First Ladies & Actresses Who Played Them: Vote Your Favorite

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.

Laura Linney as Abigail Adams.

1. Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, John Adams (2008), Television Mini-Series

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.

Gweneth Paltrow as Martha Jefferson Randolph.

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.

Ginger Rogers as Dolley Madison.

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.

Julie Harris as Mary Lincoln.

4. Julie Harris as Mary Lincoln, The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (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.

Ruth Hussey as Eliza Johnson.

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.

Celeste Holm as Florence Harding.

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.

Jane Alexander as Eleanor Roosevelt.

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.

Blair Brown as Jackie Kennedy.

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.

Joan Allen as Pat Nixon.

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.

Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush.

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.

Emma Thompson as the Hillary Clinton character of Primary Colors.

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.

Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush.

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.


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:

Patty Duke as Martha Washington. (1984, 1986)

Susan Hayward as Rachel Jackson. (1953)

Shelley Duvall as Frances Cleveland (1976).

Ruth Nelson as Ellen Wilson. (1944)

Geraldine Fitzgerald as Edith Wilson. (1944)

Diane Scarwid as Bess Truman. (1995)

Felicity Huffman as Lady Bird Johnson. (2010)

Gena Rowlands as Betty Ford. (1987)

Judy Davis as Nancy Reagan (2003).

Categories: Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, First Ladies, Hollywood, The Kennedys, The Wilsons

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0 replies

  1. I have been trying for years to get a tape of the Andrew Johnson story (1942) with Van Heflin in the title role. I have even contacted the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, and they did not have it.

    Actress Elizabeth Hubbard portrayed Edith Wilson in an NBC-TV Daytime Drama special in 1976, for which she earned her 2nd Daytime Emmy Award. Claire Bloom, later played Edith in 1979’s primetime NBC mini-series ‘Backstairs at the White House.’

    Ironically, years later Elizabeth Hubbard and Claire Bloom were reunited on the CBS daytime drama ‘As the World Turns,’ in which Hubbard’s ‘TV daughter Lily Walsh’ was married to Bloom’s ‘TV son, Damian Grimaldi.’

    • I recently obtained DVDs of “Backstairs at the White House,” but felt the interpretation of Edith Wilson failed entirely – without a word of dialogue, the possessiveness and guarded jealousy she put out there in terms of “her” husband could have been conveyed, and there was no sign of it. Despite the actor’s great credentials that Edith Wilson was like cold oatmeal to me, you know? That said, I admit right up front that I have a very, very limited knowledge and expertise with those male and female actors who are considered “legendary” based on the quality of their work. I think my perception of “great” is skewed by my incentive to see and study film is led by its story rather than its star.

      I sure wish I had a tape of Tennessee Johnson I could loan – I actually saw it on the big screen in Georgetown during a President’s Day film festival when I was in college. I found some of the staging gawky, I can remember – but I also can’t forget how generous and impressive and intelligent Hussey was as Eliza Johnson. I’m going on too long and it is late….but thank you very much for offering that information – like I said I would never have known those facts…

  2. I must give an honorary Honorable Mention to Greer Garson, who portrayed Eleanor Roosevelt pre-White House in “Sunrise at Campobello”. She was, to say the least, an unlikely choice to play Eleanor, but she hit the ball out of the park and was nominated for an Oscar. (IMHO, she would have won but for Elizabeth Taylor’s tracheotomy.)

    • No question about it…I even wrote about her in S.A.C. in one of the articles I wrote last year about actors depicting Presidents….that said, because it was barely a year or two after the real Eleanor Roosevelt died, that actor’s freedom to explore some of the range of anger and hope which arose in response to the polio was, at least I think – really limited. So, in looking at all the actors who depicted ER, I sort of settled on Jane Alexander who also had the admitted advantage of four hours to unfold her ER…

      • Eleanor Roosevelt died two years *after* the premiere of the film version of Sunrise at Campobello. She was consulted extensively during filming as to the historical accuracies of the house and the times (one time she was called to find out if she rode a bicycle back then, and her response was “Yes, and I still can!”), and one of the biographies I have on Greer Garson contains a photo of Garson, in costume, serving tea to Mrs. Roosevelt during filming.

        • Great story – and one I had never heard. If you see my response on some other comments, for example, re: Edith Wilson and Betty Ford, I do think that a dramatic adaptation of a famous person’s life is far more limiting when they are alive…..even just out of respect. I think on the Ford one, for example, the actual tv movie was far, far vaguer than Mrs. Ford’s own book. In any event, I learned more from all the comments than I think I “taught,” so to speak.

