Remember when the movies portrayed presidents as heroes? They left out a lot of the more sordid stuff (like, for example, affairs) because there was no need to focus on that. There was enough about presidents to admire, and it was considered uplifting to ask the nation to admire it.
Take the old biopic about FDR made in 1960, “Sunrise at Campobello. I saw it as a kid in the movie theater and I was very impressed with FDR’s courage in the face of adversity. It’s set during a time before he became president, and in its own way it was a “now it can be told” movie, revealing something about FDR that had been pretty well hidden during his lifetime: the extent of his disability; and his struggle to overcome it, enter politics, and minimize its severity to the world and the American people.
It’s an interesting premise: private courage, but hiding the truth about that in order to appear more heroic and stronger in the public’s eyes.
The movie featured a sanitized version of FDR’s marriage to a suffering yet strong and supportive Eleanor, played by Greer Garson with a false set of buck teeth. Not a hint of marital infidelity here—just “drama, devotion, and courage”:
In the many years since the movie was made, all the dirt has been raked up and evidence of FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer is common knowledge. But it seems that’s not enough; now the movies have to invent more dirt if there isn’t enough already to satisfy us.
Case in point: a new biopic about FDR starring Bill Murray (Bill Murray???) as a generalized serial philanderer a la Bill Clinton:
On this particular trip, the president decides to wave off the police cruiser tailing him and forges a new path through the fields. He parks the car at the top of a hill overlooking the arresting meadows below, turns the radio up, and procures a smoke. Then he takes [his friend and fifth cousin Margaret] Suckley’s hand and slowly places it on his thigh. She is shocked, but intrigued. The president casually unzips his fly, and Suckley, ever the doting consort, gives him a handjob.
“I knew that we were not only fifth cousins, but very good friends,” she says in voice-over…
“Most of the scenes in the film happened behind closed doors, so I think you have to take every historical film as a version of those events,” said Michell after a screening of [his] film. “I don’t think it’s an irresponsible lurch into the improbable. It’s very probable.”
In the film, despite his seemingly earnest affection toward Suckley, FDR is portrayed as a bit of a philanderer, bedding members of his staff. His rampant infidelity is even pinpointed as the root cause of wife Eleanor’s romantic indifference…
We pretty much know by now that FDR had a least one dalliance that seems to have been a serious long-term love affair, as well as a possible other. But there’s no evidence of casual philandering of this nature, or of an affair with cousin Suckley. But hey, why not gild (or rather, sully) the lily by making the picture even worse than it was, because it could have happened?
Just as Tina Fey’s pretend quote from Sarah Palin about seeing Russia from her house replaced the actual quote from the real Sarah, so Oliver Stone’s movies have been regarded by way too many people as factual documentaries, or close to it. Movies can seem more real than history—especially to those who are ignorant of history, a seemingly growing number of people. In the past movies weren’t really true, either, but at least their makers tried to give us an idea of ourselves that was elevated rather than degraded.
[NOTE: The new film “Lincoln” may be an exception to this rule. I haven’t yet seen so I’m not sure, but my guess is that, if it manages to avoid creative smears about Lincoln, it would be because of his iconic and somewhat protected status due to his role vis a vis slavery. That brings an interesting thought to mind: if a biopic was ever made of the life of Martin Luther King, how would they treat his serial philandering?
Perhaps the answer to the whole thing is that I’ve got it reversed: a president or renowned public figure indiscriminately chasing after women is no longer considered a bug; it’s a feature. How very advanced and European of us!]