City Arts: Presidents in Lust

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Film.


Historical man-sharing in ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s deification–once the preoccupation of Depression and WWII survivors–comes to an end in Hyde Park on Hudson, a tell-all semi-bio-pic that is really about the women in FDR’s harem. Screenwriter Richard Nelson’s presumptuous aspersions present FDR’s wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) as a lesbian, his secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) as a pragmatic concubine and his fifth cousin Daisy (Laura Linney) as a self-sacrificing frump, the film’s sentimentalizing narrator.

Bill Murray as FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson

What’s going on here outdoes the hero-worship of films like The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, The King’s Speech; there’s a new cynicism that accepts the failings of political leaders, adjusting public disappointment to decadent approval–uncannily like the rehabilitation of Bill Clinton at the recent Democratic National Convention; his all-is-forgiven adoration where a former sex-scoundrel President’s absolution led the way to a current President’s consecration.

In Hyde Park on Hudson, Roosevelt’s perfidy becomes a quasi-feminist standard where women submit to a dominant male’s peccadilloes out of sexual and patriotic fealty. An idiosyncratic genius like Ken Russell might have exulted in the perversity of such arrangements, but Roger Michell’s technique is so drab, he simply accepts the historical perversion as part of dull revisionism. Linney’s Cousin Daisy is too bland to hold FDR to any accounting; she accepts her lot like a worshipful electorate.

Using the visit of stuttering King George (played by Samuel West) to a diplomatic Upstate New York picnic where he is forced to swallow the American delicacy hot dogs, Michell’s film idealizes hero-worship through a metaphorical act of consumption. FDR commands “Show him how we put on the mustard”–a symbolic slathering of compliment/condiment on phallic privilege. This is the Monica Lewinsky film Hollywood has been reluctant to make.

Murray’s clever yet bland FDR impersonation is negligible and Linney’s quasi-incestuous mistress bores. After giving FDR a hand-job, her moment of conscience occurs in a voyeuristic sequence of interminable, unwatchable day-for-photography. She describes an era “When the world allowed itself secrets” no different from today but it’s a way of admitting the dishonesty we accept while pretending it doesn’t exist. Hyde Park on Hudsonmay be a signal movie of the laissez faire Obama era. (Like the Cahiers du Cinema’s famous deconstruction ofYoung Mr. Lincoln, the President’s phallus is this film’s structuring absence.) Yet it’s also one of the most nauseating films of the year.

 Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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