A Focus on First Ladies in Film

By  · Published on October 13th, 2016

It’s an important year for the women married to the President.

In just a few weeks, we could see the first woman elected President of the United States. That means we’ll have our first male spouse, whatever that will be called (First Gentleman maybe, but Bill Clinton is also a former POTUS, so perhaps that trumps his spousal title?). Speaking of which, Hillary Clinton will also be the first former First Lady of the United States to make the leap to head of state in this country.

After her great speech this afternoon, many are calling for Michelle Obama to become President next. Between all that real-life stuff and the acclaim and awards frontrunner status of the new movie Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, this is a notable year for first ladies in general. So, obviously, we should be discussing favorite FLOTUS characters in film.

For real First Ladies of history, there are a lot of favorites in presidential biopics, including the Oscar-nominated performances by Joan Allen as Pat Nixon in 1995’s Nixon and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln in the 2012 release Lincoln. Hillary Clinton herself was also sort of portrayed by Emma Thompson in the 1998 roman a clef adaptation Primary Colors. Michelle Obama recently got her first big movie portrayal via actress Tika Sumpter in Southside by You, and Jackie Kennedy has previously been represented on screen A LOT.

One that ought to be better known is Geraldine Fitzgerald as Edith Wilson (credited as Edith Bolling Galt) in the 1944 movie Wilson. Not only is it a terrific performance, albeit one that sadly went unrecognized among the feature’s many Academy Award nominations, but the woman portrayed is someone who basically served as the first acting woman President of the United States after her husband, Woodrow Wilson, had a stroke while in office. Watch an eventful scene below. Edith Wilson apparently also got her own TV movie, titled The First Woman President, with a portrayal by Eva Marie Saint, but that there’s no sign of its existence since its 1974 broadcast.

Then there are the fictional first ladies. A lot of them aren’t as prominent, as they’re the just the wife of the action hero president, a la Wendy Crewson in Air Force One, or occasionally they get killed off, sometimes immediately like Ashley Judd’s character in Olympus Has Fallen. We do love Mary McDonnell as Mary Whitmore in Independence Day, though, and her death is the emotional center of that disaster blockbuster. One of the most popular POTUS movies, The American President, even has a president widowed from the start.

There are rare movies focused just on first ladies, however, such as 1937’s First Lady, which stars Kay Francis and Verree Teasdale as actually two women competing behind the scenes to have their husband win the presidency (so yes, technically neither character is in fact a FLOTUS yet), and 1994’s Guarding Tess, about a widowed FLOTUS played by Shirley MacLaine (so yes, she’s a former FLOTUS). In a way, Ivan Reitman’s Dave is also concentrated pretty heavily on its first lady, Ellen Mitchell, played by Sigourney Weaver. In the end, she’s reduced to being a love interest, but for much of the movie she’s a strong and interesting character as a woman keeping up appearances as married to a POTUS she no longer loves.

Back to actual people who had the role of FLOTUS, there are of course a few documentaries of note. Many are rather conventional fare, such as the reenactment-heavy American Experience episode on Dolley Madison (titled Dolley Madison) and the Oscar-winning archival compilation The Eleanor Roosevelt Story. More recently Eleanor Roosevelt also got a fair share of the focus of Ken Burns’s miniseries The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, in which Meryl Streep portrays her through voiceover readings. Of course, there are a few new docs now completely or partly on Hillary Clinton, including the recent Frontline episode The Choice 2016 (shared with Donald Trump) and CNN’s Unfinished Business: The Essential Hillary Clinton.

I’m willing to also include Grey Gardens (and its sequel The Beales of Grey Gardens) in this bunch since while Jacqueline Kennedy isn’t on screen she is a major character in the background (and is portrayed in the dramatic remake). The thing is, there should be more FLOTUS docs. Where is the essential doc for our time on Edith Wilson, for instance? And there should be more movies on first ladies overall.

Share your own favorite below.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.