Starting in mid-November, I begin to receive “A-List” type screeners from Hollywood’s big-time production companies and distributors such as The Weinstein Company, Focus Features, et al. The films are generally marketed to a middle-class audience more interested in serious drama than car chases. The prototypical film is Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, something I detested but that is likely to garner multiple Oscars.
Coming very close in spirit but with less fanfare is “Hyde Park on the Hudson”, a movie that dramatizes the affair that FDR had with his fifth cousin in the late 30s, as well as a visit that the stuttering King George VI of England and his wife the Queen made in the summer of 1939. I was all set to hate this film just as much as “Lincoln” but was pleasantly surprised to enjoy every minute of it, so much so that I will be nominating it as one of the three best movies of the year for our annual New York Film Critics Online meeting on Sunday.
When I advised my colleagues in NYFCO to try to find the time to see it among the tsunami of DVD’s sent by the studios, one member replied: “Time Magazine called it one of the worst movies of the year.” I responded: “Ha-ha. That’s funny. I felt the same way about Lincoln. Like I said, film reviewing is very subjective.”
Intrigued by Time’s dismissal, I took a look at the review and spotted the following:
Daisy [FDR’s paramour] isn’t the only woman who lacks a middling IQ or the filmmakers’ sympathy. This Queen is no bright, warm Helena Bonham Carter from The King’s Speech; she’s portrayed as a pompous prig who, in one of her pique fits, shouts at George to “Please stop stuttering!” So many arguments take place among guests in bedrooms with thin walls that Hyde Park on Hudson almost becomes some unseen Fawlty Towers episode about a visit from the Royals. There’s also quite a lot of talk about George’s fear of eating hot dogs, which no one has bothered to inform him are just sausages — like bangers on a bun. In the movie ickiest scene, FDR says, “Daisy, would you show how to put on the mustard?”, and his mistress does so, with a lubriciousness that suggests the application of KY jelly to an engorged member.
How in the world can any of my readers resist such a movie that refused to take FDR seriously, keeping in mind that Henry R. Luce, Time Magazine’s founder, wrote this just two years after the events depicted in the film? This was a landmark essay that not only made the case for the pact adumbrated in the King’s visit to Hyde Park but for America assuming the role of world hegemon once enjoyed by Britain:
As America enters dynamically upon the world scene, we need most of all to seek and to bring forth a vision of America as a world power which is authentically American and which can inspire us to live and work and fight with vigor and enthusiasm. And as we come now to the great test, it may yet turn out that in all our trials and tribulations of spirit during the first part of this century we as a people have been painfully apprehending the meaning of our time and now in this moment of testing there may come clear at last the vision which will guide us to the authentic creation of the 20th Century – our Century.
–From Henry Luce’s The American Century
Now that we are in the 21st Century, with both America and Britain in their dotage, it seems appropriate that we are invited to watch a film that depicts two powerful figures from the preceding century as a couple of clowns. Time marches on.
Unlike “Lincoln”, the makers of “Hyde Park on the Hudson” did not seek to use the film as a bully pulpit to give moral instruction to the American people. While it is only very partially a celebration of the pact between American and British imperialism concluded on the eve of WWII, it is much more about the foibles of the men and women who rule bourgeois society.
While I doubt that the creative team behind “Hyde Park on the Hudson” had any kind of subversive intent, they certainly had no interest in hagiography. Indeed, the casting of a world-class clown like Bill Murray was a tip-off that they had no such intentions. Murray, I should add, is simply brilliant. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis he was not trying to convince anybody that he was FDR’s avatar. Instead, his character was one part FDR and one part Bill Murray, the devilish comic who is closer in spirit to Groucho Marx than anybody today, including Woody Allen whose attitude toward Groucho is worshipful.
Indeed, the best thing that can be said about “Hyde Park on the Hudson” is that it is a romantic comedy of the sort that Woody Allen is no longer capable of making. In 1982 Woody made a lead-footed film titled “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy”, whose first mistake was the title. If you are making a comedy, the first thing you should not do is advertise that intention in the title of your work, not to speak of its claim to the bloodlines of Shakespeare’s greatest comedy. The work should speak for itself. Allen’s movie was an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 “Smiles of a Summer Night” that was also inspired by Shakespeare’s comedy but far more accomplished.
That is the way to approach “Hyde Park on the Hudson”. Forget about didactic political lessons. This is a deeply lyrical film that has some of the most haunting images I have seen in a film in a very long time. When FDR takes Daisy for a jaunt in a convertible on the sprawling grounds of Hyde Park, they come to a stop at the top of hill covered in wild flowers. It is enough to take your breath away.
Despite Time Magazine’s reference to Fawlty Towers, this is not really a bedroom farce. Instead it is a comedy of manners that is much subtler. For example, FDR has the King and his wife, Lady Elizabeth, stay in a room festooned with antique satirical paintings of the British troops from the War of 1812 that she strenuously objects to. Unlike “The King’s Speech”, Lady Elizabeth is played for laughs as an up-tight snob having much in common with the kind of role played by Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films. The King is referred to as “Bertie” throughout, a reference to his first name Albert. While I have no idea if this was screenwriter Richard Nelson’s intention, it was hard for me to resist the notion that the character owed much to P.J. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, the upper-class twit who had to be rescued on every occasion by his street-smart butler Jeeves. This is a King of England who is not only hampered by a stutter but by what Time Magazine rather accurately describes as a “middling IQ”.
Richard Nelson is no slouch when it comes to the theater. He was formerly the chair of the playwriting department of Yale’s School of Drama and the author of the 2000 Tony Award winning “The Dead”, based on a James Joyce short story. His first play, written in 1978, was “The Killing of Yablonski”, a dramatization of the murder of a militant United Mineworkers leader by an assassin hired by bureaucrats opposed to change. In 1984 he adapted Dario Fo’s The Accidental Death of an Anarchist. He is also the author of “The General”, a play that attempted to find some good in Benedict Arnold. Now, there’s a playwright after my own heart.