Meryl Streep‘s portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has won her a nomination for Best Actress at tomorrow’s Academy Awards but the lack of any Oscar (or even Emmy) nomination for playing an American First Lady, however, doesn’t mean there’s been a dearth of such parts in Hollywood.
Being cast to play a First Lady is often prized as a prestige role by actresses seeking to make the character their own. The challenge is not only to capture the essence of an often iconic figure but do it within the limitations of a supporting cast role. The chasm between what the public expects a First Lady to be – and who they really were as people, however, offers far more inherently dramatic conflict to their story than those of Presidents, especially when playing a powerful but covert part in war and other national crises. With Women’s History Month starting days after the Oscars, here’s the notable performances, honorable mentions, and a chance to vote for your own favorite.
Witty, put-upon, strict, pensive, yet rugged and farsighted enough to make sacrifices to her husband’s larger goals as the new nation develops, Laura Linney offered an interpretation of cerebral Abigail Adams with a myriad of emotions, even as a supporting cast member. Even her dialogue, chock full of wise observations, never echoed like a reading of Abigail’s famous letters.
2. Gwyneth Paltrow as Martha Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson in Paris, (1995), Feature Film
It was not widower Thomas Jefferson’s later wife Martha but his same-named daughter (her married name of “Randolph” helping make a distinction between them) who served as his political and domestic confidante. While the public only knew Miss Jefferson/Mrs. Randolph as the embodiment of loyalty, we know now there was tremendous internalized conflict in her – namely about slavery. In this film, a young Gwyneth Paltrow flawlessly conveyed Martha’s unspoken but understandable rage she felt upon discovering the young slave woman Sally Hemings had, at the least, an unusually close relationship with her father. Pouty, sullen, distraught, Paltrow captured Martha’s sense of displacement in a foreign land, with new family circumstances. If there was one moment which snapped all this into place, it was a scene where Paltrow/Martha stares forlornly through the gates back at the convent school which gave her a sense of home – but which her father forces her to leave.
3. Ginger Rogers as Dolley Madison, Magnificent Doll (1946) Feature Film
It was Dolley Madison’s duality which built her legend. She dressed as if she were an American Queen yet maintained the accessibility and manners of the commoner, a reminder that the U.S. was no monarchy. She similarly balanced her penetrating intuition, political wisdom and intelligence about human nature and used it all to help her husband maneuver strategically during the War of 1812. She also loved cracking jokes, flirting big-time and throwing a great, a really great party – so does Ginger Rogers, who has such a fun time she seems to sometimes forget she’s not supposed to be Ginger Rogers and forgets that so convincingly she leads the audience to begin thinking she is supposed to be Dolley Madison. Flirting, partying, a bit of knitted brow, a bit of c’est-la-vie, flirting again – hey its enough to forgot that blonde Ginger Rogers really isn’t brunette Dolley Madison and ignore the decimation of historical accuracy. Yet by hitting the froth hard here, Rogers ultimately delivers the fun face the real Mrs. Madison worked hard to keep from slipping. Good actress or good luck, it oddly works.
4. Julie Harris as Mary Lincoln, The Last of (1976), Television Movie
Julie Harris reprised her Tony-Award winning role on Broadway as the conflicted and emotionally tortured widow of President Lincoln for the television cameras – and pulled it off again. Unlike the familiar cartoon of a raving wild-woman she’s always demeaned by, Mary Lincoln was restored her intelligence, compassion and determination by Harris. The subtle, barely perceptible descent into madness is conveyed with full compassion too; Harris initially fights against a fate of depression and debt, only to sink when it is another personal loss – the death of her teenage son Tad – that overwhelms her. Yet even in this sequence, perhaps the best of a great performance, Harris fortified her Mrs. Lincoln with a sense of hope, putting away her mourning clothes to wear clothes of happier times, to help celebrate her son’s last birthday. Despite this being focused on her post-White House years, both the script and Harris give the audience a sense of the full sweep of Mary’s life.
5. Ruth Hussey as Eliza Johnson, Tennessee Johnson, (1942), Feature Film
Ruth Hussey was apparently given little direction and a chance to craft her own dramatic choices in depicting the obscure yet important Eliza Johnson, the invalid First Lady whose emotional foundation nevertheless steadied her notoriously hot-tempered husband during his impeachment trial. The actress used a steadying gaze and anxious pathos to give history an imaginatively vivid interpretation of what the small, southern Eliza was really like. A surprise for such a forgotten woman and forgotten First Lady.
