News Column

Jfk's Death, Told and Retold in Hollywood

November 10, 2013


The presidential assassination that takes place in the 1978 drama "The Greek Tycoon," a film loosely based on the lives of John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jackie, and her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, occurs, quite shockingly, on an otherwise quiet stretch of beach.

There is no limo, no Dealey Plaza and no grassy knoll in this thinly disguised story of a president named Cassidy, a shipping magnate named Tomasis, and the fashionable woman in the oversize sunglasses who both of them wooed and wed.

But, perhaps because it was so unexpected, the invented scene effectively captured what many Americans felt on Nov. 22, 1963, when the real President Kennedy was killed: a chilling sense of shocked disbelief that, within hours, plunged an entire country -- and much of the world -- into mourning. In the half-century since that heart- stopping day, versions of the assassination, real and imagined, have appeared or been referenced in dozens of films, television shows and miniseries, including "Killing Kennedy," the

docudrama that has its premiere tonight on the National Geographic Channel. The film, which stars Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin, is based on the 2012 book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard.

"Killing Kennedy" follows on the heels of last month's studio release "Parkland," which starred Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden and Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas clothing manufacturer who made the only known film of the assassination with his Bell & Howell 8 mm home movie camera. Produced by Tom Hanks, the film was based on Vincent Bugliosi's 2008 book "Four Days in November."

Both films have been timed to the 50th anniversary of the assassination, but they're just the latest in a long line of projects that incorporate the assassination (or some fictional version of it) into their story lines.

Oliver Stone's controversial "JFK," which includes frames of the Zapruder film, dissects every aspect of the event, along with a passel of related conspiracy theories, for over three hours.

In "Forrest Gump," the assassination is alluded to in a brief but compelling voiceover by Forrest, after a scene in which he "meets" the president in a comical moment at the White House.

"Sometime later," Forrest says, haltingly, "that nice young president was shot and killed as he was riding in his car."

It's a single line. But, as delivered by the childlike Forrest (Tom Hanks), it captures the sadness and confusion experienced by so many Americans upon hearing news that, at first, seemed difficult to process.

In "Lee Daniels' The Butler," based on the true story of a White House servant who worked for several administrations, Forest Whitaker's Cecil is seen slumped down on the floor, in tears, upon learning of the assassination.

Later, in the upstairs residence, Cecil attempts to comfort the grief-stricken Mrs. Kennedy (Minka Kelly, filmed with her back to the camera) to no avail. He pleads with her to tell him what he can do for her. And, without even acknowledging him, she rises from her chair and leaves the room.

"The Butler" incorporates the familiar footage of the CBS newsman Walter Cronkite delivering the breaking news that the president was shot in Dallas. (Cronkite did not learn that the president had died until about five minutes into that now-legendary broadcast.)

The Cronkite footage was also used, to great effect, in the Season 3 episode of AMC's "Mad Men" called "The Grown-Ups." Directed by Barbet Schroeder, the episode focused on the main characters' various continuing story lines, including the chaos of an upcoming wedding, until the audience sees, on a muted TV in the background, the sight of Cronkite, at his desk, speaking solemnly into the camera. Moments later, the ad executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) notices the television screen, and the dire news quickly spreads through the office.

For younger viewers who weren't alive in 1963, the intense expressions of grief seen in "The Grown-Ups" might have seemed over- the-top. But, that's to be expected, according to Dr. Lauren D. LaPorta, chairman of psychiatry at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson.

"Younger people may read about the assassination or see references to it in a movie," LaPorta said, "but that wasn't the same as living through it. In many ways, it was like Sept. 11, with those surreal feelings of 'What am I seeing? What does this mean?' [The Kennedys] were a beloved young couple. There were babies in the White House. Then, in an instant, everything changed, and everything stopped for days."

Television intensified those feelings, LaPorta added, because it was the first traumatic news event that played out in people's living rooms. "During World War II, people listened to the radio or went to theaters to see the newsreels," she said. "but the assassination was different. We weren't used to that kind of immediacy. People saw it on the news, then they saw [Lee Harvey] Oswald getting killed, and then all the conspiracy theories started."

According to an Associated Press poll conducted earlier this year, only 24 percent of Americans believe the findings of the Warren Commission -- notably that Oswald acted alone. The number is in line with a 2003 Gallup poll that found that 75 percent of Americans believed the president was killed as part of some larger plot.

"Legacy of Secrecy," a film still in production and expected to be released sometime next year, stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro and is based on the book of the same name by Lamar Waldron and the conspiracy theorist Thom Hartmann. A talk-radio host and activist, Hartmann has long contended that Kennedy's death resulted from a mMafia plot -- a theory that best-selling author and longtime Kennedy family friend Gore Vidal believed as well.

Every conceivable conspiracy theory -- the mafia, included -- is woven into "Winter Kills," the 1979 assassination film starring Jeff Bridges, John Huston and Anthony Perkins, and based on the novel by Richard Condon, author of "The Manchurian Candidate." The fictional film, which turns Jack Kennedy to Nick Kegan, received mostly positive reviews, but may be best remembered for something that wasn't on the screen: While it was being filmed, one of the producers, Leonard Goldberg, was reportedly killed by the mafia.

"Executive Action" (1973), which starred Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan and featured a script co-written by Dalton Trumbo, was banned in some cities (and, later, from certain television stations) because it argued against the findings of the Warren Commission. The action cuts back and forth between actual events and fictional conspirators linked to the military-industrial complex. Reviews were mixed, although the film is frequently compared to Stone's exhaustive "JFK."

"The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald," a 1977 television movie starring Ben Gazzara, is set in 1964 and speculates on what Oswald's trial would have been like had he not been killed by Jack Ruby. Another fictional film, 1993's "In the Line of Fire," stars Clint Eastwood as an aging Secret Service agent who was assigned to protect Kennedy at the time of the assassination in 1963. He is haunted by flashbacks of that event while on the trail of an emotionally disturbed former CIA agent determined to kill the current president.

There have been several miniseries about the Kennedy family that include the assassination and stick to the Warren Commission findings. Two particularly worth noting are "Kennedy" (1983) starring Martin Sheen (who would later portray a fictional president on "The West Wing") and "A Woman Named Jackie" (1991) starring Roma Downey as the first lady, with Stephen Collins as the president.

Among the documentaries on the assassination, "Four Days in November," directed by Mel Stuart and released in 1964, is among the best and was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature.

"The Men Who Killed Kennedy," a nine-part television special made for the United Kingdom's ITV network, directly implicated Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, as part of a larger conspiracy to kill the 35th president. The series later aired on the History Channel, leading to an apology by the network to Johnson's family and to viewers.

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