Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Hyde Park on Hudson


It is known that FDR had a romantic affair with Marguerite “Missy” Lehand, his private secretary. Whether it was sexual or not is still debated. It is also known that he had a previous affair, before his polio, and that was the reason Eleanor cut him off and remained his wife in name only. Much, much later a cache of letters and diaries from Margaret Suckley, his fifth cousin, was discovered. I gather they don’t go into clinical detail, but she was clearly in love with him, and she seemed to have mattered greatly to him. That’s what is known, and that is all that is known. So for godsake don’t take this movie as a history lesson.

Everything else in the movie is just speculation as to what might have gone on. I don’t have a huge problem with this. Many plays and movies have been written with historical characters, and the writer is entitled to speculate. I really, really would like to have been a fly on the wall when poor Stuttering Bertie, AKA His Majesty King George VI, met privately with FDR, as is shown here. What we see is … maybe a little hard to believe, but it’s an interesting take. Or when he was in his room at Hyde Park with his wife, later to be known as the Queen Mum, as they discussed the scandalous cartoons of British sailors portrayed as monkeys, hanging on the walls of Hyde Park. Or just what it meant, or didn’t mean, that they were to be served something called a “hot dog” at a picnic tomorrow. Insult? Or just democratic American palling around? So dashedly hard to understand these dreadful colonists, what?

Those are the best parts, in fact. The stuff about the affair is … well, some people I know found it distasteful. It didn’t bother me. I know my heroes have warts. A lot of presidents have been unfaithful to their wives. In FDR’s case, I cut him a little more slack because of his crippling condition and a possible need to be reassured about his manhood. Is that condescending? Maybe. He also seems (at least as written here; I’m no Roosevelt scholar) to have had a need to have warm, bright, sympathetic women around him. Anyway, whatever, I wasn’t really as interested in the affair as I was in the diplomatic dance with the king and queen. I wish there had been more of it.

Overall, I liked the movie. It took a little while to get used to Bill Murray in the role of FDR, but not too long. We have recently watched Sunrise at Campobello, where Ralph Bellamy gave a much more accurate impersonation of face, attitude, and voice. But that’s not really necessary. If you dress the part and adopt some of the more familiar attributes, like throwing your head back when posing for pictures, and of course the ever-present cigarette holder.

We also see him in some undignified positions, such as being carried around, and awkwardly walking himself around a room. So did Sunrise at Campobello, way back in 1960. The press of the day had a sort of “gentlemen’s agreement” never to photograph him in a wheelchair. Everyone in American knew he couldn’t walk, so I’ve never quite understood the point of that, other than that it was the way he wanted it. But it sure would be ridiculous today to never show him getting about.

A period piece like this can jar you sometimes. Can you imagine Obama—or any president since the Kennedy assassination—driving his own car out in the countryside, with no security except two bored cops following along behind? And even those cops being willing to fall back when FDR waves them off. It would have been so easy to kill him. In fact, there was a serious attempt on Harry Truman’s life in 1950, and that’s when things tightened up quite a bit, to the incredible security walls we have erected today, where you’re sort of surprised that Malia and Sasha are able to go to school with other kids instead of having teachers sent to the White House. I’m sure that costs the taxpayers millions and millions of dollars for the Secret Service protection, but it’s afforded to the children of Republican and Democratic presidents, and by golly, I think we owe these people every chance possible to lead something like a normal life.