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The Roosevelts (both related distantly to Teddy) lived in the White House from 1933, the same year Hitler became Chancellor, until 1945, when the president died, shortly before Hitler took his own life. These were momentous years, encompassing the Great Depression and a global war.
But this isn't a documentary of Roosevelt's political achievements and failures. The title adumbrates the content: "Eleanor and Franklin" -- not "Franklin and Eleanor." The first name in the cast list is Jane Alexander. The film gets higher rating from female users of IMDb.com than from male users, across all age brackets. The serial crises aren't ignored. They provide a kind of springboard for an intimate look at the relationship between husband and wife, with some ancillary characters thrown in. We see that both Franklin and Eleanor are angry and disturbed by the Supreme Court's declaring the National Recovery Act unconstitution. What WAS the National Recovery Act? We're never told. But we do learn about the Civilian Conservation Corps while watching Eleanor's nervous visit to one of the first camps. She did a great deal of traveling while First Lady, at a time when travel was more difficult than it is today. "I am my husband's legs," she once remarked.
As Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Alexander is superlative. She is, after all, a woman of lissome and idiosyncratic beauty, rather like Jill Clayburgh. And no one has ever described FDR's wife that way. First, the make up department has darkened her orbital sockets, lightened her brows, and fitted her out with a set of buck teeth that would turn a beaver green with envy. She also apparently wears a prosthetic device that gives her a plumpness of the belly and hips, lending her a shape vaguely resembling that of a liter of Asti Spumanti. But it's not just make up. There's genuine acting involved. Alexander has learned to somehow tuck her chin back under her lower lip and hold her head back in such a way as to produce a wrinkle or two in her neck. Her voice is high, nearly cracking at the upper register. She even WALKS in a manner that can only be described as dumpy. She succeeds at a difficult job -- portraying a familiar historical figure without a caricature. Seymour Phillip Hoffman did the same with Truman Capote. It's like walking a tightrope over a chasm of parody.
Edward Hermann does well enough by FDR. He should. After all he was born in Washington. But then there is the figure of Louis Howe, credited to an unrecognizable Ed Flanders. Howe was called, I think, the president's secretary but the title today would be Chief of Staff. He was a powerful figure who acted as buffer between the president and the other politicians, working behind the scenes, gathering votes, and so on. The actor looks nothing like Ed Flanders but whoever it is, he does a terrible job. He overacts constantly, uses a grinding voice, and shuffles around using ornate gestures, as if drunk. Fortunately, he's out of the way after Act I.
The dialog is very prim and polite. It sounds written rather than spoken. Granted both Eleanor and Franklin were from the monied elite but their speech sounds a little stilted to modern ears. Did anyone -- even then -- use "shall" as often as "will"? And the script misses few chances for sentimentality. As in any domestic drama, one illness or death follows fast upon the heels of another. When their first child dies, poor Alexander, surrounded by doctors and friends, must lean over the crib and sob out a lullaby to the little cadaver while tears roll down her cheeks. Marian Anderson gets to sing "My Country 'Tis Of Thee" while Alexander listens and gives a carefully constructed speech about injustice to her secretary.
"Eleanor and Franklin" lays out the correct order in terms of the film's subjects. Franklin is an overgrown boy who must be reasoned with by his more stable partner. We hardly hear about FDR's politics aside from the occasional remark, as when he growls that he can't seem to get anyone into the Supreme Court because the "nine old men" refuse to retire. God forbid that the term "court packing" should be brought up because then it would have to be explained and our attention would be diverted from domestic affairs. When war breaks out, Winston Churchill begs publicly for help and FDR answers with a radio chat admitting that he's torn between "personal desire" and "conscience." I know what was bothering him but I can't make sense out of it. The word "isolationism" is never used. Roosevelt and Churchill are seen meeting for the first time aboard the cruiser Augusta. We know they meet because a news announcer tells us they did, and because there is a brief shot of their shaking hands. The result of the meeting? According to the news reporter, both men agreed that the post-war world should be free of tyranny. (No kidding.) What they did was lay down goals for a responsible post-war world and sign the Atlantic Charter which became the basis for the modern United Nations.
I'm running short of space here and had better quit at about the half-way point. I hope these brief comments give you some idea of what to expect. I don't think anyone will regret having watched it but I do wish it had dealt more with the world and less with affairs of the White House. But even if the program is going to stay at the level of the family, might it not mention Eleanor's rumored proclivity for women and the rumors about FDR's comfortable ménage a trois?
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