Monday, August 26, 2013

Bill Murray’s Broad Shoulders: A review of Hyde Park on Hudson

HP FDR What polio

"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad."  Bill Murray craftily suggesting the crippled President, Franklin Roosevelt, who seems to be at his jauntiest when he's shouldering the burdens of others in Hyde Park on Hudson.

Couple times a month my routine travels take me across the river to Hyde Park and now and then when I’m over there and I have the time I make a point of stopping in for a visit at FDR’s old place.

His estate---he liked to call it a farm---overlooking the Hudson and his mother’s house Springwood and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

I don't go in reverently to genuflect before a shrine. I’m not there to commune with ghosts. I drop by for the company.

The Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor, have always been alive to me in a way other historical figures whose careers I actually lived through aren’t. It’s probably because they were still alive to my parents and grandparents when I was growing up and they got talked about with the same immediacy, knowingness, and affection as absent friends and family. I’ve mentioned how in Pop Mannion’s heart FDR is still his President. And part of it is that they both had such expansive, engaging, and inspiring personalities that their spirits can’t be bound within a history book…or a grave. But it’s also because they’re still at work holding the country together.

When conservatives insist that the New Deal didn't end the Depression, insist back they're missing the point.

The New Deal wasn't designed to end the Depression. It was put into place piece-meal and catch as catch can to save the country from complete collapse. Economic, political, and social. People were starving. Unemployment was 25%---nationally. It wasn't spread around evenly. Whole towns were out of work. States weren't coping by laying off some teachers. They were closing school districts! There were serious communist and fascist movements on the rise. Conservatism---Hooverism---budget cutting, austerity of the sort ruining Republican-cursed states here and now and doing such a bang up job of bringing economies back to life in Europe and yet still advocated by serious people in Washington as the cure for all our financial woes---had failed so miserably that even Herbert Hoover was giving up on it. The Depression had been going on for three and a half years and was just getting worse. FDR didn't come into office with a systematic plan that said in X number of years we will have reversed the downward trend, brought industries back to full capacity, and reduced unemployment to statistically zero. He came into office saying let's do what we can as quickly as possible to get people fed and back into their homes and save what's still there to be saved and head off riots and most important of all help people from being afraid.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" may be the most rousing declaration in the history of Presidential oratory and the most necessary thing any President ever said, but my favorite saying of his was something he routinely told people in private.

"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad."

He put everybody on those broad shoulders and saved the whole goddamn country.

I suppose that's why the Right hated him and hates him to this day. He didn't throw enough people overboard.

So many of us are still riding on those shoulders that I think he must be getting tired. He’s got to put us down at last. But then I feel the shoulders square, see the smile broaden, the chin lift another inch, the cigarette holder tip up even more jauntily.

This side of Roosevelt, the crippled man who couldn’t stand without locking into place painful leg braces, who couldn’t walk on his own more than a few steps without falling, who often needed to be lifted from a seat and carried by aides who was at his happiest and most energetic when he felt that he was carrying others, informs Bill Murray’s portrayal in Hyde Park on Hudson---there’s a shot of Roosevelt in the arms of an aide and the look on Murray’s face tells us that the President seems to think he’s levitating and hoisting the aide and pulling him along as she sails across the room. You can tell he wants to call out, “Hold on!” But it only comes out forcefully in one scene.

You won’t be surprised that it’s my favorite scene.

But it’s also the scene that gives the movie its reason for being.

Of course the reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is Murray as FDR. But that scene is why we should care. Which makes that scene what the movie’s about. Which is interesting, because for long stretches the movie seems to think it’s about Roosevelt’s (probable) affair with his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley.

Since Ghostbusters, Murray has played many parts that aren’t just variations of Peter Venkman, and not all of them for Wes Anderson. But with those parts it doesn’t matter---too much---if from time to time you notice it’s still Bill Murray up there. In fact, it wouldn’t matter---much---if your mind switched gears and you saw only Murray up there. In Hyde Park on Hudson Murray does his best job, that I remember, of not letting us see him as Bill Murray. And the times I caught myself noticing it was Murray I was delighted.

