Pete Hammond

Awards buzz has grown around Bill Murray ever since it was announced he would be playing FDR in Focus FeaturesHyde Park On Hudson. His is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of serious portrayals of U.S. Presidents. But he pulls it off without a hitch, and early reaction at its first-ever public screening Friday night at the 39th Telluride Film Festival was very good. Maybe we’ll have a Presidential shoot-out at the Oscars between Murray’s FDR and Daniel Day Lewis’ Abe Lincoln?

I have always thought Murray got robbed of a much deserved Best Actor Oscar in 2003 for Lost In Translation when Sean Penn swooped in and stole it for Mystic River. The problem this year is that the category is overloaded with so many genuine contenders that Academy voters easily could find 10 deserving performances to fill only the 5 slots. Murray’s is a subtle but engaging portrait. And Oscar voters are suckers for performances which not only show an actor can play against type but also take on well-known historical figures. Murray’s FDR fits the bill as definite Oscar bait. Hyde Park On Hudson also has another plus that gives it plenty of Academy potential. It is the second film in three years to deal in some way with England’s King George VI. This plot, set in 1939, involves an invitation for the new King to visit President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So the stuttering monarch, this time played by Samuel West, is back in Telluride where the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech debuted on its first stop to Best Picture glory in 2010.

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Related: Hot Trailer: ‘Hyde Park On Hudson’

Some of the plot is certainly different with co-star Laura Linney playing a sixth cousin of the President whose relationship with the Chief Executive apparently involves some sexual favors. In an effectively understated portrayal, Linney also shines. Earlier, at the Patrons Picnic, this Telluride resident who met her future husband when she first came to town as a fest honoree in 2004 told me how happy she was to have one of her films back here. And she thinks this little angle of the FDR story will surprise people. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) keeps it tasteful, and the film should grab a nice arthouse reception when it is released on December 7th. That’s certainly a major date in FDR’s history as the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “a day that will live in infamy,” as the President famously described it.

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In a rather odd move, the fest scheduled Hyde Park On Hudson at Elks Park, their outdoor venue, despite temperatures hitting as low as 45 degrees at night. The weather cooperated about as well as it could, and the grass was packed for the premiere. Fortunately, though, other screenings of the film will be moving inside. It’s part of a potentially strong slate of award contenders for Focus that also includes the hit Moonrise Kingdom, the animated entry ParaNorman, as well as the upcoming Anna Karenina premiering at Toronto next week, as well as the just-announced late-December release of Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land with Matt Damon.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.