NEW YORK — In one of the most famous photographs that doesn’t exist, the king and queen of England — hosted by the president and first lady of the United States — are eating hot dogs alfresco at the Roosevelt estate in upstate Hyde Park. It’s a shot many people think they know. And that never actually existed.
“Photographers were not allowed at the picnic,” said playwright Richard Nelson, although his screenplay for “Hyde Park on Hudson” — which stars Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Olivia Williams as Eleanor and Laura Linney as presidential mistress Daisy Stuckley — portrays the 1939 moment in a riot of news photographers’ flashbulbs. In their fictionalized picture, King George VI (Samuel West) is wolfing down a wiener — and demonstrating a taste for democratic dining. “We added that for dramatic effect,” Nelson said, “in order to show just how important a moment this was.”
“Hyde Park on Hudson,” directed by Roger Michell, is the story of two love affairs — the one between England and America, and the one between FDR and his distant cousin Daisy. The political story concerns Roosevelt’s genius at public relations — softening U.S. sentiment toward the coming war via something as simple as a hot dog. Sexual relations are something else again: The long-buried affair with Daisy was uncovered only years afterward, suggesting that perhaps people who actually write diaries expect them, eventually, to be read.
“Of course they do,” said Linney, whose Daisy wears boxy, ‘30s-era fashions and has a reticence appropriate to a woman most people never even noticed. “She lived to be almost 100 years old, and that material spent decades under her bed. Some pages were destroyed and some pages were torn out of the diary, but she left them there under her bed, and she never mentioned any of it.”
What she liked about Daisy, Linney said, was her sense of privacy. “She had the relationship. It was hers. It didn’t have to go any further than that.”
That the proof of the Stuckley-Roosevelt alliance is based largely on the Daisy diaries may make it seem circumstantial, but the circumstances are considerable: The only two photographs of FDR in his wheelchair were both taken by Stuckley. When the presidential library opened in Hyde Park, its first employee was Stuckley. She wasn’t Franklin’s only extramarital lover. She’s not even his only lover in the movie.
“There’s a line from Virginia Woolf,” said Nelson, “that says when you talk about sex, you can’t really say you know the truth. But you can explain the conclusions you came to.”
Nelson’s conclusions took the diaries into consideration, as well as what’s generally accepted, historically, as the Roosevelt story: that Franklin’s affair, years before his presidency, with his wife Eleanor’s secretary, Lucy Mercer, nearly blew up their marriage; and that Eleanor agreed to stay if he never saw Mercer — or anyone else — again.
“We know he broke that promise many times,” Nelson said. “Lucy Mercer was at every inaugural. Missy LeHand, his secretary (played in the film by Elizabeth Marvel), became like a wife to him when Roosevelt got polio. She lived with him in the South. There are a number of references from people who remember seeing her on his lap.”
Although not the center of the film, perhaps the most fascinating character in “Hyde Park on Hudson” is Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a pioneering figure in women’s rights, civil rights and human rights, and who Williams describes as having tolerated a domestic arrangement most people would find intolerable.
“The first 10 years, they lived in her mother-in-law’s house,” said Williams, whose portrayal mixes sadness with a certain sense of mischief. “Their children were very likely conceived with the mother-in-law in the adjoining room. (Eleanor) made him promise never to see that other woman again, but he did. She refused to ever have sex with him after that day.
“I don’t want to label FDR with that complicated a version of events,” she added, “but the way they chose to live with each other seems unbearable. And the answer is that through some extraordinary sense of duty, they forged an incredibly powerful political partnership.”
One of Williams’ better-known roles was opposite Murray in Wes Anderson’s 1998 “Rushmore,” which won the actor a number of critics awards and in some ways established his serious acting bona fides. “He needs to be taken seriously as a great actor,” Williams said, as if Murray needed defending. “He’s not mucking about. Of all the people on the set, he was the one who had the most at stake and was working the hardest on his role. Which was amazing.”
Linney agreed. “He’s never done anything quite like this, and I’m sure he was appropriately terrified,” she said. “Anybody would be — anybody who is sane. Taking FDR on is enough to make anybody quake in their boots.”
She said it was obvious that the role was important to him — not so important that he didn’t horse around. “We did a lot of car stuff,” she said, referring to scenes in which FDR and Daisy motor about the Hyde Park countryside — which was actually played by the English countryside.
“Every once in a while, he’d floor the antique car and take off with me,” she said. “Moments like that, you can either get nervous and upset, or go with it. I just decided to go with it. And those are the moments I’ll remember more than anything, the unique experience of being kidnapped by Bill Murray.”