Last month I had the opportunity to not only watch Nat Geo’s new movie “Killing Kennedy” (Sun. Nov. 10 at 8:00 p.m), but watch it in the theater where suspected shooter Lee Harvely Oswald was arrested. To make it all thoroughly meta, I was watching along with Will Rothhar, who plays Lee Harvey Oswald in the movie. Did I mention we all went to Lee Harvey Oswald’s grave with Rothhaar on Oswald’s birthday, too? It was the capper to a visit to Dallas that was chock full of such moments. Conversations segued seamlessly from conspiracy theories to debates about favorite movies, history intersected with fiction more often than anyone expected, and “known facts” were thrown into question by both the people who were players in both this tragic historical event and the movie about it. Let’s just say it was a memorable weekend.
The crossover between reality and fiction began the moment journalists checked into the Hilton Fort Worth, previously the Texas Hotel. This was the last place where President John F. Kennedy spent the night prior to his assassination, and his last public speeches were both inside and outside of the hotel. Though the room where he slept has been remodeled (as has everything else), a life size bronze statue of Kennedy stands just outside. Fort Worth, like Dallas, has been faced with striking a tricky balance since 1963 — how to honor (and, yes, capitalize) on being part of an important historical moment, as well as how to be respectful of a nation’s tragedy at the same time. Repeatedly during the trip, we were told about locations that were once planned for demolition to “erase the shame,” only for them to be turned into museums or historical landmarks later.
Shortly after we arrived, we were given a chance to meet with a mix of people who were somehow associated with Kennedy or Oswald’s last days as well as people associated with “Killing Kennedy.” I spoke briefly with Kelly Masterson, who adapted Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book for the screen.
After discussing how he researched the film (he dug into far more material than just the book), I asked him where he stood on the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. “I think [Lee Harvey Oswald] was really his own thing. Delusions of grandeur, he really thought he was special, and in some ways he was special, but not in a good way. Very smart. He believed in his singularness and his destiny that he was meant to do great things… he’s not really malleable, and [that] has led me to believe he’s not the kind of person anyone would want in a conspiracy. If you wanted somebody to pull the trigger for you, this isn’t the guy. He’s not a Manchurian candidate.”
A screening of the documentary “JFK: The Finale Hours” (airing Fri. Nov. 8 at 7:00 p.m.) included some special guests — Julian Read, press secretary for former Texas governor John Connally; Buell Frazier, former co-worker of Lee Harvey Oswald, who drove him to work on Nov. 22; and Corkie Friedman, wife of former Fort Worth mayor, who attended JFK”s final breakfast. After the screening, they took the stage and seemed visibly moved; tears were shed. After fifty years, they still seemed shellshocked by the assassination.
Below, Julian Read, press secretary for former Texas governor John Connally; Buell Frazier, former co-worker of Lee Harvey Oswald, who drove him to work on Nov. 22; and Corkie Friedman, wife of former Fort Worth mayor, who attended JFK”s final breakfast pose together.
Of course, the assassination has continued to impact all of them since 1963, albeit in different ways. Read has written a book, “JFK’s Final Hours in Texas,” while Frazier has put up with harassment from those who still believe he either lied about the package Oswald brought with him to the book depository (he has never wavered from his account, which indicates the package was too small to contain rifle parts) on that fateful day or had something to do with the murder (he was repeatedly questioned by the FBI, who tried to coerce him into signing a confession that he was involved). He described Oswald as a “quiet” family man, and believes there’s more to the story than the historical record suggests.
At dinner, director Nelson McCormick and Will Rothhaar (Lee Harvey Oswald) mingled with reporters and with those who were directly impacted by the assassination. I had a chance to talk to Rothhaar, who admitted his parents were “JFK freaks” and gave his own detailed take on Oswald and the assassination. It’s not too much of a reach to say this was a role Rothhaar was meant to play. If you’ve never heard of him, there’s a good chance you will after “Killing Kennedy” airs.