“Hey!” I said to myself, as if pleasantly surprised, because that’s what I was, “That’s Bill Murray!”

His performance is more suggestion than impersonation. He captures the look, sound, and spirit of the man, what it might have been like to be in a room with him, even have a drink with him, but at a distance. Roosevelt himself was good at that, making people feel welcomed into his company while still keeping them at a distance, a matter of temperament he turned into a political skill that the movie never shows him using overtly as a political skill. There are no other politicians on screen. No opponents whom FDR had a way of treating like his best friends. No friends and allies whom he had a habit of manipulating as if they were opponents.

Instead, we see him practicing on the four important women in his life at the time, his mother, his wife Eleanor, his secretary and mistress Missy LeHand, and Daisy.

And on the King of England, his majesty George VI.

“Bertie” to his family and those of us who saw The King’s Speech.

Hyde Park on Hudson centers on a historically loose---Ok. Practically entirely made up---account of an actual visit the King and Queen made to the United States on the eve of World War II, a visit that ends with a picnic on the Hyde Park estate at which the Royals are to be served hot dogs!

That happened. The picnic. The hot dogs. The nearly week long visit, which began in Washington (The movie leaves that part out) in June of 1939, three months before Hitler invaded Poland, was arranged by Roosevelt, who was working to prepare the U.S. for getting involved in the coming war in Europe. There was a strong isolationist movement here and FDR calculated that the visit would engage Americans' sympathies on the side of England and her allies.

The hot dogs were an amusing aside to the news reports. Supposedly, when the  queen expressed uncertainty about the proper way to eat one, Roosevelt said, "It's easy, your majesty. You just put it in your mouth and push!"

In the movie, the serving of hot dogs is a very big deal.

The visit and surrounding events are seen through the very wide eyes of Daisy Suckley, who has become a frequent houseguest at Hyde Park at the invitation of the President's mother. The elder Mrs Roosevelt has the idea that in Daisy's innocent and totally unpolitical company, her son will be able to put aside his burdens as President and relax.

This works out, although probably not exactly as Mother Roosevelt expected.

HP Linney as Daisy as little girl lost Laura Linney plays Daisy as a woman on the brink of middle age who for some reason has apparently regressed to a shy and timid teenager. It's not explicitly explained how, when, or why this happened or even if it was a thing that happened as opposed to its just being who she is.  Historically, FDR and Daisy became close in the early 1920s when he was fighting his way to the degree of recovery from polio he managed and she was still reeling from the deaths of her father and one of her brothers. But Daisy tells us enough in her narration to imply that it's the Depression and her side of the family's come down in wealth and status that's knocked her for a loop. She's sapped of confidence and energy and, practically, of will. On her visits to Hyde Park, she sees herself as more of a servant than a member of her family, and all she hopes to be around the house is useful and invisible.

In a way, then, she's symbolic of what the Depression did to the whole country, which sets her up to become another one of FDR's New Deal rebuilding projects.

We see him best at work on this project in the scenes of him driving her around the still very rural and bucolic Dutchess County where he grew up in the Packard convertible he had fitted with hand controls instead of pedals for the brakes, gas, and shifting. He enjoys showing her the countryside. He enjoys scaring---and thrilling---her with his apparent recklessness behind the wheel. We don't get to hear him at it, but Daisy tells us he teaches her to identify the local birds and wildflowers.

Unfortunately, there isn't a scene of them doing something FDR made a point of doing when he went out for his drives, stopping to chat with various people (voters) along the way. A scene something like this. Besides possibly saving us from an embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture by getting it consigned to the cutting room floor for time's sake, a scene like that would have done two other important jobs.

It would have shown Daisy coming out of her shell to learn some lessons about the art of politics and it would have provided a set up for a couple of later scenes, one involving Daisy and some unemployed working men doing odd jobs around the Roosevelt estate and the other a scene in which the King tries to mimic an American politician by doing the democratic thing and stopping his car so he can say hello to some ordinary Americans on the roadside, which doesn't go over as well as he'd hoped.

