First Ladies and Patriotism
July 2022 Issue
Reel Corner by Donne Paine
First Ladies and Patriotism
It’s difficult to live in the shadows of a powerful partner, and it’s never so clear as to those few women who have held the position of First Lady—the wife of the President of the United States.
Amazon Prime/Showtime is running a series titled The First Lady. They follow and highlight three First Ladies: Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michele Obama. All three of whom clearly made an impact on women’s roles and rights, using their personality and celebrity to highly influence while their husbands were in office.
The First Lady is a revealing reframing of American leadership through the lens of these three First Ladies. Starring Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, this series delves deep into these ladies’ personal and political lives, exploring everything from their journeys to Washington, their family lives and their world-changing political contributions. It is clear the impact of the White House’s women is no longer hidden just behind the scenes.
The First Lady, which interweaves the stories of three different occupants of the White House from three different eras, isn't the first scripted TV drama to give such political roles to very strong actresses, nor is it the best. But it is an interesting reminder of courageous women who tried to find their way in the shadows of being married to the President of the United States. Each of these First Ladies, in her own way, was proudly and defiantly progressive.
The First Lady jumps among the three narratives, but even those individual stories aren't told chronologically. In each of them, it leaps back and forth, seeing the First Ladies both as presidential wives and as girls and young women, played by younger actresses.
As the flashbacks and episodes pile up, so do the insights: the career paths not followed, the sometimes rocky romances, the long-time family dynamics. At times, it's like a greatest achievements—and greatest missteps—compilation from three different presidential administrations. There is value, though, in juxtaposing how these three prominent First Ladies fought to find and use their voices.
Even though I'm not fond of the structure of The First Lady, and wary of the depictions of some of the specific story lines, I am, however, enthusiastic about the lead performances. Michelle Pfeiffer is amazing as Betty Ford, simmering volcanically throughout, but finally exploding in pain and rage late in the series, as her family confronts her about her alcoholism. Gillian Anderson conveys so much as Eleanor, even when saying nothing, and her scenes with her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, played surprisingly well by Kiefer Sutherland, range from touching to heartbreaking. As for Viola Davis, she does not disappoint in persuasively embodying the true-life character of Michelle Obama. All three get my vote for delivering the best TV performances of the year.
As with all dramatizations of history, it's wise to take “based-on-fact” stories with a grain of salt. Overall, this miniseries is worth seeing because it illustrates, through various narratives and timelines, just how much progress we—American women—have and haven’t made regarding many important issues.
References: The Amazon Prime/ Showtime series The First Lady
Book: Hidden Power; author Kati Marton 2001
Donne Paine, film enthusiast, once lived around the corner from the Orson Welles Theater in Cambridge Massachusetts, where her strong interest in films, especially independent ones, began. Supporter of the arts, especially films, she travels to local and national film festivals, including Sundance, Toronto and Tribeca. There is nothing like seeing a film on the big screen. She encourages film-goers to support Hilton Head local theaters; Coligny Theater, Park Plaza Theater and Northridge. To support her habit of frequent movie going, Donne is a travel medicine nurse consultant. See you at the movies!