HOLLYWOOD – Biographical movies can be a daunting task. Their subjects often have larger-than-life stories that are focal points for controversy. Actor Bill Murray says that what attracted him to the role of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” was less of the former element and a touch of the latter.
“What I did not want was a straight-on formal biography,” Murray tells The Japan Times. “No sweeping epic, which FDR’s career would require. The script’s specificity is what pulled me in.”
The film, directed by Roger Michell, is so specific that it centers primarily on one weekend: June 7-10, 1939. That was the weekend Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, in Hyde Park, New York. The king visits to shore up support for Britain as war with Germany looms, but the film focuses on the relationship the president has with his sixth cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (played by Laura Linney).
Murray says he likes that Roosevelt wasn’t portrayed as some “iconic monolith” in the film.
“He’s a very human guy — he was horny, even from the wheelchair — and we know from history he had a hypocritical streak. Despite that, the script gives him his dignity. I think he’s a charming fellow.”
It’s also worth noting that Murray’s Roosevelt smiles more broadly and more often than the original presidential model apparently ever did.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” is told from Suckley’s perspective and is based on her real-life diaries, which were obtained after her death at 99 years old in 1991. She develops a sexual relationship with the president, which has caused some controversy among those who knew the people in question. Curtis Roosevelt, the president’s eldest grandson, insists the relationship was platonic and told news website The Huffington Post that the diaries didn’t reveal an affair (something with which Geoffrey Ward, the editor of those diaries into book form, reportedly agrees).
Murray says he is “new to” controversy because he feels he hasn’t been involved with many hot-button projects.
“Somehow there’s still a little resistance to casting me in things as noirish and documentary-like as, say, ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ (Laughs.) If you portray a major world figure, you can’t not have controversy. If you filmed this and there wasn’t any … who’d go see it? The people who voted for FDR?”
Murray adds that one advantage on his side is time: Roosevelt has faded from the broader public’s memory.
“Even so, I wouldn’t have done an imitation,” he says. “I wanted to just give an impression of the man, as a host (to the royal couple) and as someone not averse to an occasional nip (of alcohol) and what sexual gratification he can achieve — within reason and what he considers decorum. Those women he got involved with were comfortable, real people, not beauty queens and bimbos.”
The “real people” Roosevelt is involved with in the film still adhere to behavior that typifies the attitudes of that era. One scene has Roosevelt and Suckley in the car together and it is there that the president’s intentions turn toward the amorous (or lecherous, depending on your point of view). Suckley later finds out that she isn’t the only one for whom Roosevelt has eyes.
“Like so many, she idolized Roosevelt and had probably never thought of him in a sexual context,” Murray says. “For one thing, in person she could see his handicap. But the times were very different … More romance, more illusions that women kept about men, and there was more virginity. You can’t underestimate the charm of a man who got himself elected president four times. More people held him in higher esteem and even adoration than any president we know of besides John F. Kennedy.”
It may seem surprising that less controversy surrounded the depiction of Eleanor Roosevelt as Sapphic in the film. Her intimate relationships with women, particularly journalist Lorena Hickock, have been documented through a good deal of personal correspondence.
“I’ll soon be 63 (on Sept. 21), which is as old as FDR lived to be,” Murray says. “Getting to play him was an unexpected treat. Growing up, I still heard plenty about him, how he helped pull the country out of the Great Depression with the New Deal and his ‘radical’ programs that were fought tooth and nail by rich Republicans.
“You can judge his moral backbone by his siding with the average laborer, not with his own kind. He came from wealth (he was related to President Theodore Roosevelt, who held the office nearly 25 years prior). In the 1950s, some people said the political witch hunts were a reaction against 20 years of liberal administrations, first FDR, then (Harry S.) Truman — if you read about it, it does come across as a Republican revenge.”
“Hyde Park on Hudson” has received criticism for its depiction of relationships and Murray admits the film doesn’t give a complete portrayal of Roosevelt’s time in office. After all, that would be the “sweeping epic” that he says he was trying to avoid.
“For better and for worse, so much of what we know about history is from the movies,” he says. “Do you remember ‘The Voyage of the Damned’?” That was the 1976 film based on the S.S. St. Louis, a ship that in 1939 carried hundreds of Jewish refugees away from Nazi Germany. The ship was turned away from Cuba, the United States and Canada, and was a propaganda success for Adolf Hitler.
“That,” whispers Murray, “was probably FDR’s moral low point.”
The actor says Roosevelt is unlike any role he has ever played, and the films he usually chooses (“Ghostbusters,” “Rushmore”) tend to leave significant imprints on pop culture.
“I haven’t played that many heroes, icons or role models, aside from playing someone physically handicapped who put on a smiling or stoic face in public, but had his own private … maybe “hell” is too strong a word, maybe not,” he says. “What’s incredible is how you had a president confined to a wheelchair that the press respected enough so that he was never photographed in it or shown as (physically) handicapped.”
Another role Murray is fondly remembered for, especially by expatriates in Japan, is that of actor Bob Harris in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” — which turns 10 this year.
Looking back on that experience, Murray feels that “it’s partly about being on the outside, inside. Everyone’s felt (like Bob) sometime — anyone who’s traveled to another country. More, it’s about making human connections. What’s more universal than that? That movie resonates, and it will continue to.”
When asked if he has any regrets about the film he says: “You know, I could have taken more time to learn more Japanese. You get lazy — stardom does that. Having a translator, local people being so polite. I studied some, later, and when I remember to, I still do. But not enough. I still recall a gentleman named Malcolm Thompson, I think he was born in England, who ran the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo when we were there shooting. He did everything he could to make us more comfortable.
“Now I’m older, seeing Tokyo again, I’d appreciate it more. Less pressure, less challenge as an actor and a visitor. I really should return. Only, if I want to really see it and know it, it shouldn’t be as an actor. Actors are just too … too catered to.”