I have to mention: that embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture is embarrassing and unnecessary, but it's also ridiculous and belittling to both characters and insulting to the audience, not to mention totally out of keeping with the mood and tone of the movie itself. It's ruined the movie for some people. But Pop and Mom Mannion shrugged it off and so did Old Mother and Father blonde. You can tell when it's about to happen and fast forward or leave the room to go get a drink.

Daisy doesn’t appear to learn any political lessons from Roosevelt. We aren't shown her developing the insight and the acumen that would make her useful to both Franklin and Eleanor as President and First Lady over the coming years and eventually lead to her becoming one of the first archivists at the Presidential Library. And her narration doesn't seem to contain the keenly descriptive voice of the letters and diaries that were found under her bed after she died and which have become a treasure trove for historians and biographers.

But she blossoms. She takes up smoking. She mixes it up with the working stiffs doing odd job round the estate (a scene that should have been an echo of an earlier one like what I mentioned, FDR stopping to banter and exchange gossip with all and sundry when he's taking her on a drive.) We watch her grow more sophisticated and adult. We see her recovering from the Depression.

Drama ensues when she discovers she’s not his only rebuilding project.

Drama being a relative term.

Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson are determined to keep things light and frothy. They don’t explore their characters’ psyches and motivations. And we're not given any real insight into why these proud, smart, talented, spirited women put up with him or what FDR needs from them.

Whatever it is, it doesn't appear to be sex---or, at any rate, not just sex---or to be coddled and taken care of, although he expects that. And why all of them? (Two more lovers are said to be waiting offscreen.) Were his burdens so great that one person alone couldn't lift them? Was it that because he worked round the clock he needed them to work in shifts so there was always a nurse on call? The movie doesn’t give any answers. Or even look for them

It simply appears as though they liked thinking they were needed by him while needing him more and he needed to be needed by them and and that his way of relaxing from his burdens as President was to take on other burdens. He was doing for them what he was doing for the country, putting them on his shoulders and enjoying it. I like to think this is true. It fits with my ideal of the man. But the movie doesn’t try to persuade us that it is.

But then Hyde Park on Hudson isn't a psycho-drama or even a historical drama. It's not a drama at all.  It's a drawing room comedy that happens to have one of the greatest Presidents of the United States as its main character.  It has more in common with The Man Who Came to Dinner than with Lincoln or The King's Speech.

The fun is in watching a set of eccentric characters interact and in being amused or appalled or both at their misbehavior, although on that ground it should have been funnier.

Keep in mind that it is funny.  And its funniest moments are provided by FDR's  most serious rebuilding project, his efforts to teach the King of England how to be a leader not just his own people will look up to but who will inspire Americans as well.

So we arrive at that crucial scene, the centerpiece of the movie, an extended two-hander between Murray and Samuel West as George VI in which we see FDR at his manipulative and mischievous best subtly letting Bertie know he’s already taken England on his shoulders, but it’s time for Bertie to stop being so Bertie-ish and start acting the part of King and share the load. The weekend’s a test that will let them both, and their countries, know if he’s up to it.

West plays the king as superficially enough like Colin Firth in The King's Speech as to be a comic counterpoint if not an outright caricature. His Bertie is more callow, more boyish, even more easily embarrassed and cowed. His stammer is the least of his reasons for his chronic insecurity.

But he's smart and he's eager and he's quick. What makes their big scene together work isn't Murray's gentle and witty fatherliness but West's thoughtful resistance on the grounds he's just not bold enough to pull it off slowly but surely giving way to a suddenly cheerful but still characteristically modest determination to give it a jolly good try.

The capper is a little moment of private triumph Bertie giddily allows himself on his way up to bed where he knows the queen will be waiting to listen sympathetically to how he's botched things once again.

Olivia Colman plays Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen Elizabeth's mother; Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech) as a proud but fussy woman who's found herself in a situation where neither her pride nor her fussiness avail her or even make sense. To her horror and consternation her husband's being democratized, even Americanized, right before her eyes and all she can do is let herself be democratized along with him and that's going to mean a bunch of appalling things are about to happen, including eating a hot dog.

