Why Is Pop Culture Obsessed With Turning The Tragedies Of American Dynasties Into Prestige TV & Film?
We don’t have a royal family in the United States. We don’t have a large-branching system of nobility, either. Instead, we have last names with big connotations. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Coppola — even Kardashian. After rising to prominence through their accomplishments or their fortunes, these families become fixtures in American culture. As the generations wind on, we follow their descendants’ lives, hear of their weddings and births and deaths, and feel like we know them.
Since the families are firmly situated in the public eye, there’s the temptation to mine the main events in their lives for art, as is happening this month, when dark moments in the Kennedy and Getty family histories are being rendered in painstaking detail for works of pop culture. Chappaquiddick, a movie that premieres April 6, focuses on the tragic car crash that resulted in the death of a 28-year-old woman, and the loss of Ted Kennedy’s presidential aspirations. And in the lavish FX drama Trust, which premiered on March 25, 16-year-old John Paul Getty III is kidnapped in Rome – and his grandfather, the richest man in the world, refuses to pay his ransom. Not long ago, the same story was told in movie form: All the Money in the World premiered in December 2017.
While they’re both multi-generational American dynasties that rose to prominence in the early 20th century, the Getty and Kennedy family names symbolize extremely different versions of America. Say Kennedy, and you think of progressive politics, tragic ends, and tanned bodies on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. Say Getty, and you think of stingy oil barons, art museums, and a shocking kidnapping. One family worked to spread wealth through political policy; the other is insular, private, and, due to the reputation of J. Paul Getty as a notorious cheapskate, associated with keeping their wealth in the family.
Yet while watching Chappaquiddick and Trust, I couldn’t help but see the similarities between how their stories were told. Neither of these works portray the families in a good light. At all. The light is too bright, fluorescent; it reveals a pock-marked, scarred portrait of a family. Behind the families’ carefully crafted veneer of a public image, there’s ugliness and tragedy, as well as the unseemly machinations that hold the whole dynasties together.
These messy bits are part of what makes the Kennedys and the Gettys so undeniably fascinating. However different the Kennedys and Gettys are in terms of what they symbolize, they’re both families who are shadowed by a “curse.” The Kennedy family tragedies are too numerous to name – the assassinations of Robert and John, the lobotomization of Rosemary, the plane crash that killed JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and two earlier plane crashes that killed JFK’s brother and sister are just a few. The Getty family history is marked by addiction, suicide, and early death, not limited to the kidnapping of John Paul III. After all, the show begins with George Getty taking his own life with a barbecue fork — the curse is definitely alive, well, and throbbing in Trust, even before the kidnapping.
The tragedies themselves have a magnetic pull. “Every tragedy made us revisit the family over and over again,” said Kate Clifford Larson, author of the book Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, when I asked her about America’s enduring interest in the Kennedy family. “If none of those tragedies happened, maybe we wouldn’t feel this way. Though I don’t want to lessen the family's importance on the country and its direction,” she added. “They really have done amazing things.”
After watching Trust and Chappaquiddick, I plunged down an internet wormhole faster than Alice dropped into Wonderland. I read the descendants’ Wikipedia pages like they were drily written, but still compelling, novels. It’s as if these people, by virtue of being born into these American dynasties, automatically led lives that were interesting and ripe for story-telling.
I experienced an overwhelming feeling of wanting more prestige pop culture about their glamorous lives — and their downfalls, which had a strange glamour of their own. When members of the families inherit their surname, they also inherit a public narrative, a history. So when tragedy strikes, it becomes incorporated into that larger narrative. From our peon point of view, these tragic events are twists in the story we’ve been watching unfold for decades. As opposed to when tragedy happens to us normals – there’s no sense there, no romanticism.
With the rise of shows about the lives of public figures, from American Crime Story: Versace to Feud: Bette and Joan, it’s obvious I’m not alone in hungering for these stories. But am I privileged to know all the details of these people’s interior lives, especially if the families aren’t on board? A letter sent by the Gettys' lawyer to the FX network reads, “It is ironic that you have titled your television series Trust," Martin Singer, the Gettys’ lawyer, wrote. "More fitting titles would be Lies or Mistrust, since the defamatory story it tells about the Gettys colluding in the kidnapping is false and misleading, and viewers rightly ought to mistrust it." The Versaces — an Italian family dynasty — also had qualms about the artistic rendering of their family, and called Ryan Murphy’s show “a work of fiction.”
I watched (and enjoyed) the shows anyway, but I heard the families’ qualms echoing. Does being born into a famous family mean that your life is game for a pop culture dramatization, should it become dark enough?
Maybe this ounce of inherent ickiness is why no one clapped at the March 16 premiere of Chappaquiddick at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, located only a few miles away from where the Chappaquiddick accident occurred. Clifford Larson’s friend had been in attendance, and he reported the eerie experience of sitting in a theater at the end of the movie, without a peep. “I asked my friend if it was because there were a lot of people there that knew the family, or knew about them. Or because Chappaquiddick is right there, and there’s this undertone of memories. He said he couldn’t tell if people were being respectful of the Kennedys, or if they were uncomfortable. Or if they didn’t know what to do because they didn’t know how everybody else felt. He said that’s why he didn’t clap,” Larson said.
Chappaquiddick is a lean, meticulously researched film that presents its story matter-of-factly, without fanfare or the visual and narrative indulgences seen in Trust. The movie also depicts an event that had major political ramifications for the United States. Senator Kennedy is portrayed as a person who puts his career over conventional morality – he waited 10 hours to notify the police after his car plummeted over a bridge, and his passenger, trapped in the car, likely asphyxiated as a result of the delay.
But even if one is far more politically relevant than the other, both Trust and Chappaquiddick are about families who occupy enough real estate in the public eye for us to feel like we can, and should, turn their stories into art. Of course we can, and of course we should. No one should police the content that artists can create. But I relate to the theatergoers’ confusion about whether or not they should clap. These aren’t just stories. These are people’s lives, too — the lives of people who didn’t ask for movie adaptations (even if, as in the case of Chappaquidick, the movie adaptations turn out to be crucial and revelatory). The knowledge of the sprawling families that still exist out there add a gruesome dimension to the viewing experience. Have they seen these shows, these movies?
Mostly, after watching Chappaquiddick and Trust, I walked away with a feeling of relief. I’m still fascinated by these families, but now I’m also happy I’m not born into them. My family dirt is far too civilian for anyone to turn it into work of prestige pop culture (though it might make for a good Lifetime movie one day).