Bill Murray would seem an unlikely Franklin Roosevelt. But the promos for Hyde Park on Hudson show him surprisingly persuasive, amid the charm and beauty of FDR’s upstate New York estate. There he famously entertained the King and Queen of England in 1939 as part of his stagecraft for persuading Americans eventually into another wartime alliance with Britain against Germany. It was a sort of hot dog summit, with the somewhat surprised royals enjoying mustard on casual American fare in a picnic.
Supposedly the film is based on the diary and letters kept by FDR’s cousin and friend Margaret Suckley, which were found in 1991 after she died at age 99. But the filmmakers evidently were dissatisfied that none of the documents show Suckley as more than an attentive companion to both FDR and Eleanor. So they turned her into his mistress who performs a sexual act on the President while he drives about the countryside, waving off the Secret Service.
Were Suckley still alive she’d probably be horrified. Never married, she was a rather proper, Victorian spinster, in the parlance of the day. Historian Geoffrey Ward, who published her papers, believes she was chaste all her life, which she spent in her family’s mansion near FDR’s. She was one of several doting female cousins invited into his circle to attentively listen to his stories, laugh at his jokes, and exchange Hyde Park gossip. Suckley and another cousin were with FDR when he died at Warm Springs, Georgia, in the presence of a woman, Lucy Rutherford, who really had been his mistress decades before. Much of her remaining 46 years Suckley devoted to perpetuating his memory by working at his nearby presidential library.
So Suckley was hardly Monica Lewinsky. But many film reviewers have unquestioningly swallowed the tall tale. The New York Post review, headlined “Commander in Cheat!” gushes: “Half as long and twice as much fun as the self-important ‘Lincoln,’ Roger Michell’s charming sex-and-politics comedy ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ is basically a frothy tabloid take on presidential history.” The reviewer calls Suckley the “latest in a harem of mistresses” shown, including presidential secretary Missy LeHand and publisher Dorothy Schiff. Actually, Schiff later recounted that she probably would have bedded the President. But he never asked her, instead housing her with Eleanor at a separate cottage and merely driving her good-naturedly about the estate. Schiff’s recall is noteworthy, because it reveals a crippled man who enjoys the company of women but who was not a Lothario. This historical nuance did not interest the filmmaker. Evidently without much subtlety, the royal hot dog picnic, which Suckley attends, is reputedly rife with phallic symbolism. No doubt hilarious.
Fortunately, the real life characters in Hyde Park on Hudson were far more interesting and more focused in 1939 on weightier issues than hot dog sight gags. The Washington Post review more accurately pans this “grubby little movie about a shallow little man,” noting, “Never has crude behavior been more attractively lit.” FDR is “less concerned with Hitler than with juggling women he treats like hookers,” making Bill Clinton’s “treatment of Monica Lewinsky look almost gallant” by comparison. The Washington Post reviewer interviewed the historian editor of Suckley’s papers.
“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,” Ward said. “It was the delight of her life to be the friend of Franklin Roosevelt.” Ward admitted FDR was “manipulative with everybody he knew; he was a politician. But did he have what you so nicely called a ‘transactional relationship’ with her? No. I feel so guilty,” he told the Post, for facilitating the film by publishing her papers.
So the movie evidently is trash, adorned by good scenery, period costumes, and a convincing performance from Murray, who touchingly reenacts FDR’s nonchalant attitude towards his paralysis. A movie that could have aspired to a more modest grandeur than Spielberg’s Lincoln instead reduces a soaring historical personality to the nasty level of a Hollywood casting couch.
If Hollywood wants to portray historically accurate presidential scandal, there is more recent material available. But presumably the Clintons would litigate against any authentic film chronicle of his squalid behavior, if Hollywood were even willing. JFK’s own episodes are also largely avoided or handled gingerly, despite a new memoir by one of his conquests, who was a barely legal teenager when seduced in the White House. A recent film about one of JFK’s mistresses who was murdered instead absurdly targets the CIA and anti-communist Cuban exiles as the killers.
But a prim, dignified matron of the Hudson Valley who befriended FDR gets smeared as the sexual dish rag of her presidential cousin. Hyde Park on the Hudson sounds thoroughly worth avoiding.