in the Navy as long as he drops the Danish girl.
After a brief scare when Joe Sr. thinks Jack might have died overseas, the family is rocked by Joe Jr’s death in combat. Joe Sr. flies into a rage, condemning his wife Catholic faith. But gone is the scene, reportedly in an early draft, of Joe Sr. breaking a crucifix over his knee. In the final version, Joe Sr. curses the cross but hands it over to Rose intact.
The episode ends with a grieving Joe Sr. telling his son, “It’s up to you now, Jack. You know that, don’t you?”
“I can’t do it,” JFK responds. “I’m not Joe.”
“You’ll do it, Jack,” Joe Sr. responds. “For him. For all of us.”