The Kennedy women's view of life inside 'Camelot'

'Voyage of the Unicorn' is a modern fairy tale for families

It's tempting to see the NBC miniseries, Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot, as yet another excuse to mine the public's nearly bottomless curiosity about anything Kennedy.

But as it navigates once more through the heyday of the Kennedy family, the years 1960-1980, "Camelot" turns out to be more interesting than it has any right to be, given the fact that these three women have been bystanders to pretty familiar history.

This four-hour miniseries (NBC, March 4 and 5, 9-11 p.m.), which could have been merely about the reactions of three women to some of history's great moments, explores the subtle, but real and often painfully difficult choices these women made.

These three women may have made different decisions than many women might make today. But the decisions still must be made. Former first lady Hillary Clinton's political transformation from long-suffering political wife to politico today reminds us there is something yet to be learned about life as the woman behind the powerful man.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," says J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of the book upon which the series is based. "Jackie Kennedy made certain choices in her relationship with JFK. And obviously Hillary Clinton has made similar choices, but for very different reasons.

"Hillary Clinton is much more political than Jackie Kennedy ever was," he says. "Jackie's choices were based on family ideals. So she was loyal to her family. She was also loyal to her political party. But she felt very strongly that she wanted to keep that family together."

Focusing on the relationship between the sisters by marriage provided a new way into a familiar story, according to producer Sheri Singer.

"What [other stories] have missed is the camaraderie and the sisterhood that formed between Jackie, Ethel, and Joan," she says.

"These three women who were so incredibly different and would have never known each other under any circumstances are thrown together in the most public way and have to make their relationship [work] both publicly and [through] great triumph and with also incredible tragedy. That's the story you'll see that you haven't seen before."

"Jackie came from a sophisticated, educated, you might say, classy background and came into the Kennedy family, perhaps not ready to be a football player," Taraborrelli says. "The Kennedys had never seen anything like Jackie before.

"Ethel, on the other hand, came from a family that was very rough and tumble. Ethel's family, the Kennedy family, they were used to getting into trouble when they were younger."

Joan, he says, came from a somewhat typical upper-middle class background. "She really had no idea what she was getting herself into. She was really broadsided by the experience."

All the actors said they felt the burden of history in re-creating such a familiar period in American politics.

"There have been lots of Jackie Kennedy books over the years and lots of Kennedy books," says Daniel Hugh Kelly, who portrays John F. Kennedy. But, he says, none have ever dealt with these three sisters-in-law. "It's the first time the viewer will be able to see what these relationships were like," he says. "We're giving new historical perspective to a subject that seems time worn."

Taraborrelli did not interview any of the Kennedys profiled in the book, although he says Joan Kennedy wrote to him.

"[It was] a very long letter, to sort of capsulize her feelings about her life and also to give me a perspective of the kind of woman she is today," he says. "She explained to me that to go over all of that material again and dredge it all up would be counterproductive to her recovery. She felt that what was important was the kind of woman that she became today."

The writer spent nearly 20 years researching the relationships between the three women as well as to their husbands.

"I had wonderful cooperation from the Kennedy library when I had my researchers out there," Taraborrelli says.

Historical accuracy is always an issue with docudramas. Taraborrelli says neither his book nor the screenplay contains conversations that weren't verified through multiple sources.

Although he has not heard from any member of the family since the book's publication this past year, he interprets that positively.

"What I like to think is that the Kennedys have been so used to such inaccurate information about them being written over the years, that I would like to think that they appreciated the accuracy of the project."

While the deeper truths behind historical events may be the theme of "Camelot," the Odyssey Network offers a four-hour miniseries with the opposite goal. Voyage of the Unicorn (March 2 and 3, 9-11 p.m.), explores the value and meaning of history's myths in a story for the whole family.

Tragically, the Aisling family has lost its mother, a successful and well-loved children's book illustrator. When their town suddenly becomes home to hideous trolls and dwarves, 12-year-old Cassie, 16-year-old Miranda, and their father, Prof. Alan Aisling, all find themselves aboard the magical ship "Unicorn."

They embark on a journey to save the kingdom of the fairies from the trolls.

Along the way, they also learn the value of family and believing in one's self. Some of literature's most famous figures appear, including Medusa, the Sphinx, Titania, and Oberon.

"I'm a professor with two daughters who takes my daughters on this adventure," says Beau Bridges, who plays pere Aisling. "But it's also very much grounded in a real problem, which is that they've lost their mother. The stakes are high. It's about a family that's trying to survive a really profound tragedy in their lives by going on this quest, this adventure, which their mother, who has passed on to the other world, is involved in too. She sort of orchestrates the whole thing. So there's a lot of heart in it, too."

This Hallmark Entertainment production, involving mythical creatures and lands (much like the company's previous two miniseries, "Leprechaun" and "The Tenth Kingdom"), is special-effects heavy. The producers say they learned from the company's mixed success with the previous two productions. The production team worked closely with the author of the book that inspired the mini-series, "Voyage of the Basset," by James Christensen.

"I don't think a movie can live or die on just the prosthetics and the digital effects," says Matthew O'Connor, executive producer of "Unicorn." "It has to be a good story, and we believe we have that."

"It's really a coming-of-age story for the younger [viewers], and it's dealing with grief in a very real way," says Margaret Loesch, president and CEO of Odyssey Network.

"The effects are just the icing on the cake."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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