The year was 1939. No reigning British monarch had ever visited America. With war looming, King George VI (played here by Samuel West) made a historic visit to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray)’s summer estate in Hyde Park, New York. The film Hyde Park on Hudson is about the love affair between President Roosevelt and two women other than his wife. It is also a light-hearted vignette of a pivotal moment in US-British history when the king comes on bended knee to seek support for the war. It is not a film about stammering per se, but rather differences of opinion, distrust, promiscuity and culture clashes. Stammering however, finds itself on prominent display.
Bertie, as the king is called, and Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) enter 20 minutes in. West does an exceptional job of the physical portrayal of stammering, seamlessly alternating the jerks and facial contortions of blocks with covert stammering, and he portrays the king stammering openly from time to time. Bertie’s story relies heavily on the traditional stereotype of stammering as a result of discontent or nervousness from the very first scene, when he is reacting over a failed attempt to “meet some Americans” on the journey to FDR’s home, and it continues throughout the film. The consistent portrayal of the king as anxious, awkward and often angry is unfortunate, since it teaches viewers that these are the personality traits found in people who stammer.
The filmmakers also include a strong reference to a lack of self-confidence, which could again reinforce misguided stereotypes. In a climactic scene where the king is in a private discussion with the President, Bertie laments his lack of self-confidence and looks to the President, a much older man, for a pep talk. Stammering heavily, the king breaks down and exclaims, “God damn stuttering!” The President, who is crippled by polio and cannot walk unassisted, immediately retorts, “God damn polio!” They have another drink and, with this scene comes the end of the king’s stammering in the film. We see a similar result in The King’s Speech after Bertie develops a rapport with therapist Lionel Logue as he suddenly becomes more confident and his stammering noticeably diminishes. Two major films now have posited stammering as a disorder caused by emotional strife that is aided by the development of father-like relationships (and also by drinking alcohol).
Whilst this film may not win any awards or have the legacy of its predecessor, let it be the catalyst for two things: for filmmakers to develop a character who stammers, yet is confident, poised and successful, and to draw attention to the idea that stammering, for some people, may be a genetically-guided response to an environmental trigger – whether current or past.
Michelle Paradies is a project manager living in New York and a person who stammers. Hyde Park on Hudson is available on DVD now.
From the Spring 2013 issue of 'Speaking Out', page 21