Physically, Colman looks to me like a more likely choice for Eleanor Roosevelt than the other Olivia in the cast. The real Eleanor Roosevelt, always insecure about her looks, probably would have wished she was as youthful and lantern-jawed handsome and as apparently indestructible as Olivia Williams who plays her in the movie as a cunning-eyed enigma with a roguish grin and a devil may care brazenness that I don't see in any of the photographs but which she must have had or been able to muster in order to accomplish what she accomplished as her husband's eyes, ears, legs, and public conscience when she went out into the country and then into the world while it was at war on his behalf and in her own later public career.

Williams’ Eleanor is hard to read except in that she's clearly made herself FDR's best student in the art of manipulating people.  She and Murray share one brief, silent, but persuasive moment in which we see that whatever else is going on between them, they are happy partners in this game.

Disappointingly, the script seems to accept that the reason for Franklin and Eleanor's estrangement was her latent lesbianism and not his heartless caddishness.  But Williams deftly swats this aside when she meets another character's clumsily  alluding to Eleanor’s “friends” with a big, blithe but steely smile as if to say, I'm not saying you're right, but if you are, so what? It doesn't change anything about you, about me, about my husband, or the importance of what's happening here this weekend, does it?

As Missy LeHand, Elizabeth Marvel does more with the lighting and quick stubbing out of a cigarette to let us know the crucial facts about LeHand than other good actresses could do with all her lines. This is a brisk, active, extremely intelligent and competent woman who has given over her life to what’s decided is the most important job she could ever have, being indispensible to the President of the United States in every way possible, at the expense of her pride, her feelings, and her health.

This is the only note of realistic sadness Michell allows into the movie. He’s determined to keep things lighthearted. For the most part he relies on our knowledge of history and some special pleading in passages of Daisy’s narration to provide the tragic background to the comic events on screen. Hyde Park on Hudson is a temporary relief from history, which in a real way was the point of the actual picnic.

HP FDR behind the wheel It’s a slight and small-scale film that doesn't do a particularly creative job of expanding upon its origins as a radio play. The reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is, as I said, Bill Murray’s Roosevelt, which, again as I said, is more suggestion than impersonation, a sketch rather than a detailed portrait. Up close and sitting still, Murray doesn’t look like the real FDR. He doesn’t sound like him either. The cigarette holder, the pince-nez glasses, and the hat with the pushed up brim aren’t much more than props for a Halloween costume, and fortunately he doesn’t rely on them. What he relies on is misdirection. A line here, a gesture there, a look, a grin, and he has us looking over here instead of over there and what appears to be over here is the impression we just saw Franklin Roosevelt, a magician’s trick appropriate to the spirit of one of the great political sleight of hand artists this nation has known.

I left Hyde Park on Hudson feeling the way I often do when I leave Hyde Park, as if I’ve been in his company and that, if I’d needed him to, he’d have been glad to add my troubles to his shoulders.

Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Richard Nelson. Starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Marvell, and Elizabeth Wilson. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.


Here’s the real Daisy Suckley playing with Fala in the President’s study in the White House, December 20, 1941. Suckley gave Roosevelt Fala, which is the subject of a blink and you’ll miss it joke early in Hyde Park on Hudson.

HP Daisy Suckley and Fala

There’s a useful biography of Suckley at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum’s website. Also, an account of the King and Queen’s visit.


In an interview with NPR, historian Geoffrey Wolff goes to town an the many things Hyde Park on Hudson gets wrong. But this about the movie’s portrayal of Roosevelt’s polio confused me:

First of all, he's seen doing all kinds of things in the film which he never could have done. He could not walk on crutches by himself.

I wonder what Wolff means by “by himself.”

HP FDR on crutches


In the year before filming began on Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray and some other members of the cast visited Hyde Park to do some research.

HP Murray and FDR

In December of 2010, someone else paid a call.

HP Great Democrats

Great Democrats. Pop Mannion and his President.

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