  3. What fun! As usual! It was hard to decide between Blair Brown and Joan Allen, but in recalling the performances, I remember being more than “struck” by Allen’s Pat Nixon.

    Of course, as an old Edythe Marrenner fan (much to the chagrin of my long-term partner) I was sorry I could not cast a vote for Hayward (with apologies of course to “decent” historians and for the chewed up scenery and Charlton Heston’s wig).

    • Well you sure are keen on your Andrew and Rachel Jackson facts, Glenn! Again, however, I think this was a case of the dramatic storyline adaptation being so sanitized from the far more interesting and human story that not even the best actors in the world can overcome the worst scripts…I’ve never seen so many people looking up to Heaven while figuring out how to explain the little whoops that was adultery.

  4. Carl,
    I thought Gena Rowlands should have been listed as a nominee in your poll and not just under honorable mention. I think she gave a wonderful performance in The Betty Ford Story. I would note that she was awarded both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance.

    • I think I’d agree with you about the performance but I felt she was really, really constrained from presenting the depth of turmoil and pain as a result of a script that had a bit of a nutra-sweet coating protecting the audience. Some of what Mrs. Ford really experienced is only vaguely suggested in a few lines but spoken by other characters. In fact, the moment the Betty Ford character finally embraces the reality of what has happened, the audience is denied a full embrace of the impact, containing the shot to one only from her back…..not her expressive face! I found this a really missed opportunity because Mrs. Ford is extremely explicit and honest about her recovery process in her book, which this TV movie was based on….so…that was why I just gave it an “honorable.”

  5. 😉 dear carl, i voted emma thompson as hillary, because i didnt see the other performances but i intend to see W… as for honorary ladies, no katie holmes as jackie from “the kennedys” tv series 2011 ?

    • Just like his Nixon, I think Oliver Stone did a great job in unraveling and revealing the conflicts within the real humans of Nixon and W. and how it manifested in their more widely familiar public personas, which were taken at the face value all Presidents want their crafted personas to be. Having learned that there’s sometimes so much more to the reasons behind something that went really bad, I won’t get into that holmes thing, but if I were to do an overview of different performances on any one historical figure and was doing one on Jackie Kennedy, I’d have to say, well – wearing clothes and hair that look a lot like someone is no substitute for studying and then presenting an interpretation of them.

  6. Speaking of Meryl Streep – who I hope wins tomorrow, although Viola Davis has a pretty good shot too – she beat Judy Davis for her portrayal of Nancy Reagan in the miniseries The Reagans, at the Emmys, back in 2004. Meryl was awarded for her quadruple role in Angels in America. And that’s a pretty tough question to answer. All great actresses, playing great ladies… Oh well, if I have to pick only one, I’ll go with Joan Allen, for her portrayal of Pat Nixon, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award as best actress in a supporting role, in 1996. I think that is worth mentioning that Joan was nominated again, a few years later, and this time as best actress in a leading role, for playing the nominee for Vice President in the fictional political thriller The Contender, in 2001.
    Thanks for this Carl, brilliant work, as ever. I can only imagine how many hours you spent on it, researching the films, looking for photos… I do hope you’ll find a way to monetize from this awesome blog of yours, real soon!

    • You are so much better with all those facts and history – I know none of that! But I do tend to get behind anything I find stirring or eye-opening or genuine, in terms of a moving and complex dramatic depiction, even if it isn’t widely known or popular…one reason I recommend some of these obscure titles…and one reason I have to entirely agree with you about the emotional intelligence Joan Allen brings to all of her work.

  7. I always look forward to the idea of seeing these women portrayed, but so often it’s disappointing. This is especially true of the Jackie Kennedy roles, which seem to bring out the worst impressions in actresses who might otherwise be talented. I only remember the Blair Brown portrayal a bit as I haven’t seen it in such a long time. I have to admit that I recently checked out an episode of “The Kennedys” on Netflix… ugh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such dreadful portrayals. Maybe I should have given it a bit more time?

    You listed two of my favorites in your honorable mentions – the Wilson wives from the 1941 film. I just love everything about that movie, regardless of its accuracy. It’s just lovely to look at.

    Regarding Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, I haven’t actually seen the movie, but your description of her portrayal is intriguing. I’d be interested in knowing more about your take on the private Pat Nixon. In fact, I think I’ll pull out volume 2 of “The First Ladies” to see what you have to say!

