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PBS' "Eleanor Roosevelt" is a picture-perfect portrait of one of the best politicians of the 20th century.

The Definitive Documentary


It's chic nowadays to say a book is the definitive volume of its genre, or that a movie is the apotheosis of its type, or that a television program is the ne plus ultra in video production.

Occasionally it's even true. More often, it's just hype.

The American Experience's season launcher for 2000, "Eleanor Roosevelt," really does merit what will surely be its place in television history. It is the best documented, most thoroughly researched and well-produced examination of the life of one of the best politicians of the 20th century.

Not since the 1960s has a substantial TV documentary attempted to explain how Eleanor Roosevelt came to be what she was, and the effort 30 years ago included little archive film and few interviews. The 2 1/2 hours of PBS' "Eleanor Roosevelt" are chock-full of both. And there's nothing superficial about Alfre Woodard's narration, either. It has the ring of scholarly truth, or as much of the truth as history is able to discover about a public figure who carefully guarded her privacy.

The niece of one president (Theodore) and the wife of another (Franklin), Roosevelt was first lady longer than anyone had been or ever will be. Born in 1884, she was a shy, awkward, not very attractive little girl, so much so that her mother nicknamed her "Granny." In 1905, she married her distant cousin who was then 20, a year younger than Roosevelt.

As her husband's career spiraled upwards, so did Roosevelt's backstage influence. By the time Franklin reached the White House for the first of his four elected terms, Eleanor Roosevelt had many admirers — and almost as many detractors. She wrote a daily newspaper column; she was her wheelchair-bound husband's eyes and ears in her tours at home and abroad; she testified before Congress in favor of liberal causes; she publicly fought for integration at a time when few others did; and, after Franklin's death, she was a U.S. representative to the United Nations, where she fought for and won passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She also did a TV commercial for Good Luck Margarine. Her detractors called her meddlesome and a traitor to her class.

Director and writer Sue Williams doesn't shy away from an examination of Roosevelt's private life. She explores what Roosevelt herself called her "Griselda moods," dark depressions that plagued her throughout her life. Nor does she ignore Roosevelt's relationship with AP reporter Lorena Hickok, who eventually moved into the White House. Speculation about whether the two women were lovers still continues today. "I have no idea whether Lorena Hickok had a homosexual relationship with my grandmother," says Nina Gibson in the documentary. "And my feeling about that is, who cares?"

Eleanor Roosevelt was recognized 11 times as the most admired woman in the world, and when she died in 1962, the U.S. flag flew at half-staff around the world. There is no doubt about Roosevelt's place in 20th-century history: She earned top honors.

And director/writer Williams deserves recognition as well for her excellent, eye-opening biography of a remarkable

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