By Jasmin Rosemberg By Jasmin Rosemberg | May 19, 2022 | Awards Television
Michelle Pfeiffer, Viola Davis and Gillian Anderson star in Showtime’s The First Lady. PHOTO BY RAMONA ROSALES/SHOWTIME
SHOWTIME SERIES THE FIRST LADY SHIFTS THE LENS TO EXPLORE HOW THREE FEARLESS FEMALES, ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, BETTY FORD AND MICHELLE OBAMA, EXPANDED THEIR ROLES, BATTLED RESISTANCE AND FOUND THEIR VOICES.
Creator and executive producer Aaron Cooley PHOTO BY: JACKSON LEE DAVIS/SHOWTIME
After working with Joel Schumacher on political thriller House of Cards in 2012, author and screenwriter Aaron Cooley modeled a first lady character in his 2015 novel Four Seats after Hillary Clinton. “I thought she was going to win the next election, and everyone was saying she was going to be the first female president,” says Cooley, then Schumacher’s head of development. “But I’d always heard this history nerd joke that the real first female president was Woodrow Wilson’s wife. There’s this urban legend that Woodrow Wilson was actually in a coma for part of his presidency after World War I and that Edith made all the decisions. … And so, I wrote this pilot about the start of her journey to her taking over the White House.”
Showrunner Cathy Schulman PHOTO BY: ILZE KITSHOFF
The idea instantly captivated Cathy Schulman—an Oscar-winning producer, female activist and president of Women In Film—however, she thought they should widen their focus. “I said to him, ‘I think we’ll have a better shot if we try to do a seminal work on all of the first ladies of American history,” Schulman says. “There had never been a scope of ‘what has this role been,’ and ‘what has the impact of these women been?’ ... It’s always that same male perspective on history. And so, we just essentially flipped it on its head and thought, ‘Well, where was the first lady in this instance?’” Her own interest had piqued while watching 2016 film Jackie, when Natalie Portman’s character escorts journalists into the exclusive East Wing. “She starts saying things like, ‘Oh, Eleanor put this here and Lady Bird did this,’” Schulman recalls. “And my brain just went, ‘Oh, my God, imagine if these White House walls could talk!’” She also considered that all of these figures had slept in the same bedroom. “If you really want to know the truth, you have to know what happens in terms of pillow talk between these intimate couples, and that’s what really kicked off my desire to try to do an insider’s point of view, shifting the lens to the women and children inside the White House.”
Dakota Fanning plays Susan Elizabeth Ford, daughter of Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer). PHOTO BY: MURRAY CLOSE/SHOWTIME
Schulman enlisted her longtime friend Viola Davis. “I knew that Viola had a little interest in playing Michelle Obama, which had been just loose conversation, frankly, but I kind of pushed her on it,” says Schulman, who saw in Davis the same selflessness and soulfulness. With Davis attached to the project—which featured the interwoven and thematically linked stories of three first ladies, Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy—they garnered much interest from networks, ultimately choosing Showtime, whose creatives pointed out all three women were Democrats. Cooley, who’d researched 15 first lady combinations, was prepared: “We traded out Jackie for Betty Ford and I’m so glad we did, because I think for many people she’s the biggest discovery and the most exciting,” he says.
Pfeiffer as Betty Ford PHOTO BY: MURRAY CLOSE/SHOWTIME
Michelle Pfeiffer portrays Betty Ford—a wife and mother thrust into the public eye when Nixon’s vice president resigned and her husband, Gerald Ford (Aaron Eckhart), stepped in rather than retiring. “Originally, she was very upset that his political career was not only going to continue but become even bigger, but I think she started to realize her opportunity then,” says Cooley. “After she publicly announced that she had a breast cancer diagnosis from a mammogram, thousands of women went out and got mammograms, and that was the start of our modern awareness of breast cancer.” Ford also fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and bared her struggles with addiction. “Nobody was speaking about women’s health, women’s psychiatry, women’s cancers, not to mention women’s rights in the era,” says Schulman, who loved that Pfeiffer could play both strong and brittle at the same time. “She’s able to be fierce and then broken within two seconds of each other, and that was Betty.”
Gillian Anderson plays Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. PHOTO BY: BORIS MARTIN/SHOWTIME
Unlike Betty Ford, Michelle Obama’s and Eleanor Roosevelt’s careers didn’t begin in the White House. “I think the really fascinating thing is how much more accomplished they were than their husbands, before their husbands’ political careers took off,” says Cooley. “In his first campaign for a national office, [Barack Obama] really got his butt kicked. Michelle was the one who was putting food on the table. She had the much higher salary. … Eleanor Roosevelt had played the traditional role of wife and mother up until Franklin got polio, and then she and his associate, Louis Howe, realized that his political career was over unless they could somehow keep it alive by Eleanor getting more politically active.” For Schulman, actress Gillian Anderson had “the driving courage and intellect” of Eleanor Roosevelt. “The woman was outspoken and active from literally age 16 until the day she died,” Schulman says. “Barack and Michelle were the first Black family and, as a result, were dealing with all sorts of issues having to do with racism, antiracism, desegregation, segregation. And if you look back to where these conversations really got kick-started, in terms of first ladies, it’s Eleanor. … So she was a natural antecedent to what Michelle’s time in the White House was defined by.”
Viola Davis and O-T Fagbenle as Michelle and Barack Obama PHOTO BY: JACKSON LEE DAVIS/SHOWTIME
Over the course of the first season, directed by Oscar and Emmy winner Susanne Bier (The Undoing, The Night Manager), these women find their voices. “All three of them had a lot of resistance because they wanted to do rebellious things,” says Cooley, referencing Betty Ford’s fight for the ERA, Michelle Obama’s school lunch bill and Eleanor Roosevelt’s address to the public on Pearl Harbor prior to FDR’s. “Their husbands’ teams pushed them to be in the more traditional role, and all three of them pushed those boundaries and found ways to contribute and make their own stamps.” Cooley hopes the series spotlights what some of our country’s brilliant women have done in the position: “She’s coming into a job that has no budget and is not supposed to do anything traditionally except plan state dinners, and every initiative they attempt—some which are huge successes, some which fail spectacularly—they’re just great, phenomenal stories because they are making so much out of nothing.”