With many people (not just me) yammering about this being his break-out role, he was still remarkably friendly. The Nat Geo publicists all sighed over the fact that Rothhaar is a “very good” hugger, which he conceded. “I always hug everyone on the set, when I get there and when I leave, cast, crew, everyone,” he said, adding that it was just a “positive” way to interact with people. And yes, I can attest that he really does hug everyone after he’s met them. I’m also glad I met the guy before I saw the movie, after which a well-meaning hug from a “killer” might have freaked me out.
He talked about how he found a way to empathize with Oswald (or, as he put it, “cracked his head open”), and the result is a searing look into a narcissistic under achiever whose desperate need for attention drives him to take a shot at almost anyone — before JFK, Oswald fired a near-miss shot at General Edwin Walker and considered shooting Richard Nixon (his wife Marina talked him out of it)
While “Killing Kennedy” is a tightly constructed feature-length movie, McCormick admitted he had but one regret about it. “Television is the perfect format for this, but I wish it was a miniseries. After you read volumes of material available and find all these rich details that give you so much more understanding, this could be a four hour miniseries, just based on Bill’s book alone.” Then, he joked, “Of course, I think our country is becoming more and more ADD, so that’s a hard thing to commit to.” Masterson added that the first draft of the script was over 200 pages long, so it could have been two full-length movies.
Fact and fiction intersect: Kelly Masterson and Buell Frasier
The next day was devoted to learning about the events surrounding the assassination. A visit to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art focused on the exhibit Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy. It turned out that when it was announced that the Kennedys would not be staying in a suite at the Hotel Texas during their stay (it was deemed by the Secret Service to have too many points of entry and was thus given to Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife) but instead on a lower floor, a group of art collectors led by Ruth Carter Stevenson hustled to dress up the drab, turquoise-painted room with fine art including works by Pablo Picasso and Franz Kline. It was a minor triumph of Texan ingenuity overshadowed by later events.
The tour of Fort Worth and Dallas took us through a grim round-up of memorable places. In addition to seeing the ramshackle home where Oswald rented a room while separated from his wife Marina, we saw the home where Marina lived at the time of the assassination, General Walker’s former home, the ramp down to the location where Jack Ruby killed Oswald, and, as previously mentioned, visited Oswald’s grave for the most surreal moment of the trip.
Will Rothhaar at Lee Harvey Oswald’s grave
Before we visited the Sixth Floor Museum (located in the book depository building where Oswald allegedly shot at the President), we made our way to Dealey Plaza. Having seen the place where Kennedy was shot on television so many times (in footage both real and fictional), it was unnerving to everyone to be able to stand on the grassy knoll, which is, yes, grassy. Though it looks the way it did in 1963, the fence has been reconstructed.
Most jarring, however, is the spot on the road which has been marked with an X. This is the point of impact, and more than one tourist risked jumping into traffic to stand on it as if they were standing next to an ancient redwood or taking their picture with a celebrity. In the background you can see the sixth floor of the book depository, which has been preserved as part of the museum.
Will Rothhaar and Nelson McCormick posed in front of the book depository, one of the many sites which was at one point slated for demolition before being preserved. Though the sixth floor is intact, the rest of the building has been gutted and remodeled.
“Killing Kennedy” was eventually screened for journalists at, yes, the actual theater where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested. I’m planning on running a review before airdate, but suffice it to say the movie differentiates itself from the many, many other movies and programs about the assassination by turning the focus on Oswald. Rob Lowe disappears into the role of JFK, but the ladies’ man character is a familiar one. What may be less familiar to viewers is Oswald’s story (and, to a lesser extent, Jacqueline Kennedy’s).
It’s a twist that is on the one hand troubling (Oswald wanted nothing more than attention, and while he’s dead, he’s getting even more of it here) and yet explores an avenue that hasn’t already been exhausted. Of the many projects getting a release in time for the 50th anniversary, this may by one of the few worth watching.