More Casting Ethics: “Hyde Park On Hudson”

Casting Bill Murray as President Franklin D. Roosevelt makes casting Halle Bailey as “The Little Mermaid” look like casting Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane by comparison. I remember avoiding the pseudo-historical drama “Hyde Park On Hudson” when it was released in 2012 because the thought of Bill Murray as FDR offended me. Then I saw the film this week, and it really offended me.

The film is a wildly inaccurate account of the 1939 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen’s mother) to Roosevelt’s country estate merged with the problems faced by the philandering Roosevelt when several of his women turn up in the same place at the same time. I would put the casting of Murray as Roosevelt in the “non-traditional casting” category,” but it really belongs in the greedy, insulting, stupid casting category.

There is no artistic or historical justification for having Murray play the iconic FDR. All I can hypothesize is that the producers knew that the movie would be a hard sell to anyone under the age of 80, so they decided, “Hey, Boomers love Bill Murray: they’ll pay to see him in anything!” The result is disrespectful to one of our most important leaders, ruinous to the movie (which has other problems), and the antithesis of artistic competence, integrity and responsibility.I watched this thing looking like the audience in “The Producers” after the completion of “Springtime for Hitler,” with my mouth in what Stephen King calls “a rictus of horror.” That pose in the still above is literally the full extent of Murray’s efforts to evoke our most vivid and charismatic POTUS. He doesn’t speak like Roosevelt, sound like him, carry himself like him, or display his gravitas, power or personality. To me it looked like the actor wasn’t even trying…that, or the role was completely beyond his narrow talents.

Did he do any research at all? To be fair, FDR was special, with a magnificent voice, an actor’s mastery of projecting the desired emotional messages, and physically imposing despite his disability. John Voight, an infinitely more talented actor than Murray, still flopped when he tried FDR in “Pearl Harbor” despite being covered in so many layers of latex that he looked a bit like him, or at least a rubber dummy of him.

Roosevelt has always been difficult to portray, though it is easier now that almost no one is alive who remembers him and the average American student knows less about our Presidents than he or she does about anal sex. Ralph Bellamy made a career sideline out of playing FDR on stage and in movies (Bellamy looked a bit like him and had a striking voice), and the late Edward Herman also handled the role well in several productions. It’s not impossible to play FDR credibly: Christian Bale could do it, for example. Not Bill Murray. Adam Sandler would have been as good a choice.

I was shocked to see that there were actually critics who praised Murray’s performance. This is one more bit of evidence that critics can’t be trusted. Presumably, these ignoramuses wouldn’t know FDR if he sat in their laps. One critic wrote that Murray “humanized” Franklin. I suppose one could argue that playing one of our most calculating, politically brilliant, ruthless, astute, complex, essential, influential  and towering American historical figures as a clueless, shallow, unengaged and ironic jerk is “humanizing.” I would argue that it’s just irresponsible and defamatory.

Applying my standard for whether non-traditional casting is justified—Does it work?—I note that the film conned enough movie-goers that it made over $8 million at the box office, so one could argue that it “worked’ well enough, though the movie was still a flop. I see “Hyde Park On Hudson” described as a comedy though it’s not funny very often; “Jurassic Park” has more laugh. That would justify casting Murray if it were true. Then the casting stunt might be like Steve Buscemi playing Khrushchev in the spoof “The Death of Stalin,”  when Buscemi is as much like the Soviet Premier as Lassie.

I’m going to reluctantly give Bill Murray an ethics pass for accepting a role he had no business playing. Maybe he trusted the director. Maybe he over-estimated his abilities, Maybe he needed the money. He certainly wouldn’t have taken the part, however, if he had the degree of respect for Franklin D. Roosevelt every American should have (well, maybe not Japanese-Americans).

The film-makers certainly didn’t have any.

5 thoughts on “More Casting Ethics: “Hyde Park On Hudson”

  1. I did watch the first 15 minutes of “Hyde Park on the Hudson.” That was all I could stand. I knew immediately that Mr.Murray did no background work. In fact, he hardly worked at all. BTW I am a boomer so not all of us fell for the casting of Mr. Murray.
    In comparison, I watched the recent bio-drama of “Elvis.” Clearly, Mr. Austin Butler did his background. It was a superb rendition of the character and the pathos of his life.

    • Butler did an amazing job. Admittedly, Elvis is easier to imitate than FDR (there is no fake FDR industry), but still: Bravo. And obviously the result of meticulous research and practice.

      Any theories about how a film critic could praise Murray’s performance?

  2. Would Hyde Park on Hudson rate worse or slightly better than FDR: American Badass, which portrays the president fighting Naxi werewolves with a wheelchair armed with miniguns and rockets?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.