Hyde Park on Hudson and some special relationships

by Eric on January 10, 2013

Maybe Hyde Park on Hudson only really makes sense from a British point of view. It’s right there in the title – “Hyde Park on Hudson” reminds you that there’s another Hyde Park, “on Serpentine,” if you like, in London – and if you didn’t catch it from the title, Queen Elizabeth says it in the middle of the movie. “Why is it called Hyde Park? Hyde Park is in London. It’s confusing.”

The movie itself would be confusing if you don’t recall that Hyde Park in London, although technically crown property, is now overrun by the public and indeed home to radical speech and protest, and if you don’t concede that this description also applies pretty well to Hyde Park in New York, formerly a crown colony, and home to Franklin Roosevelt, then – in 1939 – seen as a radical tribune of the American people.

The two kindred parks yield two kindred stories.

In one, FDR’s distant cousin Daisy has an affair with him, believes she is unique, then discovers he has other lovers. One of them, FDR’s secretary Missy LeHand, tells Daisy that she will learn to share. And she does; in the end, happily.

In the other story, George VI (“Bertie”) and his queen, Elizabeth, come to the American Hyde Park to visit the President and court his support for Britain’s defense. It is the first visit by a British monarch to the United States, and a dark hour for Britain. But Bertie hits it off with FDR, feeling he has found a father figure in him, and declaring (in one of several bits of invention) that the two nations have forged a “special relationship.”

In case we miss the point, Daisy also says she has a “special relationship” with Franklin Roosevelt. Bertie’s special relationship with FDR is no more unique than Daisy’s. The movie ends on a high note, but we know that one day, soon, the British will learn they must share his promiscuous affections; by Bretton Woods and Yalta, FDR was courting Josef Stalin.

Perhaps, like Daisy’s bond with FDR, Britain’s tie to the US is not less special because America is so profligate with its affections.

Historians are supposed to quarrel with the film’s depiction of Roosevelt. I don’t think it’s necessary; the Roosevelt in the movie isn’t the human, historical FDR - he’s America personified – smiling, inscrutable, shameless, exploitive, powerful, popular. Bill Murray doesn’t do an impersonation – though he gets the smile right.

But there are essential things about Roosevelt the film does show, more economically and elegantly than I imagined a work of fiction could.

He got along because he made people feel good about themselves – after their meeting, Bertie bounds up the stairs, two or three at a time.

And he let people think he had not made up his mind, when in fact he had – he talks ambivalently about an alliance with Britain, but by the end of the movie we realize he has meant to make it happen, and has worked hard to make it happen.

And people did look to him, craving his attention, trusting him, even though his interior life was finally inaccessible.

The meeting between FDR and Bertie is a really terrific scene, as are all the scenes between Bertie and Elizabeth – but especially the one when they discuss the web of FDR’s promiscuity, and conclude with relief they did not bring Lilibet. There are some gorgeous scenes of the parklike Hudson scenery, humid, rolling in thistle capped by pale blue skies stacked with billowing clouds. It is a beautiful film to look at, and to think with.

{ 23 comments }

1

Meredith 01.10.13 at 6:00 am

Thank you for this. After reading other reviews, I was going to skip this movie in the theater (despite the attractions all the people making it usually hold for me). Now I will make sure to catch it in the next week or two, in our local “art house.”

On a very personal note, two things your discussion or evocation (“review” above wasn’t quite right) adds to my interest, which the “proper” reviews I have read haven’t mentioned. First, the scenes of the beautiful Hudson (which I remain familiar with now but feel deeply about because of visits to my grandparents’ house in its realm many years ago, when I was so much younger, usually in the river’s humid summertime). Also, “And he let people think he had not made up his mind, when in fact he had.” My grandfather (the other one, not the NYC and Hudson River one, but my grandfather from Minnesota, Montana) spent the late 1930′s on the Alaskan coast, a depression-starved man working for the U. S. government preparing Pacific-coast warehouses for….what? The U.S. was not at war, after all….

2

Louis Proyect 01.10.13 at 1:36 pm

Agreed. A welcome relief to the adoration of the Lincoln cult.