6. Celeste Holm as Florence Harding, Backstairs at the White House, (1979) Television Mini-Series
Eight other actors played eight other First Ladies in this multi-Administration multi-night, mini-series, the story of First Families told through the eyes of a mother and daughter who worked as household domestics at the White House. With such limited roles, the best any of them could do was offer a personalized caricature. Not Celeste Holm: somehow she captured the fearful respect Florence Harding had for the supernatural, her pragmatic political skill and her over-striving to prove herself. Holm had one of the stronger arcs in the series to work with – a real beginning, middle and end, but without being able to take the story deeply, she managed to convey her character with depth.
7. Jane Alexander as Eleanor Roosevelt, Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, (1977), Television Mini-Series
It was the first part of Eleanor and Franklin, (1975) covering their marriage up to the presidency, that usually wins the accolades for Jane Alexander having given the best portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt among the many that have been done, largely on television. It was the second part, however, which crossed Alexander’s nuanced Eleanor with a storyline of one challenge and complication after the other. From the Depression through World War II, Alexander’s Eleanor drilled down with more determination while simultaneously developing new ambivalences. It was TV as good as a movie.
8. Blair Brown as Jacqueline Kennedy, Kennedy, (1983), Television Mini-Series
Among the many actors who’ve played Jackie Kennedy in numerous film and TV movies and mini-series, none has really managed to convey what made this woman the object of fascination for millions over the decades. Blair Brown is the one who has come closest to giving a sense of the many sides of the legendary First Lady. While the mini-series made no attempt to even hint at the competing interests Jackie willingly juggled, Brown did provide a bubbly version of the creative mind, humorous spirit and sense of the ridiculous which were important components of her character. No actress has also ever managed to capture the unique voice modulation and mid-century Eastern seaboard accent of Jackie’s, but now and then Blair Brown’s sly mumblings suggest it.
9. Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, Nixon (1995), Feature Film
Perhaps the single most haunting performance by any Actress of any First Lady, Joan Allen managed to convey so many of the internal conflicts experienced by Pat Nixon about a life in politics – by her facial expressions and body language, and not dialogue. Pat Nixon’s simultaneous vulnerability and strength, the gentle warmth she failed to hide from those who met her even at official events, and the dying loyalty and open-hearted, almost protective love she felt for the sensitive if troubled man the world was then demonizing as he faced his own demons – Joan Allen captured it all, perhaps opening a window into the real Pat Nixon the world had never realized. For an actor to go beyond a great entertaining performance and offer historic insight through it is a rare accomplishment which earned Allen an Oscar nomination for this role.
10. Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, W. (2009) Feature Film
In clear command of her matriarchal role, it is hard to imagine anyone capturing Barbara Bush quite so authentically, if necessarily limited a dramatic role as did Burstyn. Somehow, without going for the impersonation she managed to convey the emotional importance of her character to the main character – her son, the President – even though her role in the film is not pivotal to the plot.
11. Emma Thompson as “Hillary Clinton,” Primary Colors, (1998) Feature Film
Not unlike the challenge faced by Ruth Hussy in defining a shadowy figure of history, Emma Thompson had to define her own parameters for depicting what was declared a “fictional” character, with a wink – and one who was an incumbent in the White House at the time of the film’s release. Based on the novel which was based on the truth, Thompson somehow figured what to abstract so she never seemed to be impersonating Hillary Clinton, yet put her soul into showing the sacrifice, pain and gamble of sublimating one’s smart self in an all-out effort to get one’s spouse into the presidency.
12. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, W. (2009) Feature Film
Like Burstyn above, Banks’ role in the Oliver Stone biopic about George W. Bush wasn’t pivotal to the plot, yet provides a humanizing tone without which the film would have flattened. Elizabeth Banks, with a roll of her eyes, a Cheshire smile and a nod of her head not only captured the familiar Laura Bush but gave an understanding of the humor, exasperation and commitment which are part and parcel of emotionally surviving the presidency.
A GALLERY OF HONORABLE MENTION “FIRST LADIES”
Many of the First Ladies are listed above in only the most prominent of their dramatic depictions but in any number of other venues, many have also spoken a single line, been silent but identifiable by sight, or interpreted for parody, most especially during the nearly 40 years of Saturday Night Live.And there have been other First Ladies as characters in other films and television specials. Here a few of those other “honorable mentions” without critical regard for either the quality of the drama or the history: