Monday, January 7, 2013

Travesty in Hyde Park on Hudson

Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been portrayed by many actors in productions of many kinds. Ralph Bellamy (on stage, in film, and on television), Edward Herrmann (on television and in a Hollywood musical), Ralph Vaughn, Jon Voight, David Ogden Stiers, and Kenneth Branagh have each brought their own skills to bear in interpreting this complex man – a figure at once tangible and elusive.

Of course, many films have dealt with historical figures and or situations. Some have used historical events as backgrounds for a fictional story, usually Romantic – such as Titanic and Pearl Harbor. In those cases, real-life figures are relegated to supporting roles. Others have placed the historical figure dead center in the production – dead usually being the operative word. Too often, historical biographies are like animated wax museums: the Important Events in a lifetime are recreated in the span of a few hours with little insight given into the person’s character, into what drove these flesh and blood people. Oliver Stone’s Nixon, when it wasn’t busy running off on tangents about the Kennedy assassination, was one of the more successful attempts. Thirteen Days would have been much better if Kevin Costner’s role hadn’t been so inflated. The miniseries on John Adams is the finest example I’ve seen – the seven hour running time gave the writers and producers adequate time to flesh out the characters.

Sadly such is not the case with Hyde Park on Hudson, which is neither a biographical film nor a historical melodrama. HPoH isn’t merely the weakest film I’ve ever seen on FDR, it’s the worst film on a U. S. President I’ve ever seen. How bad is HPoH? Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and FDR American Badass – neither of which was intended to be taken seriously – are masterpieces by comparison. That’s how bad this stink-bomb is.

Whether a play, TV show, or film: if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. With a strong script, nearly any production’s flaws can be overlooked. When the script is weak, “all the kings horses and all the kings men…” – and the screenplay for HPoH is God-awful. It makes no attempt at a dramatic through-line, with no sense of a beginning or ending, nor character development. Indeed, the characters are two-dimensional and, frankly, uninteresting. Then there are the “liberties” taken with history.

Margaret "Daisy" Suckley with Fala, the dog she gave to FDR.

There is so much outright falsehood that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start at a central plot element, the film’s portrayal of FDR’s “affair” with Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. A typical scene has FDR driving Daisy in his manually controlled Ford, waving off the Secret Service, and then parking with Daisy in a field – whereupon she provides her own “manual” service to the President. Yes, you read it right: FDR gets a hand-job on film – something of a Presidential first.

Margaret Suckley in old age.

FDR was no plaster saint, he had a multitude of character defects: he was often devious, manipulative, and ruthless. (I won’t bother going into the many character flaws of his predecessors, which have been documented elsewhere). FDR was also an unfaithful husband. He had an affair with Lucy Mercer and more than likely with Marguerite “Missy” LeHand. Both Mercer (by 1945 the widowed Lucy Rutherfurd) and Suckley were with FDR in Warm Springs when was stricken by a fatal stroke – Missy had died the previous year. (The idea that Lucy and Daisy both had affairs with FDR and then spent time together as if they were aging sorority sisters boggles the mind.) HPoH’s portrayal of Suckley’s relationship with FDR as anything more than a friendship between a magnetic, complicated man and his spinster, sixth cousin is not only fanciful, it’s defamatory. HPoH bears no resemblance to Daisy’s diaries of their time together, which were published after her death in 1991. If there was any special aspect to FDR’s relationship with Daisy, it’s that he revealed more of himself emotionally than he did with the rest of his circle – it was to Daisy alone than he confided what a burden the Presidency was becoming to him, how much he wanted to retire, and his fears about his health. His trust in Daisy was such that two of the very rare photographs of FDR in a wheelchair were taken by her. There were dozens of women, and not a few men, whose lives revolved around doting on FDR. There was a certain effervescence about him that made people want to spend time with him. Indeed, Winston Churchill wrote that meeting FDR was “like opening your first bottle of champagne”. Adoration does not necessarily equal sexual conjugation.

Welcoming the King and Queen to New York.

I would also add that Daisy was nowhere near as attractive as Laura Linney, an actress I have to feel sorry for after seeing HPoH. I’ve followed Linney’s career with interest since she first appeared as Mary Ann Singleton in Tales of the City back in 1993. More recently, she did a compelling star turn as Abigail Adams. But here she has little to do but hide behind a veil of demure coyness. If Linney’s agent recommended this movie for her, he should be fired.