3

Eric 01.10.13 at 2:09 pm

Well, I’ll be rooting for Argo against Lincoln.

4

Ben Alpers 01.10.13 at 2:34 pm

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I love the spirit of this post. Too much of the discussion of historical films tends to either attempt to treat them simply as one would a work of academic history (and thus, almost always, to find them wanting) or alternatively to declare “it’s a movie, not a work of history!” (and thus to suggest that any discussion of the film’s historical work is a kind of category error). Yet while narrative films about history are certainly not works of academic history, they nonetheless are attempts to tell us something about the past. This post is a nice model of how historians might go about taking such films seriously as works of history of a different sort. While, again, I’m not in any position to discuss the particulars of it, having not yet seen the film, you’ve made me put Hyde Park on Hudson back on my list of film’s to see.

5

Anderson 01.10.13 at 3:10 pm

Argo sucked.

… Out of curiosity, did FDR have an affair with Daisy?

I am also a little curious why the focus on FDR and the King instead of FDR and Churchill.

6

ponce 01.10.13 at 4:02 pm

I think Churchill was still on the outs during the time this film covers…

7

Tim Wilkinson 01.10.13 at 4:05 pm

Bill Murray doesn’t do an impersonation – though he gets the smile right.

Steve Mangan does something similar (perhaps this could properly be called an ‘impression’) as the lead in The Comic Strip’s The Hunt for Tony Blair’. Attempts at outright impersonation in film tend to fall somewhere between ‘merely distracting’ and ‘intolerably irritating’. They are not quite as Oscar-inducing as hammy portrayals of mental disability or illness, but the same mannered, ‘look at me acting!’ business tends to be involved and can be just as annoying.

(In the case of Meryl #*&% Streep as the ferrous female, you get both of these, along with a fawning, fact-insensitive Hollywood treatment which, neatly enough, is worthy of the Comic Strip’s own 80s spoofs such as ‘The Strike’.)

This is not an exceptionless generalisation – in that very same Comic Strip film, Nigel Planer does a rather fine – though still comic – Mandelson impersonation (though in a fairly broad comedy, impersonations bordering on caricature are of course not out of place.)

8

Alex 01.10.13 at 4:30 pm

I think Churchill was still on the outs during the time this film covers…

His friendship with FDR went back to the first world war.

9

Eric 01.10.13 at 4:57 pm

Nigel Planer does a rather fine – though still comic – Mandelson impersonation

Now that I need to see. Is there anyone further from Neil than Mandelson?

10

rea 01.10.13 at 5:30 pm

“His friendship with FDR went back to the first world war.”

When they first met in 1918, Roosevelt was a pretty minor figure. Years later, when they met again, Churchill did not remember that they had met previously.

11

Tim Wilkinson 01.11.13 at 12:04 am

Eric – It’s linked above, if you have the best part of an hour to spare. Or from outside the UK, it’s available here: http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/avvIVxuol4E, in four parts. (I’d recommend it if I had standing to do so – shambolic, patchy, but very funny in parts.)

He’s quite a good comic actor, Planer, with some range – he did a particularly good job, I thought, as a fictionalised Roberto Calvi (‘God’s banker’) in ‘Spaghetti Hoops’.

12

Suzanne 01.11.13 at 1:47 am

“Bill Murray doesn’t do an impersonation – though he gets the smile right.”

Murray’s a canny performer. He couldn’t do a full-on FDR and wisely doesn’t try.

In defense of our virile President, FDR may have been “promiscuous” but at least there was no gossip about artificial insemination surrounding the birth of his kids, which is more than one can say for the hapless “Bertie.” I had my fill of this particular royal couple in last year’s Oscar bait, The King’s Speech (which was quite good of its kind). It would be nice, though, to see Bertie shown in the full glory of his alcoholic ill temper while his consort scarfs down her oatcakes and gets amiably ossified on cocktails….

13

Suzanne 01.11.13 at 1:48 am

Messed up on the italics, apologies. only the “his” in “his kids” was intended for them.

