hyde park on hudson, bill murray

Bill Murray’s presidential performance

The next big United States presidential contest will play out in Hollywood rather than Washington. It's Abraham Lincoln vs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt for Best Actor.

Steven Spielberg made a safe artistic choice in tapping Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis to star in Lincoln. He's a performer of dignity and stature.

Hyde Park on Hudson director/producer Roger Michell chose a much riskier path asking Bill Murray — not exactly Mr. Gravitas — to play FDR. Then again, the versatile, ever-unpredictable Murray is the only actor to have starred in Charlie's Angels and Hamlet back to back.

Early reviews for the period drama praise Murray for an Oscar-calibre performance. Unlike Day-Lewis, who employs radical makeup and wigs as Lincoln, Murray goes directly for the inner man, relying on no external markers but pince-nez glasses and a jaunty cigarette holder. He successfully evades the dissonance of one icon doing an impression of another. When Murray flashes FDR's familiar head-cocked-back grin, he dissolves into the part.

"I remember reading the script and thinking this was a chance for me to play a very big, important person," Murray says during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. Yet the laconically witty actor insists his preparation for the role was "not much," adding, "I hate to give away my secrets but I do almost nothing. Being slightly lazy works well for me."

Tall, energetic and fit at 62, Murray never entirely drops his ironic persona in conversation. But on his best behaviour for the benefit of a film that clearly delights him, he seems willing to give sincerity a half-hearted hug.

Having been a 2004 Best Actor nominee for combining personal drama and touching comedy in Lost in Translation, Murray greets the awards buzz surrounding his latest performance with his trademark lethargic skepticism.

"I went through it once before. It's nice to get nominated and win some prizes. You get to go to dinners and tell little stories and so forth. You get dressed up in a tux a couple of times and you get to go on TV, which is sweet. I later realized I had gotten a little caught up in the possibility of winning, so I was ashamed of myself for getting caught in it. When I didn't get it, I thought, 'That's not so hot.'

"The wonderful thing is, an extraordinary number of people actually think I won," he continues. "So I never try to say, 'No, that's not true.' I say, 'You're so kind.' The important thing about awards and nominations is that they draw attention to the project and maybe more people will see it."

Murray's longtime interest in dramatic roles hasn’t always served him well. Remember his early, ill-fated The Razor's Edge? But here, his years of underplaying for art-house existentialists Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom), Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers) and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) have clearly paid off. Michell (Notting Hill) says he would not have considered making Hyde Park on Hudson without Murray, and that tracking down the notoriously elusive star, who doesn’t employ a publicist or agent, was the biggest hurdle of his production.

The finely crafted period piece from Tony-winning screenwriter Richard Nelson balances domestic drama, international politics and a touch of ribald comedy. The frame for the story is Roosevelt's affair with his distant cousin and neighbor Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (Laura Linney), whose diaries, discovered after her death, provided much of the story material.

Murray's Rushmore co-star Olivia Williams plays Roosevelt's wife Eleanor, who used their retreats at the family estate in Hyde Park, N.Y., to visit a circle of friends FDR genially calls "she-men." While Eleanor was otherwise occupied, Daisy was the president's loyal mistress and confidante. As she demurely puts it in the film, "I helped him forget the weight of the world."

Laura Linney, Bill Murray in a scene from Hyde Park on Hudson (Courtesy of Alliance Films.)

Daisy is our narrator and guide through the unprecedented 1939 royal visit by England's young King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). To the monarchs' dismay, Roosevelt contrives a hot dog-eating photo op at a just-folks picnic to humanize them in his isolationist countrymen's eyes. The publicity stunt lays the emotional foundation for Anglo-American unity in the coming world war.

In one of the film's turning points, polio-stricken President Roosevelt and the stuttering King George forge a friendship over the need to conceal their afflictions from the public. (Roosevelt, paralyzed from the waist down, never appeared publicly in his wheelchair.) Murray and West so enjoyed the scene of great men addressing each other with rare honesty that they wanted to keep going at it even after Michell got his shot. "We could have played it for hours," Murray says, eyes crinkling in happy crow's feet at the memory.

The role offered Murray a chance to paint a full-length portrait of America's only four-term president. His performance captures the man's cheeky humour, personal warmth, penetrating intelligence, philandering and manipulative prowess.

Murray says he knew Roosevelt mostly as a working class champion praised in his family's dinner table conversations. To capture the man's distinctive, clipped speech he "studied the accent of the area" with a voice specialist and listened to speeches. He practiced hauling himself out of a wheelchair by balancing against desks and tables, but the physical preparations were nothing compared to the stresses of working in England — where this New York State-set story was shot — with a mostly English crew.

"I had to behave myself," Murray says, dry and deadpan. "I just tried to keep it together. I still have a lot of revolutionary rage. I tried to put a damper on that." They did not appreciate his habit of bringing a boom box on the set to liven things up. "Unless it's fife and drum, they don't like it," he says, and he didn't enjoy the English food. "It was a difficult time for me, let's say."

If the film generates a nominee for Best Supporting Actor, it might go to the virtually silent Martin McDougall, playing the aide who carries FDR in his arms when he leaves his wheelchair. "I believe he's changed his name since he was asked to carry me around the set," Murray says. "I tried to just have salad at lunch but it really didn't help."

Colin Covert is a film journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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