Review: Hyde Park on Hudson (1982) with Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt
by Larry Murray
Drama. Starring Bill Murray and Laura Linney, Samuel West. Directed by Roger Michell. (R. 94 minutes.) MPAA rating: R (Brief sexuality, presidential groping)
It seems that there is a vendetta against Franklin Deleano Roosevelt. The 32nd President was in office longer than any other, and faced down massive unemployment, the great depression, Hirohito and Hitler. But he also is responsible for putting together the basic social safety net to save people from the horrors of the great depression, things like unemployment compensation, FDIC bank insurance and regulations, and social security.
For more than 70 years the Republicans have been trying to undo these mechanisms, and this film is part of that battle. It embroiders history by portraying FDR as just another presidential womanizer who liked his martinis a bit too much. Better titled Handjob on Hudson, the mud flies. Perhaps the aim is to discredit the leader as the Tea Party yahoos and radical right continue to attack his programs, this time claiming America faces a so-called fiscal cliff demanding their dismantling, another Republican bluff.
Polemics aside, the inconsequential film Hyde Park on Hudson is where, in typical Hollywood fashion, we are given a lightweight history of FDR’s supposed love affairs with women who were not his wife Eleanor, in this case Margaret “Daisy” Suckley.
We also get a sort of history of the role a hot dog played in our World War II relations with a stuttering King of England. As the story goes, the Queen could not eat a hot dog because it would not fit in her mouth, at least that is what Eleanor said later.
The film shows the President’s Hyde Park mansion as the first stop on the Royal Couple’s tour in 1939, but they spent several days in Washington prior to the visit, and if you have visited the Presidential home you know it is not some backwoods estate. It is in the middle of a very comfortable rich community.
The film is based on the book Closest Companion by historian Geoffrey C. Ward which in turn is based on a cache of letters and clippings found under her bed after Margaret “Daisy” Suckley’s death at age 99. Their relationship began long before the movie suggests, and the book does not describe any of the sexual shenanigans the film drools over. It does say that FDR and Daisy were more than friends. The movie also gloms onto his relationship with Lucy Mercer Rutherford which is well documented. FDR historians pretty much agree that Roosevelt had no extramarital affairs with Daisy or his other close companion, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand as the film suggests.
“His relationship with her was an extremely old-fashioned, very decorous sort of 19th century — they wrote each other letters and may have kissed once, in a car on a hilltop. It was the delight of her life to be the friend of Franklin Roosevelt.” – Geoffrey C. Ward
Ward also thinks the view of FDR as one creepy cousin is mistaken: “He loved women — liked hanging out with women and hearing their banter; the idea of him treating them as people to service him I don’t think is right.”
All this inaccuracy can be laid to one source: the film’s script by Richard Nelson, adapted from his play. Let’s not let the facts get in the way of a B movie.
Nelson’s previous works show a tendency to simply rewrite what others have already thought out and written. He is quoted in Wiki as saying : “People ask about structure, form, character development, and I’m not even sure what all of that means.” Need one say more? You can safely ignore all those high falutin’ accents in the video interview clip above, it’s just an effort to brand this film as serious acting, serious art, serious history. It isn’t.
What is true is that the film is a real stretch for Bill Murray whose portrayal is among the most forgettable in his career. He got the look of FDR, but not the essence. His readings are one dimensional. FDR was a master of self-deprecating humor and nonstop friendliness much of which is lost as Murray goes for the surface reading, not the depth.
To my chagrin, it also wastes the considerable acting talents of Laura Linney – who has appeared in the Berkshires at the Williamstown Theatre Festival – and has a healthy string of theatre and motion picture nominations and awards in her bio.
Perhaps it is the fate of Bill Murray to be handed lightweight scripts like this one in which he mainly drinks and has sex – of sorts, while being dominated by his mother. You will be happy to know that, unlike the Victor Hugo Les Mis musical that is 2.5 hours long, this travesty of a film will only cost you one and a half hours of your life. Murray has received an Emmy for his work on Saturday Night Live, and also appears in Moonrise Kingdom this year, in a role more suited to his talents. He is an avid golfer (Caddyshack was one of his better films) and has not (to our knowledge) ever actually acted on stage.
If you don’t care for historical accuracy (or the real issues that FDR faced while in office) Hyde Park on Hudson provides some lightweight entertainment. It is sort of a shame that the most authentic part of the film is its brilliant depiction of the surroundings of the late 1930’s – the automobiles, the house furnishings, and the dress of the actors are all testaments to the brilliance of the people behind the scenes. You see their names briefly during the crawl of credits at the end of the film, and that’s a shame. The best thing about this film is its attention to production details. But in the end, that is faint praise that won’t save this film from ultimate oblivion.