Adams on Reel Women: Laura Linney and the fascinating Miss Daisy of ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

When I first saw Laura Linney as Margaret "Daisy" Suckley in "Hyde Park on Hudson," I thought, this is a performance I have to rally behind because of its subtle beauty and deeply felt realization. OK, it's really because I worried that film critics would dismiss Daisy because she wasn't "alpha" enough for the 21st century. When the New York Times' critic Manohla Dargis fell into that trap last week, it didn't surprise me. Dargis wrote: "Ms. Linney makes a show out of Daisy's awkwardness; to watch her pantomime of a wallflower is to watch an actress struggling to remain true to a character without fading in turn (Bette Davis would have made this mouse roar)."

Excuse me, this mouse is not supposed to roar. She is supposed to squeak and skitter. As Daisy, a fifth cousin turned intimate companion to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray), Linney plays a faded daisy. She shows every wrinkle in a face that would have been plainly pretty but has passed its marital sell-by date. Linney knows what she's doing, and she doesn't give Daisy any more power than she would have had at the time.

[Related: 'Hyde Park on Hudson' casts a light on FDR's complicated private life]

"When I cast Laura, it opened the film for me," director Roger Michell told me recently. "I nearly made a mistake casting an actress a lot younger. That would have been a distasteful version of 'Lost in Translation.' ... In 1939, Linney's character is 42. She feels like life has shut down. She's given this miraculous spring in her step in this odd intimacy that developed between her and the president. Laura is someone who can play so much off her face. She doesn't have a lot of dialogue in the film."

Apparently, this is what closed down the film for the NYT's Dargis: "Daisy's relationship with Franklin provides the almost somnolent way into the story, but it soon becomes part of the background noise for a visit from the king and queen of England." Dargis later writes, "Suckley and Roosevelt's relationship has added layers to the historical record, yet it's mainly important for what it says about him. That sounds cruel, but the film does nothing to right that impression."

This is a case of a critic criticizing a film for what it is not -- like a "Lincoln" biopic that skirts his intimate relations. Nor is it the stalwart-spouse storyline portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter in "The King's Speech." Rather, let's embrace what screenwriter Richard Nelson has written: a fascinating, intimate story of the circle of women that enabled a significant leader to get out on the world stage despite a physical handicap and a wandering eye. "This movie is a snapshot of 24 hours. The stuff that doesn't make it in during those 24 hours isn't in the movie," said Olivia Williams, who plays FDR's wife, Eleanor.

[Related: Director Roger Michell talks to our Thelma Adams about filming 'Hyde Park on Hudson,' casting Bill Murray, and following 'The King's Speech']

"Hyde Park on Hudson" may require a bit of a hush and a listen to realize the complexity of the relationships it portrays beneath its bright and sprightly surface. When Daisy enters FDR's world, she feels the weight of being a poor relation in the court of the Sun King. She is outmaneuvered at every point. And yet her love, her sensitivity, her sense of a spinster's rebirth at an unexpected opportunity that takes her out of the musty cedar closet of her life and puts her in the center of the president's household -- all are real.

"Daisy's quiet, and she's subterranean," Laura Linney told me last week over the phone. "There's a lot going on there with someone who doesn't want any attention. She's observing everything and taking extraordinary things in, and she has no compulsion to elbow her way into the spotlight. She was just happy being there and being a tourist. It's a challenge to play someone who is so anonymous."

It may be a challenge for contemporary audiences to understand that desire for anonymity. We're accustomed to Kim Kardashian and the unreality of reality television. "It's completely foreign to today's mindset," said Linney. "People forget that back then there was nobility in discretion. It was not a world where fame was important. If people fought too much for attention, it was seen to be in bad taste. "

In an era before tabloid journalism, but not before sexual infidelity, Daisy entered a harem of women that encircled the president. In the movie, they include his mother, Sara (Elizabeth Wilson), who owned the Hyde Park estate at the movie's center; his wife, Eleanor (Williams); and his personal secretary, Missy LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel). Director Michell explained: "What happens in a harem is that everyone knows everybody else. They learn to accept that this is the arrangement surrounding that potentate. When FDR died, at his deathbed were two women, Lucy Rutherford and Daisy. Missy was dead by then."

Linney had an alternative take: "I think of it as a constellation of women around FDR. They balance him out. Each one provides something that the other doesn't. In one way or the other, he kept having very intimate relationships with different women, all in close proximity to each other."

There's a moment in the movie when Eleanor makes a crack about her husband wanting to be seen through adoring eyes. It was clearly not a look that came naturally to her after having their six children, then discovering that he'd had an affair with her personal secretary, a breach that took the couple to the brink of divorce. "I know a lot of men like that," said Linney.

[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Hyde Park on Hudson']

The actress continued: "They need to be adored, and that makes them feel safe. Their emotional life is compartmentalized. There's an unspoken safety that Daisy and FDR gave each other. He referred to her as 'the vault.' Anything he said to her went into a vault. It was a fierce friendship. She was absolutely on his side, and only his side, and had no desire to be on anybody else's side. I don't know anybody who has that."

The movie sexualizes the relationship between FDR in a car scene that Dargis accentuates at the beginning of her review. Linney, having researched the FDR-Daisy correspondence excerpted in the book "Closest Companion," said: "It was clear to me in reading the letters, that there was an intimacy that was nonplatonic. Whether it was sexual you can make a case. The letters were more intimate than just a friendship, including expressions of admiration and love and missing each other that were in that very romantic place. There's no doubt Daisy loved FDR. She loved him as a person. She loved him as a president. There are only two photos extant with him in the wheelchair, and Daisy took both of them. That's close. "

The domestic dramas that underlie and shape world events fascinate me. That's what makes "Hyde Park on Hudson" much less fluffy than it appears at first glance, and Linney's apparent wallflower more complex. "What the film is about is that everybody's domestic circle is extraordinary," said Williams, "whether it's Buckingham Palace or Hyde Park or the White House. Watch that TV show 'Wife Swap': One family's normality is an effing nightmare to another family."

While FDR tried desperately to appear like a fully able man in the international spotlight, he retreated to Hyde Park to be himself. Daisy, with her uncritical love, was often a part of that private time. This cinematic snapshot of FDR's domestic life reveals a nearly forgotten figure who shunned attention despite her frequent place at her cousin's side. Not only does "Hyde Park on Hudson" give Daisy grace and dignity, but the film also deepens our understanding of the man, his world, and the females who influenced him at a time when the greatest power for women existed largely behind the throne (or wheelchair).

See the trailer for 'Hyde Park on Hudson':

'Hyde Park on Hudson' Trailer Theater