ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. In theaters now, you can find not one but two presidents on the big screen, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "HYDE PARK ON HUDSON")
BILL MURRAY: (As FDR) I said that if private enterprise does not provide jobs this spring, government would take up the slack. We have all learned the lesson that government cannot afford to wait until it has lost the power to act.
SIEGEL: That's actor Bill Murray as FDR in the new movie "Hyde Park on Hudson." It tells the story of a love affair between FDR and his distant cousin Margaret Suckley. But how much of this is fact and how much is fiction? Well, this week we're truth squadding some of these recent biopics and today we'll take on FDR. I'm joined now by Geoffrey Ward, who has written about Roosevelt. He's also edited the book "Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley." Welcome to the program.
GEOFFREY WARD: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Bill Murray, we should start by saying, faces a challenge that Daniel Day-Lewis is spared when he plays Lincoln. We have sound of FDR and pictures of him. So I just want to play at the outset a clip from that very Fireside Chat we just heard Bill Murray reading some lines from.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: That if private enterprise did not provide jobs this spring, government would take up the slack, that I would not let the people down. We have all learned the lesson that government cannot afford to wait until it has lost the power to act.
SIEGEL: Well, people can judge the verisimilitude on their own but my question to you, Geoffrey Ward, is more broadly than just speech or voice, does Bill Murray get FDR in this movie?
WARD: Bill Murray is a wonderful actor and he's very funny and I've seen him be serious and terrific. I thought he was very poor, I'm afraid. And I'm not sure it's his fault. I think it's partly the script, which is an odd script. He does a jaunty cigarette, and they did their best to make him look like him, but he doesn't have the self-confidence that the actual man had or the sort of upper-class self-confidence that was very important to Roosevelt.
SIEGEL: Well, let's move on to the relationship between Roosevelt and his distant cousin Margaret, who's referred to as Daisy throughout the film. Here in the film is a moment in which FDR takes Margaret Suckley to a house that he's built for his retirement. She, by the way, is played by the actress Laura Linney.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "HYDE PARK ON HUDSON")
MURRAY: (As FDR) I've been thinking, Daisy.
LAURA LINNEY: (As Daisy) What? What have you been thinking?
MURRAY: (As FDR) That I, I'd like to share with you this. When I go away, you know I have to go away, should you ever miss me.
LINNEY: (As Dasiy) Do you ever miss me?
MURRAY: (As FDR) I always do. Always.
SIEGEL: Well, how well does the film "Hyde Park on Hudson" capture their relationship?
WARD: Well, can I say first, Laura Linney is absolutely terrific in the film. Basically, I think they just get it wrong. Just to talk about the cottage that he is showing her, they planned that cottage together. There are endless letters between the two of them, how they were going to arrange the rooms inside and so on. So the whole notion that it was a surprise is silly. It's a very complicated, quite 19th-century relationship.
SIEGEL: Well, let me cut to the chase, if you will.
SIEGEL: There's a scene between the two of them in his car - I won't be graphic but let's just say it's a sex scene that is restrained even by Clinton/Lewinsky presidential standards - could this have happened or did it happen, do you think?
WARD: It is true that they drove to a hilltop that they loved at some point in 1935 and that something happened on that hilltop - I think he kissed her - which meant a great deal to both of them. And it started a long, first flirtatious and then very fond, friendship. But what happened in the film did not happen.
SIEGEL: Well, what would you say about the way in which this movie, "Hyde Park on Hudson," treats FDR's polio?
WARD: Well, I have a lot of views. I had polio myself and I've spent a lot of time studying his life. And the movie has it upside-down. First of all, he's seen doing all kinds of things in the film which he never could have done. He could not walk on crutches by himself. He couldn't walk with two canes, which he does in a particularly silly scene. And in order to stand he had to be in braces, which went all the way up above his hips. And I don't understand why, in the film, they felt the need to get that wrong.
They had something called a polio advisor among the credits. He clearly had not done his homework.
SIEGEL: The historic event that is the central event of this movie is the visit of the king and queen of England up to Hyde Park, up in the Hudson River Valley where the Roosevelts came from. How truthful, how many poetic liberties have been taken with the royal visit?
WARD: Many, many. The king and queen came because FDR pretty much insisted they come in order to demonstrate a friendship between the United States and Britain, which was about to get into the war. And they had met in Washington before they ever meet in the film. But more important than that, they are portrayed as sort of, I don't know how else to say it, sort of cartoon people. They - at one point they get out of the car on the way to Hyde Park and wave at a farmer who doesn't bother to wave back. And it gets a laugh.
But actually hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people lined the highway between New York and Hyde Park to see the king and queen go by. No king and queen had ever come here. And then there's just a ludicrous conversation between Roosevelt and the king in which FDR tells him that he is sorry that people don't ever mention that he had polio and that they overlook it. Well, he spent his whole lifetime trying to keep people from knowing he had polio.
SIEGEL: Totally concealed...
WARD: It's absolutely upside-down. Absolutely upside-down.
SIEGEL: Well, what are some things that you think they did get right in this movie about either FDR or his life along the Hudson?
WARD: Not a lot, I'm afraid. You know, it's interesting for people to learn that the Roosevelt marriage was complicated. And, you know, Murray tries very hard. He comes off as a sort of henpecked and not very strong man who, in order to get women, shows them his stamp collection. Now, I would think stamp collectors all over the world will be thrilled to learn that if you wave a photo album at women they fall at your feet. This is not the experience, I think, of most stamp collectors. It's a very odd film.
SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.
WARD: Pleasure to be here.
SIEGEL: That's Geoffrey Ward, talking about the movie "Hyde Park on Hudson." He's the editor of the book "Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley." He also just completed writing a forthcoming documentary with Ken Burns, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History."