14

Michael 01.11.13 at 2:19 am

The future Queen Elizabeth II was 12 in 1939. Why do screenwriters get these basic details wrong? They are trivial to check.

http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=how+old+was+queen+elizabeth+ii+in+1939

15

UserGoogol 01.11.13 at 8:50 am

Michael: The Queen Elizabeth in the movie was the queen consort Elizabeth, (the current queen’s Mom) not the queen regnant Elizabeth. Queen consorts don’t get a number.

16

ajay 01.11.13 at 2:38 pm

15: indeed.
The meeting between FDR and Bertie is a really terrific scene, as are all the scenes between Bertie and Elizabeth – but especially the one when they discuss the web of FDR’s promiscuity, and conclude with relief they did not bring Lilibet

“Lilibet”, in this case, being the future Queen Elizabeth II.

The whole thing sounds completely terrible, from the description given in this post. (“Why is it called Hyde Park? Hyde Park is in London. It’s confusing.”) I notice it ended up on at least one list of the worst films of 2012.

17

ProfWombat 01.12.13 at 1:06 am

FD Roosevelt’s home and the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion are both there, and well worth a visit for their contrast. Both are in stunning natural settings befitting homes of the wealthy. Vanderbilt’s is every bit the plutocrat’s: man’s room richly appointed in dark wood, woman’s in French rococo, antiques, art, all of it. Roosevelt’s house, not small, is almost casually decorated. You could imagine yourself with feet up on a table, solving the Times crossword puzzle of a Sunday, sipping coffee…

18

Toby 01.14.13 at 10:52 am

Alex,

FDR was not a “friend” to Churchill after WW1. They met once, and Churchill was so rude that FDR called him a “proper British stinker” aferwards. Churchill claimed he could not remember the incident & it did not affect their later relationship.

That relationship flowered from 1939 to 1943. After that Roosevelt dropped Churchill for Uncle Joe Stalin. That was understandable given the line-up of relative power, but it was accompanied by some backstabbing that hurt Churchill personally. Conrad Black points out that to be called “my friend” by Roosevelt was a signal for imminent sidelining from the great man’s plans.

Churchill never made a public or private comment on Roosevelt beyond unstinting admiration (AFAIK), but he did not fly to Roosevelt’s funeral, though he could have.

I admire both men, but Churchill had a warmth and humanity that was somehow lacking in Roosevelt.

19

Toby 01.14.13 at 11:05 am

I am not sure if Roosevelt was the Lothario portrayed in the movie (which I must see). I just wonder how a man with wasted legs could have conducted such a string of sexual affairs, or be considered capable of seducing a teenage princess.

It is clear that Lucy Mercer (Rutherfurd) was he great love of FDR’s life – he almost left Eleanor for her in 1917 (or so), only the threats of his mother to cut him off, and the ending of his political career, prevented that outcome. Their affair revived during WW2, unknown to Eleanor, and it was Lucy who was in Warm Springs with him when he died.

Lucy was everything Eleanor wasn’t – placid, physically beautiful, feminine and uninterested in politics. FDR’s relationship with his wife was far more complex and demanding, the nagging conscience he could never break away from.

20

Katherine 01.14.13 at 11:07 am

To muddy the waters, there’s also a Hyde Park in Sydney.

21

Main Street Muse 01.14.13 at 12:00 pm

And let’s not forget the Hyde Park noted for aiding the evolution of freshwater thought…

22

chris y 01.14.13 at 12:33 pm

Hyde Park is in Sheffield, as any fule kno. Also in Leeds. There’s a lot of it about.

23

Anita Sanchez 01.16.13 at 11:40 pm

Thanks for a very insightful review. I just saw the movie and am very conflicted. Visually it was gorgeous, and so interesting to see images never seen, like FDR being carried like a child in a burly retainer’s arms. So many historical movies give the barest of nods to his polio. Bill Murray got the grandfatherly side of FDR right–FDR was such a many-faceted person, I guess getting one side of him is an accomplishment. If the’d left Daisy out the movie woudl have benefitted, I thought.

Oh, and as a botany nut–those were red clovers in that lovely view over the hills.

Thanks for helping me rethink the movie!

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