HBO Explores Tiny Town Where FDR Found Himself
Fort Wayne News Sentinel, 29 April 2005
Not counting his "other women," Franklin Delano Roosevelt kept two remarkable secrets through much of his long public life.
As we know now, one_remarkable because he was able to keep it_was that he was terribly stricken with polio at age 39, 12 years before he became president. Though with the aid of leg braces he was able to pose as a man who could walk, he could not.
The other secret leads from the first: the very private, rewarding and transforming life he made for himself at a mineral springs health resort at Warm Springs, Ga., where he later established a "Little White House" and where he died 60 years ago this month.
History scholars and the media are marking this anniversary in a variety of ways. "Warm Springs," a new film premiering on the HBO cable network at 8 p.m. EDT Saturday, focuses entirely on his experience in this little known but all-important place a few miles southwest of Atlanta.
"He missed only one Thanksgiving dinner down there, and that was after America had entered the war and there was a big military operation on," said Kenneth Branagh, who stars as FDR. "When he died, he left most of his estate to Warm Springs, which is still in operation."
Cynthia Nixon, the "Sex and the City" star and serious New York stage actress who plays Eleanor Roosevelt, perceives Warm Springs as a private world FDR created in search of recovery and escape.
"Eleanor was not very beloved by the people down there, especially the white people who were very aware of her feelings on race relations and resented them," Nixon said. "Theirs was a very close partnership in a lot of ways, but they spent a lot of time escaping from each other. When he was first struck with polio, he was spending a lot of time in Florida and drinking and partying and all that stuff. I think Warm Springs became a more healthful escape, but it was still an escape for him."
Though they refrained from docudrama mimicry in their beguiling performances, Branagh and Nixon researched their subjects prodigiously. Branagh achieves verisimilitude in part through such props as cigarette holder and pince-nez, but mostly by rekindling FDR's unique charm and style.
Nixon employed dental prosthesis, a lack of makeup and the frumpy fashions of the era, but she concentrated on her newly gained knowledge of the Roosevelts' private life.
A big challenge was performing as the former first lady on a film set where the cast included Oscar-winning actress Jane Alexander, who memorably played Eleanor in "Eleanor and Franklin" and "Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years" and has the part of FDR's terrifyingly domineering mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, in "Warm Springs."
"Eleanor is a very intimidating role to take on in general, but to do it in front of Jane Alexander is particularly intimidating," Nixon said. "But she was so supportive. And, luckily, she was playing a character that Eleanor was intimidated by anyway."
Jealous of the time FDR spent away from her there, Eleanor at first behaved much like her mother-in-law in alluding contemptuously to Warm Springs as "that place."
According to Branagh, Roosevelt went there obsessed with finding a cure for his devastating condition, which had altered his life beyond imagining.
"He had been in intense fever," Branagh said. "He went missing for a while, got on his boat and disappeared. He went through all the cycles of depression and anger. He went all over the country looking for any sort of cure. He spoke to anyone and everyone. But when he was very low and very little advance had been made, he heard about the alleged miracle of a boy who had polio and spent two or three seasons swimming at Warm Springs and made a recovery."
Key to the process was the mineral buoyancy and warmth of the water.
"The warmth was crucial because people with polio feel the cold intensely," Branagh said. "The cocktail hour (at Warm Springs) was important to him because it helped relieve the pain."
A number of his fellow patients did make great advances, including a little girl who regained the ability to walk. FDR's condition did improve, but he never would be able to walk again. His ultimate acceptance of that fact_in the film's most moving scene_and his willingness to work to overcome the challenges that presented, set him forth on the road that led eventually to the White House.
But Warm Springs played a more important role in terms of the kind of president he would be, especially when the staff there was able to rig a car so he could drive it with hand controls and get out into the countryside and general population.
"This very personal relationship he had with the place and the people," Branagh said. "That period, arguably, was the turning point in the development of his character, his exposure to many more levels and strata of society than his previous life had given him access to."
He had grown up rich, overly protected and isolated among members of his own social class.
"He met the world down there, because people came to Warm Springs from all over the country," Branagh said. "With the car, he was able to stop on the side of the road and talk to the farmer who was dealing with the boll weevil. He took great delight in going missing and just rolling up and talking to people. It seems that was a crucial part, in contradiction of what you'd have expected from his upbringing, in his becoming the president the American people most associated with having the common touch."