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The best first ladies in TV and movies

Becoming the first lady has got to be a strange experience. One day, you’re married to a lawyer or politician, and the next you find yourself thrust onto the national stage because your husband is now in charge of the free world. Hopefully, a man will fill that role as the supporting player someday soon, but until that day comes, there’s plenty to learn from fictional portrayals of the first lady.

With the recent release of The First Lady, a Showtime series that stars Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Gillian Anderson as some of the most famous first ladies in history, it’s time to look back at some of the greatest first ladies to ever grace screens both small and large.

Sally Field, Lincoln

Sally Field in Lincoln.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Mary Todd Lincoln was famously a little strange, but as played by Sally Field, she was also deeply human. Field’s performance may not feel all that important to Lincoln, a movie that is obviously focused more on her husband, but Mary Todd is a crucial lifeline into who the 16th president was when he was not pontificating in public.

Given the tragedy she faced in her own life, Lincoln seems to argue that Mary Todd’s oddities and depression are totally understandable. Mary Todd Lincoln was a person who lost so much, and Sally Field plays her as a woman who refused to put on a brave face even when one was expected of her.

Sigourney Weaver, Dave

Sigourney Weaver in Dave.
Warner Bros.

A lovely, small comedy about a regular guy who is asked to stand in for the president, Dave is thoroughly winsome, especially as we see Dave’s relationship with Sigourney Weaver’s First Lady Ellen Mitchell evolve. Ellen’s real husband is clearly pompous and self-centered, and Dave wrings plenty of comedy out of her surprise when her husband starts behaving totally differently.

Ultimately, though, Dave is about a decent guy who is trying to make the government he’s gotten mixed up in more effective. It’s a sweet, full-hearted movie, and watching Sigourney Weaver let Ellen’s heart slowly melt is one of its chief joys.

Stockard Channing, The West Wing

Stockard Channing and Martin Sheen in The West Wing.
Warner Bros.

When you think of the fictional or fictionalized First Lady, Stockard Channing’s Abbey Bartlet is probably who you think of. Abbey didn’t show up in every episode, but when she did, all of the power dynamics that usually existed within The West Wing were completely upended. Jed Bartlet was the president and a brilliant mind, but even he knew that his wife was smarter, and that’s what made her such an important presence on the show.

In a roster of incredible performers, Channing was often a standout, and Abbey was the kind of brilliant woman that Aaron Sorkin has only managed a few times over the course of his long career.

Natalie Portman, Jackie

Natalie Portman in Jackie.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Playing one of the most famous women in history is never easy, but Natalie Portman pulls it off with aplomb in Jackie. The movie follows the first lady in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination and is, at its core, about how she cemented JFK’s legacy.

Portman wears all the iconic outfits and puts on Jackie’s accent, but what makes her performance so startlingly great is the way she is able to find the humanity buried underneath a woman who was so frequently asked to put on a show for the cameras. Jackie Kennedy was a person worth considering, and Portman made sure that we all did.

Emma Thompson, Primary Colors

John Travolta and Emma Thompson in Primary Colors.
Universal Pictures

Primary Colors is widely believed to be cribbed from the real lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton, but that only makes Emma Thompson’s performance as the first lady feel all the more impressive. Set against the backdrop of a campaign for president, Thompson plays her would-be first lady as an ambitious woman in her own right, unwilling to take a back seat just because her husband is also successful.

Thompson’s Susan comes off as the most wholly sympathetic part of Primary Colors, in large part because she’s a woman incapable of being the full, brilliant person that she so clearly is.

Joan Allen, Nixon

Joan Allen in Nixon.
Buena Vista Pictures

There are two types of first ladies in popular fiction. Some, who are represented well on this list, are fiercely independent women who are forced to subsume themselves to the men who are leading the free world. Others are, at least on the surface, much more willing to play the role of the housewife, even if that’s not who they really are.

As portrayed by Joan Allen in Nixon, Pat Nixon falls squarely into that second category, even as we see the ways that Pat managed to subtly shape her husband and his perspective throughout her life. Pat Nixon wasn’t Jackie Kennedy, but she knew how to wield the power she had over her husband effectively.

Mary McDonnell, Independence Day

Mary McDonnell in Independence Day.
20th Century Fox

In this ensemble action film in the truest sense, Mary McDonnell’s First Lady Marilyn Whitmore gets a plotline that is largely separate from her husband’s. Having been injured during the initial surge of alien attacks, she spends most of her screen time with a group of survivors before being rescued and dying shortly thereafter.

While her death certainly serves as a motivation for the legendary speech Bill Pullman delivers just before the end of the film, Marilyn also gets a few quality scenes where she proves that, underneath all the pomp and circumstance of her role, she’s just a regular person.

Laura Linney, John Adams

Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti in John Adams.
HBO

Taking a comprehensive view of the second president’s life, John Adams is chiefly concerned with the unheralded role that its titular historical character played in creating the U.S. as it exists today. The miniseries also has an interest in John Adams, the man, though, and in particular in his relationship with his wife, Abigail.

Played by Laura Linney, Abigail is portrayed as someone that John viewed as an equal, even though the laws at the time made that equality impossible. Linney has a quiet, vibrant ferocity in the role, and it’s clear why this fictionalized version of Adams was so loyal to his wife over the course of decades.

Elizabeth Banks, W. 

Elizabeth Banks and Josh Brolin in a hospital in W.
Lionsgate

Although it wasn’t universally praised, one of the best elements of Oliver Stone’s send-up of George W. Bush was undoubtedly Elizabeth Banks’s portrayal of First Lady Laura Bush, who was very uninterested in the spotlight throughout her husband’s time in office.

In preparing for the role, Banks said that she had no desire to do an impersonation of Bush, and instead wanted to evoke her. Banks succeeded at doing just that, and gave us a portrait of a first lady who was often overshadowed by the blundering actions of her husband.

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