Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bill Murray Charms, Seduces as FDR


Oh, That Rascal FDR

By Skip Sheffield

Franklin D. Roosevelt died before I was born, but his “New Deal” liberal policies were often a topic of my father’s grousing at our house.
“Hyde Park on the Hudson” is not as much about FDR’s politics or economics as it is about his love life. Who knew FDR was such a Don Juan?
When he is played by Bill Murray, perhaps you can believe it.
The title refers to Roosevelt’s family retreat, ruled over by Franklin’s starchy mother (Elizabeth Wilson). The story is set on a long weekend in 1939 in which the Roosevelts awaited the first ever visit by the King and Queen of England.
FDR knew King George VI (Samuel West) had an ulterior motive when he agreed to travel with his wife and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), mother of the current British monarch. They desperately needed the help of the USA in the gathering storm of war, which would explode in just three months hence.
The royals were quite stuffy and formal, which allows for much of the movie’s humor. Queen Elizabeth in particular is horrified that their hosts plan to serve hot dogs at a family picnic. Evidently no royal has ever deigned to taste the humble American snack.
The social and political maneuverings are secondary to the allegedly true story of FDR’s affair with a distant cousin. She is called Daisy (Laura Linney) here, but the story (by Richard Nelson) is inspired by the diaries of one Margaret Stuckley, which were discovered after her death at age 99.
Whether or not FDR actually had an affair with Daisy is all a matter of conjecture. As presented here Daisy is but one of several mistresses FDR maintains simultaneously, despite the fact he was severely disabled by polio (which was hidden from the public with the complicity of the press) and married to unlovely Eleanor (Olivia Williams), who in this scenario knew full well her husband’s indiscretions.
Hyde Park” depends heavily on the raffish charm of Bill Murray, who plays knaves and rotters we like anyway. FDR charms not only innocent Daisy, but the Queen and particularly the King of England, with whom he forms a bond. Director Roger Michell has given Murray free reign to be as outrageous as he needs to be. Laura Linney uses her considerable dramatic skill to expose the 32nd President’s callous, thoughtless side.
This film would confirm my father’s worst suspicions about FDR. For me it humanizes a man who has been put up on a pedestal and idealized, and it accomplishes it with great wit and humor.

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