    I wish that we could have some really marvelous depictions of First Ladies in film. I am so much more interested in their stories than those of their husbands!

    • Thanks for such a thorough response Jake. One thing most important, however – the stories of First Ladies can’t be separated from those of Presidents, the whole thrust of their personal arcs are pulled, pushed and affected by the direction of their joint ambitions, but then also decisions Presidents make – which their wives might often oppose. It is this incredible opportunity to influence the powerful in the Cabinet, House, Senate and state houses on behalf of constituencies in need, yet with the more mundane aspects of life – walking a dog, hiking in the park, a jog, game of tennis, a movie, exploring a new city – completely out of their reach. But because they are dealing with shifting public expectations and media manipulation of their words and deeds – as opposed to the specific constitutional duties of the presidency, they play a sort of “wild card” role in the executive branch.

      Without even having to comment on the Katie Holmes effort at Jackie Kennedy, I’d have to say that she had zero to work with – I really almost never use words like “garbage” or “crap” about someone else’s writing effort – and realizing the scripts were likely patched from the viewpoint of many writers – but honestly, even if they made no effort to offer an interpretation of who she was as a person, they could have gotten some very, very basic facts down. At one point in “The Kennedys” Jackie is reviewing a travel schedule with appearances in San Fran and LA….such a stupid error that actually does harm a dramatic stake since she never once went West of the Mississippi….hell never even west of Philly – while First Lady, until going to Dallas – so her going as far away as Texas with the President was real evidence of a turning point….anyway, definitely, definitely rent Nixon – I think it was phenomenal, and actually sympathetic without being apologetic. And if I am still able to pour the outrageous amount of time I do into this website next month, I’ll definitely do a solid piece for her centennial. Cheers.

  8. This is in response to Jake…
    Hi Jake, I am so pleased that I am not the only one to love the 1944 ‘Woodrow Wilson Story’ starring Alexander Knox. It is one of my favorites, if not my most favorite historical movie…when I see a newly bereaved Wilson taking off his glasses and leaning toward the window sill of his dead wife’s bedroom and saying ‘What is a school teacher like me doing with a World War?’ It sends chills up and down my spine.
    I am so happy to know that there is someone out there, besides me, who appreciates this fantastic movie. Vincent Price played Wilson’s son-in-law and Secetary of Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo.

    • This is probably before your time, Mr. Anthony, but Kathryn Walker won an Emmy for her portrayal of Abigail Adams in the PBS mini-series ‘The Adams Chronicles’ back in 1975/76. I loved her performance!

      • It’s so interesting when an actor takes on an historical role because one has to discern two elements – their ability to convincingly dramatize their “fictional” version of a real person and then capture the realness of a known person….I think that’s why I so disliked Wilson – unlike you and Jake….the real Edith Wilson got mixed up in it all – I read some startling exchange of letters once for sale between her and Zanuck and boy she sure manipulated the known truth and who knows what else, so even though Fitzgerald was tops in drama, she couldn’t be given the freedom to really tell it like it was about Edith. I saw the Adams Chronicles and 1776 and….well, I definitely think the HBO John Adams series was the first to fully credit and understand Abigail most importantly through the script, so then a talented actor like Linney really took off with it – so often it is the quality of the script.

  9. Dear Mr. Anthony, Two quick questions. Hae you seen the one woman play (written and starring Elaine Bromka) as Lady Bird, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford? (entitled ‘Tea for Three’) I actually caught an historical inaccuracy in the script and Ms. Bromka was extremely grateful and changed it.

    Second question: In light of Mrs. Ford’s intervention in April 1978, would her recovery been hampered/delayed if her husband had won the ’76 election. What do you think would have happened if the Fords had still be in the ‘Great White Fish Bowl?’

    • Haven’t seen the Bromka piece.

      One day while working with her on a detailed writing project, we got into that question and Mrs. Ford said, “Honestly? Who really knows?” and she explained that perhaps an internal sense of responsibility would have delayed the full onset of her alcoholism and drug addiction or even kept it entirely submerged. She said so many unpredictable triggers might have subverted it – or propelled it and she said, interestingly, that part of her ongoing daily recovery was to resist forecasting or asking what if…you know we were sitting on the floor of her living room around this low coffee table drinking iced tea and I remember this light went off in my own realization of how hard but how healthy it is to strive and truly live in the present. So hard to entirely capture the depth of her emotional intelligence.

    • Thank you, Mr. Anthony. What an enlightening response. It echoes what my wife always chides me for not doing, that I should live ‘in the present.’

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