All the President's Concubines
We already knew that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a lousy president -- the Depression dragged on for 11 years, mostly on his watch, so the proper word for what he did to the economic calamity is “extend,” not “end” it -- but the strange Bill Murray comedy Hyde Park on Hudson makes clear that FDR was a horrible man as well.
The movie is principally about FDR’s habit of employing his mother to call up local women, some of them cousins, and send them over to be the president’s concubines at his country house in upstate New York. It’s made clear to the women that they’re not to be taken seriously, they’re not to say anything, and they’ll be discarded as soon as the president tires of them, and in this film by Roger Michell (Notting Hill) all of this is presented as merry good fun and entirely suitable behavior by the iconic figure of the party that “cares about women.”
Laura Linney plays Daisy, a second cousin who is hurried into FDR’s life for unpaid sex work. FDR flirts with her by showing her his stamp collection, then takes her for a quiet country drive in his car, which is operated exclusively by hand controls due to his paralysis. But apparently the president was able to maintain an extramarital love life that can only be called Clintonian, or perhaps Kennedyesque. (Why is it that our most priapic presidents tend to be Democrats? Is it because they enjoy doing to the country what they do to unsuspecting younger women?) A more astute director would have played FDR’s womanizing as yet more evidence of the imperiousness of a president who famously used to lie around in bed in the morning dreaming up a price for gold, for instance declaring 21 cents to be the right number because sevens are lucky and 21 is three times seven.
Daisy, quickly accepted as the newest member of the household (though not the only concubine present), gets to witness the events of the summer of 1939, when (or so this movie would have us believe) the fate of the free world rested on whether or not the king of England would eat a hot dog.
The same monarch who was the subject of The King’s Speech, Bertie/George VI (Samuel West), arrives in the company of Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) for a state visit that threatens to go awry because Elizabeth can’t believe the couple are meant to attend an informal picnic where hot dogs are to be served. As maybe half a dozen scenes focus on the alleged importance of those hot dogs, it seems increasingly obvious that this is one of those movies based on the limited access of a minor observer (Daisy would go on to write about the affair in her diaries) that tries to inflate the importance of the few events witnessed by the storyteller. We can’t very well have a movie that says, “One of the women FDR bedded in the summer of 1939 hung around the house a lot that summer and didn’t see much of importance.” So the picnic is elevated to the status of a world-historical event that will supposedly decide whether or not the U.S. is to join Britain in the war against Germany. If the king and queen consume a frankfurter, then FDR will recognize the Brits as our kindred spirits and agree to sign on for the war.
Really? That’s not my understanding of how the Allies got together. To say the movie distorts history is to understate the case. Since the war did indeed start a few weeks later, and yet the U.S. stayed out of it for more than two years and even then might not have fought beside Britain had not Hitler declared war on us after Pearl Harbor, Hyde Park on Hudson is utter nonsense. Moreover, the film’s attempt to recast Roosevelt, perhaps the most patrician president since Washington himself, as a symbol of earthy, unpretentious American-ness in contrast to the snooty visiting Brits, is equally ridiculous. Murray, who certainly carries the regular-Joe aura about him, is completely wrong for the part of this born aristocrat and in no way looks or sounds like Roosevelt. No doubt liberal critics willing to forgive any error if it aids them in their enduring FDR propaganda mission will seek to enshrine Murray’s performance on Mount Rushmore, but let’s face it, the guy is a meatball and this movie has gotten its facts lost in translation.
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