Hyde Park on Hudson offers up TMI on FDR

Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray) in Hyde Park on Hudson

Ever since word got out that a movie was being made based on the diaries and letters of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, unearthed upon the nonagenarian’s death in 1991, the people of Rhinebeck, Hyde Park and environs have been on tenterhooks, hoping that it would do justice to these local legends. Sadly, they’re going to be disappointed.

Bad enough that the movie was shot in England, using a replica of FDR’s private retreat Top Cottage. But Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson also plays fast and loose with Daisy’s memoirs – in which, by most interpretations, she never claimed that she and FDR were more than close friends and confidantes – and neither Franklin nor Eleanor Roosevelt comes out of the process looking very shiny. Though Bill Murray’s portrayal of the four-term president is surprisingly well-executed for such an odd bit of casting, one can’t help coming away from the film thinking less of FDR.

Plenty of US heads of state have had sexual peccadilloes attached to their names, and Roosevelt’s longstanding affair with Lucy Mercer has been public knowledge for a while now. But the Franklin whom we meet in Hyde Park on Hudson comes across as a downright lying cad and a user of intelligent women, rather than as a man who enjoyed and appreciated their company and advice. His sexual encounters with Daisy are depicted as rather crude and abrupt, and he turns his face away from her one spontaneous display of affection.

Anyone judging Roosevelt’s career and character based on this movie, uninformed by the knowledge of his achievements in helping America survive the Depression and overcome Hitler, would find him a mean, selfish, calculating and manipulative human being. It would be nice to be able to assume that most people don’t confuse movie plots based on historical events and personages with actual history, but that may be giving today’s mass media consumers a little too much credit.

It’s a pity, because showing the private side of FDR from Daisy’s perspective seems at the outset to be a promising approach. And Laura Linney does a lovely, low-key job of rendering Suckley’s shy, quiet, nurturing personality. Some critics have found fault with the character as being too passive and starstruck, or lacking in dramatic material to support having the narrative framed through her point of view. But there’s definitely something to be said for channeling the lives of great movers and shakers of history as they might have been seen by ordinary folks within their personal orbits, even if that approach doesn’t yield particularly kinetic filmmaking.

Some of Linney-as-Daisy’s most telling moments are her friendly exchanges with the limousine drivers and household servants of the Roosevelts. A scion herself of local aristocrats who lost their fortune in the stock market crash, she clearly knows everyone in town by their first names – and also who has been getting steady work through the hard times and who hasn’t. These scenes contrast markedly with Eleanor’s (Olivia Williams) local employment projects, which are depicted as rather forced and precious, and with the efforts of the visiting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to “meet some Americans” en route to the Roosevelt compound in Hyde Park by giving the Royal Wave to some peasants who are too busy peasanting to notice.

This visit, the first-ever by England’s crowned heads to America, supplies the dramatic crux of Hyde Park on Hudson, with the British Empire’s survival in the face of an impending German invasion possibly riding on its outcome. It gets off to an unpromising start, with Samuel West as “Bertie” and especially Olivia Colman as Elizabeth – with the camera tightly ogling her popping eyes, effete-looking receding chin and permanently stuck-up nose – looking like they got lost on their way to Monty Python’s Upper-Class Twit Olympics.

Much humor is milked from the queen’s horror at the ghastly wallpaper and cramped furnishings at Springwood, the Roosevelt family manor – not to mention the framed anti-British political cartoons from the War of 1812 that hang on the walls of Bertie’s room. Worst of all is the prospect of a planned picnic at which they will be expected to eat hot dogs; the insecure new queen is convinced that they are being made the butt of some great inscrutable joke by these rude Americans.

The young king comes off a bit better, gradually warming to his hosts as Roosevelt makes much more of an effort to charm him than he bothers with in wooing any of the various women in his life. The best scene in the film is a late-night meeting over cocktails – forbidden in the house by Franklin’s dragon-lady mother Sara (Elizabeth Wilson) – in which FDR trumps Bertie’s frustration with his famous stutter by giving a vivid demonstration of his own inability to get around on his polio-wasted legs. Addressing the king as “young man,” rather than “Your Majesty” as per accepted protocol, the older leader’s avuncular manner eventually persuades Bertie to risk biting into that fearsome hot dog in public. Thus are the hearts of America won to Britain’s cause.

So far, so good; that famous 1939 hot dog picnic with the royals is cherished lore in this neck of the woods. Unfortunately, screenwriter Richard Nelson chooses the very eve of the picnic to stage the scene in which poor innocent Daisy discovers that she’s not the only woman with whom Franklin uses Top Cottage for romantic assignations. That’s the setup for a difficult scene at the picnic in which the president very publicly invites Daisy to join him and the royals at the head table. She’s hurt and furious and wants to tell him to go to Hell, but after a beautifully long and pregnant pause, decides that it’s more gracious to take the proffered seat than to knock delicate international relations off-kilter by creating a scandal.

All well and good, until the inexperienced king needs help learning to slather mustard on his hot dog, and FDR assigns the rather suggestive task to Daisy. With a frozen smile she does the deed, but we are left wondering what’s so presidential about the act of humiliating her in this way – or indeed why she ever consents to speak to him again. And yet we know that in real life, the two remained close friends until the very day of FDR’s death: Daisy Suckley was present in Warm Springs, Georgia when it happened.

Even if the details of this cinematic account of the relationship between Franklin and Daisy should eventually turn out to be the literal truth, for this viewer, they definitely fall into the category of Too Much Information. Sometimes it’s just better to draw a veil over people’s personal weaknesses of character – especially people who gave and achieved so much.

Fortunately, there’s enough available documentation of FDR’s legacy as a great statesman that his reputation should survive more or less intact. The sad bit is that Hyde Park on Hudson may be the only introduction that most people will get to the long life of Daisy Suckley. Perhaps this film will make some curious enough to read her memoirs, or to pay a visit to Wilderstein. On balance, however, it’s probably a mercy that she didn’t live long enough to see the movie.

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