Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Mrs. Roosevelt by her long-time friend Joseph Lash, the first 2-part, 4-hour installment of "Eleanor and Franklin" traces the early lives and relationship of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to the point of his election as 32nd president of the United States in 1932. A treasure not to be missed by anyone appreciating American history, this 1976 TV miniseries epitomizes the very best in production quality, directorial mastery, writing, and above all the acting of its cast. The 1977 second installment, titled "Eleanor and Franklin: the White House Years," details their time in the White House, covering both the Great Depression and World War II, and is equally as good.
Though some of the historical accuracy is now in doubt, the story of the Roosevelts is told here as it was known in 1976. It dramatizes brutally the austere childhood of Eleanor Roosevelt, including the devastation of her mother's early death and her father's death only two years later, though it ignored the embarrassing details of her aunts' affairs and her uncles' alcoholishm. It frankly addresses the emotional heartache that FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer had on Eleanor and its consequences on her subsequent career and their marriage. It deals with FDR's paralysis from polio in 1921 with a compassionate understanding and insight into the maturity he gained from the experience that led to his return to public life. Most affectingly, it details the triangulated relationship between FDR, Eleanor, and his mother Sara, and the devastating effect that Sara's dominance had on the marriage between Eleanor and Franklin.
In the annals of biographical acting performances, those of Edward Hermann as Franklin, Jane Alexander as Eleanor, and Rosemary Murphy as Sara stand as benchmarks for empathetic realism. Hermann portrays Franklin as a lonely man whose bravado and cheerful humor mask his own insecurity. Alexander projects the core sadness of Eleanor's life: her childhood as an orphan and her perpetual fear of abandonment by those whom she loved. Murphy, who dominates this first installment entirely (but is underutilized in the second), portrays Sara as a Victorian matriach who is desperately afraid of losing control of her family, and not shy about gettting her way by holding the purse strings.
One wonders, though, in light of newly uncovered evidence, whether the dynamics of this triangulated relationship were depicted correctly. We now know that Eleanor had a rich life of friendships with women who were openly lesbian -- with the knowledge and acceptance of Sara and Franklin -- though none of these women appear or are even mentioned in either installment of this miniseries. We now know that Sara was a staunch ally of Eleanor during the marital crisis involving Lucy Mercer -- though the miniseries portrays the relationship of the two women as repeatedly contentious: "Yes, Mama!" We now know that, just prior to his affliction with polio, FDR was censured by the U.S. Senate for his involvement in the sting that exposed a homosexual ring within the U.S. Navy at Newport, R.I. -- though the miniseries completely ignores this critical event in Roosevelt's life.
Despite some of these critical omissions, "Eleanor and Franklin" is essential viewing for anyone interested in understanding the history of the Roosevelts -- from the Old New York brilliance of their 1880s childhoods to the funeral train carrying President Roosevelt's body from Warm Springs to Washington in 1945. It is an important piece of history, and eminently poignant, that the orphaned Eleanor was given away by her uncle at her wedding to her fifth cousin, Franklin, on St. Patrick's Day 1905. That uncle was the current president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt. That event, more than any other, harkened the onset of the twentieth century: the passing of the torch from one U.S. president at the beginning of the century to the president who defended the republic from both economic collapse and fascistic tyranny. In the age of Obama with its hold on our hopeful imagination, one wonders what event we will view in the lens of history as the onset of the twenty-first century.