BOBBY written and directed by Emilio Estevez, with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Hunt. 112 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (November 24). For venues and times, see Movies, page 113. Rating: NNN
Robert Kennedy once said, "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."
The quote sends Emilio Estevez into a fit of laughter, a familiar Billy the Kid cackle that fills the hotel room where we're discussing Bobby, his big-screen homage to RFK.
"Brother, ain't that the truth?" he says, shaking his head.
"I've had great success and enormous failure, and out of the failure has come learning and humility. This is a business that is unforgiving and dismissive. I've spent the last few years just figuring out how to make a living."
Twenty years ago Estevez was at his Brat Pack peak, a Hollywood young gun whose films The Outsiders, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo's Fire helped define the 80s for an entire generation.
Then, as is often the case in the Sheen family, some crazy shit happened. While his brother, Charlie Sheen, was living the coke-and-hookers high life, Estevez's fell apart. Demi Moore dumped him, he married and divorced Paula Abdul, sequels to Young Guns and Stakeout tanked, and the films he wrote and directed Wisdom, Men At Work, The War At Home, Rated X barely found distribution, never mind an audience.
Suddenly, Estevez was off Hollywood's radar faster than DJ Scat Cat.
"One minute I'm a star, the next I'm Napoleon on Alba," Estevez says. "Totally exiled."
Bitter, heartbroken, Estevez would spend most of the next decade wandering the wilderness, much like Ally Sheedy and C. Thomas Howell, and checking his mailbox for Mighty Ducks residual cheques. He even sold autographs to pay the mortgage.
But now, this would-be comeback kid is ready to repo his career from the celebrity scrap heap.
Coach Gordon Bombay wants redemption. He wants respect. And he's grabbing for it in a balls-out, all-or-nothing way. Bobby, about the 16 hours leading up to Kennedy's assassination in 1968, is a big buzz-worthy drama that Estevez wrote, directed and stars in alongside an ensemble of A-listers and Oscar winners, including Anthony Hopkins, Sharon Stone, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy.
"I always loved disaster movies: The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, Meteor. And this movie is in the tradition of those films, because it's a disaster of the heart," Estevez says. "We take all these people from different walks of life who are emblematic of the time and put them in the hotel where Kennedy was shot, which is a microcosm of the country, and we capsize the son of a bitch."
Estevez, at 44, is still boyishly handsome, like his old man, Martin Sheen. There's a bit of Willy Loman about him, too, something in the way his passion for Bobby mixes with a single-minded desperation over how the film will ultimately be received. Even Estevez admits, "I'm nervous."
He wrote Bobby seven years ago, at a time when he admits he was feeling pretty sorry for himself. Bobby Kennedy offered Estevez hope, just as he had to Estevez's dad and a whole generation.
Estevez owes his Kennedy obsession to his father, who took him to meet him at a political rally when Estevez was five. "I was on my father's shoulders and Bobby reached out and touched my hand," he says. The day Kennedy died was the first time Estevez recalls seeing his father cry. When the Sheen family moved from New York to L.A. in 1969, their first stop was the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was killed and where Bobby is set.
"I remember walking through the lobby holding my father's hand, listening to him talk about the great Bobby Kennedy," he says.
Estevez's admiration for his father is obvious. "He's been arrested for protesting 65 times once for every year of his life," he says proudly.
It's also obvious Estevez has inherited his father's political passion and readiness to speak his mind, though not his willingness to be tear-gassed and dragged in handcuffs from nuclear test sites.
Despite Kennedy's less than squeaky-clean image (working for Joe McCarthy during Congress's infamous anti-Communist hearings, Mob connections, suspicions that he killed Marilyn Monroe), it's no surprise that Estevez speaks about the slain presidential candidate as if he could turn water into wine and cure leprosy. After all, in the Sheen household Kennedy was a political visionary capable of healing the breach between black and white, the counter-culture and the establishment.
"The killing of Bobby was the death of decency and the death of hope, the death of manners, the death of grace and formality," Estevez says. "We became cynical and resigned. We unravelled culturally and spiritually. And the heartbreak is that 38 years later, we're still in the same damn place we were then. There's an absence of leadership in our country, and we need Bobby's words now more than ever."
That doesn't mean anyone cared to fund Estevez's passion project.
"No one had any faith that I could pull this off, and rightfully so," he says.
To secure financing, Estevez enlisted a few friends to act in the film. He started with Hopkins, his Freejack co-star, and ex-fiancée Demi Moore. Others followed: ex-Mighty Duck Josh Jackson, ex-Young Gun Christian Slater, Moore's hubbie, Ashton Kutcher, Laurence Fishburne, with whom Estevez partied on the set of Apocalypse Now, and Sheen himself, who has played both RFK and JFK.
But even with a Love Boat-size cast, Estevez struggled to keep the film afloat. He fought with producers about the story. "I basically told them to go fuck themselves," he says, grinning. In fact, the difficulties Estevez faced making Bobby are legendary, thanks to a scathing exposé about the production in Esquire magazine, written under a pseudonym by someone Estevez describes only as "a disgruntled employee of the film."
Among the article's juicier tidbits were demands by an investor (a Belgian industrialist eager to dabble in moviemaking) to put his Russian wife in the movie. Estevez chalks it up to the cost of doing business. "I think she's fine in the film. It could have been a lot worse."
More inflammatory is the article's depiction of Estevez as a tantrum-throwing enfant terrible who faked heart attacks in order to get his way.
"For him to make a half-assed remark about me faking heart attacks" I was in crisis. Every force was against me, including people on my own team," he says, angrily. "And if you know my family history, you know it's something we don't take lightly. A heart attack almost cost my father his life at 37 when he was making Apocalypse Now."
Estevez pauses to compose himself.
"I'm sorry to go off like that," he says. "It's just upsetting to see such a smear campaign. It's irresponsible journalism."
Estevez vows to tell his side of the story in a book. "It will be brutal," he says, offering a quote from John Kennedy as a final thought on the matter. "He said, "Forgive everyone, but remember all their names. '"
I respond with a quote from Bobby Kennedy that's perhaps a bit more appropriate, given Estevez's anger: "People say I am ruthless. I am not ruthless, and if I find the man who is calling me ruthless I shall destroy him."
Estevez cackles, slaps his hands on the tabletop and claps me on the back.
"Brother, ain't that the truth?"
One Duck to Another : Comments from Josh Jackson
BOBBY (Emilio Estevez) Rating: NNN
This is a thoughtful and well-intentioned drama about the hours preceding presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy's assassination that suffers under the weight of its own ambition.
Certainly, it's more hagiographical than biographical; Estevez, who also wrote the script, has no desire to bore us with Kennedy's accomplishments. Instead, he wants to remind us how important RFK was to a highly polarized America in 1968 and stir us about his loss.
That he does so by weaving together the stories of the guests and employees at the hotel where Kennedy was shot is an inventive approach. But there are simply too many characters - 22 in all - from switchboard operators and campaign volunteers to a boozy lounge singer and her cuckolded husband (played by Demi Moore and ex-fianc Estevez). Most of their stories are painted in broad strokes, allowing few insights into their lives or Kennedy's impact on them.
Because all these roles are filled by well-known actors, while Kennedy himself is seen in only a handful of news clips (the film's most powerful moments), finding RFK among a screenful of famous faces is like a game of Where's Waldo.