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Bill Murray as FDR? No Joke!

October 14, 2012

When it was first announced that Bill Murray would play Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson, I must admit I laughed. Sure, the former SNL funnyman has proven himself as a dramatic lead, even earning a Best Actor Oscar nomination for 2003’s Lost in Translation, but he’d played a disillusioned movie star in that film—not exactly a stretch. Could the ex-Ghostbuster really transform himself into the polio-stricken father of the New Deal?

Well, after catching Hyde Park‘s premiere at the New York Film Festival last night, I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Murray’s performance is a complete triumph—as is the film. Murray confessed in the Q&A after the screening that he was skeptical when he was offered the role, but after he read the literate script by playwright Richard Nelson, he realized he could do it. Perhaps it’s because the film is not a sweeping biopic of Roosevelt’s life and career, but rather focuses on a small slice of time he spent at his mother’s home in upstate New York, shortly before he rallied the nation to join the Allied forces in World War II. More specifically, it hones in on Roosevelt’s “special relationship” with distant cousin Margaret Suckley (an Oscar-worthy Laura Linney).

By looking at an iconic historical figure in microcosm, Hyde Park on Hudson recalls last year’s My Week with Marilyn, which also premiered at the NYFF. Both films also share a veddy British point of view, and not just because they were directed by Englishmen. In Hyde Park‘s case, Roger Michell (Notting Hill) gives nearly equal emphasis to the somewhat befuddled perspective of King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), whose 1939 visit to Hyde Park—especially the celebrated “hot dog picnic”—paved the way for America and England’s own “special relationship” during WWII and beyond. The scenes of the stuttering monarch and his plucky wife recall The King’s Speech, though Michell was quick to point out he’d been developing this project long before that film began its Oscar-winning reign.

Much of Hyde Park‘s comedy—and it is a funny film, though far from a spoof—comes from the proper royals’ reaction to the dysfunctional Roosevelt household. As depicted in the film, FDR was a Mama’s boy with multiple mistresses, while wife Eleanor (played by Olivia Williams, whose previous collaboration with Murray on Rushmore must’ve informed their intimacy here) was allowed her own extramarital dalliances with women. There’s an almost tangible sense of nostalgia for how the media looked the other way when it came to FDR’s moral and physical failings; Bill Clinton should’ve been so lucky. Murray impressively embodies a man who didn’t allow his paralysis to impede his ability to achieve goals both sweeping and simple.

FDR, of course, famously ran four winning Presidential campaigns, and it remains to be seen if Murray can mount a successful Oscar campaign. He fell short in 2003, losing out to Mystic River‘s Sean Penn. His toughest competitor this time may be another Presidential impersonator, Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (which also premiered at the NYFF). Murray’s transformation into FDR goes beyond prosthetics; he nails the man’s seemingly inimitable voice and indomitable spirit.

When a questioner at last night’s premiere asked if special effects had been used to create the President’s spindly legs in a swimming-pool scene (beautifully shot by Lol Crawley), Murray channeled his fellow SNL alum Jon Lovitz: “That was ACTING!” After the laughter died down, he confessed those were, in fact, his legs, adding that those knobby-looking toothpicks were “the result of seven weeks of British food” (the film was shot outside London). C’mon, Academy voters—Daniel Day-Lewis has won enough Oscars already. Don’t you wanna hear Bill Murray’s acceptance speech?

Will you be visiting Hyde Park on Hudson? You have nothing to fear but fear itself!

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