Bill Murray neither looks nor sounds like FDR. Worse, he makes little effort to look or sound like him, from the way he wears his pince-nez, to the angle of his cigarette holder, to the timbre and accent of his voice. Anthony Hopkins didn’t look or sound like Richard Nixon, but he was able to get inside the character and deliver a compelling performance. That’s not the case with Murray. Nor is Murray able to recreate the halting walk FDR taught himself after becoming paralyzed in 1921. (Indeed, the only actor I’ve seen recreate FDR’s walk convincingly is Edward Herrmann.) The man whose crippled legs were masked by the determination and iron will that allowed him to guide America through the Great Depression and World War II is nowhere to be seen here. As portrayed by Murray, FDR is merely a cocktail swilling, dilettante and bon-vivant who happens to be President of the United States – when he’s not too busy soliciting “favors” from the women in his life. I have to wonder whether Murray has read even one of the many biographies about FDR before taking this role. Inexplicably, the board of the Golden Globes has nominated Murray as Outstanding Actor in a Musical of Comedy, proving their ignorance about FDR.

Olivia Williams is entirely miscast as Eleanor Roosevelt. Nothing of the real vitality that attracted Franklin to her is here (shortly before his death, FDR told his son that even after 40 years of marriage, Eleanor was still "the most fascinating woman" he'd ever met), only hints that she sought companionship from other women. Nor is the passion for social justice that fueled Eleanor from her adolescence until her death. Here, she's merely an irritated quasi new-age ditz.

Not everything about HPoH is completely terrible.  Samuel West and Olivia Colman turn in excellent, perfectly timed, performances as England's King and Queen.  Elizabeth Wilson is fine as FDR's mother, although why she uses a slightly foreign accent when the real Sara Delano Roosevelt was born in New York is puzzling to me.  The propmaster does an excellent job recreating the look of 1939.

But the film suffers from a split personality: for the most part, it's a comedic culture clash about the British Royals' visit to America; then it becomes a clumsy, angsty drama about a philandering President's multiple affairs.  The latter plotline could have been entirely dropped and the film would have been much stronger.

The exterior of Springwood looks nothing like the real thing (I've been there). I can certainly understand why the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park would decline to allow this tripe to be filmed on location, but couldn’t the filmmakers have created a CGI version?

In short, Hyde Park on Hudson is not historically accurate. Worse to some, it’s not entertaining – not even as a low-sex comedy, as it’s too slow moving. The writer, the producers, and Murray himself should be ashamed they ever committed to this project.

I’ve often thought an effective way to recreate FDR’s presidency would be via a television series, reminiscent of The West Wing, circa 1933-1945. It would be fast paced, with crackling dialogue and interesting characters, and no fictionalization. Indeed, some scenes could be lifted verbatim from the recordings made in the Oval Office. FDR’s life and presidency were fascinating enough – witness the dozens of biographies written about him.

Aaron Sorkin, are you reading this?


jlall said...

I was looking for pictures of Missy LeHand, and I stumbled across your article. Thank you for saying what should have been said about that awful movie. I watched about 15 minutes and couldn't take any more. I've bookmarked your blog so I can read more. Thanks again!

Mickey Douglas said...

Like the commenter JlallI, after watching Hyde Park On Hudson, I was looking for pictures, but of Daisy Suckle, when I stumbled on your blog. Unlike you two, I enjoyed the movie, although without the benefit of detailed knowledge of FDR, nor Eleanor. I enjoyed, as you called out, the art direction and Property Department's attention to detail recreating this simpler time of living. Both the light of the sun and of the moon were almost characters in the scenes themselves. One of the things the movie did to this 60 year old man who passed through school without really knowing this former leader from a time before I was born, was to install in me the desire to now go and learn about this man and his wife. That is how I stumbled upon your blog. Because I am new without prejudice borne of knowledge about him and her, I take no issue with your comments of their portrayal in the film, and will probably come back around to full agreement with you. But I credit the movie for my wanting to know them both better. I cannot decide who I am interested in more. Franklin, or Eleanor. I suspect it takes knowing about one to know about the other; they come as a set. Although your critique chastised Bill Murray for his inability, or desire to capture the nuances of Franklin with authority, I have to think he succeeded in exposing that Franklin was probably a bit of a Rascal, We should have more rascals in the White House, me thinks. So here I go! Thanks for your many paragraphs as a primer. - Jerry McDonald. Denver Colorado.