“The First Lady” tells the story of the wives of three revolutionary presidents in an irrelevant way
“The First Lady” opens by asking us to consider the broader meaning of portraiture. I doubt the writers meant that in portraying Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) sitting for their official paintings, each in their own era. Taken as they are, they are inputs into what should be revealing exams of their lives, told in a 10-episode pass.
However, that short sequence invites us to consider what an authorized portrait, chosen and informed by the subject’s wishes, tells us about the person sitting for it – that is, nothing they don’t want us to see. Regardless of what Michelle Obama’s portraitist Amy Sherald (Tiffany Hobbs) means, when she says, “I care about the real,” while photographing her, it is impossible to completely render a genuine two-dimensional version of a person.
We have seen better examples of what “The First Lady” strives to do in “Mrs. America”.
Television is a better medium for this, even when a show doesn’t nail everything down to someone’s truth. “The First Lady” is an unauthorized biographical drama, of course. I can’t imagine a couple as connected to the media world as the Obamas who see it as the definitive tale of Michelle’s story. His Netflix documentary “Becoming”, based on her memoirs, continues to serve that purpose for the time being.
We’ve seen better examples of what “The First Lady” strives to do in “Mrs. America” and, yes, this year’s “Julia” as well, regardless of the liberties taken in portraying private or other moments. unknowable parts of their subjects. lives. Their colorful means of romanticizing the momentous changes in history help us better appreciate the people who created it.
RELATED: “Mrs. America” and the birth of trolling
Also consider how “The Crown” takes advantage of the opacity of its subjects’ reputation to build its own version of British royal life, making Queen Elizabeth II and her family vulnerable souls worthy of empathy or contempt, or understanding either way. . Whether real Windsors are truly like their Netflix counterparts matters less than whether we believe in the humanity of their TV versions.
Each episode wastes firepower in front of the camera.
“The First Lady” never achieves such roundness, despite the passionate performances of its hugely talented protagonists. If you were hoping that Davis, Anderson and Pfeiffer would be free to probe the intricacies of these iconic presidential wives, this is far from the case.
Instead, each episode wastes firepower in front of the camera by connecting its actors to flashpoints and watershed moments instead of filling the open canvas with insights and hints about who they are during the quieter moments. Seeing these women encounter history as the person that life has shaped them is more interesting than simply seeing how they react when insults and disasters come to their door; we already know that part.
Yet, for whatever reason, showrunner Cathy Schulman and the writers think we want to see Davis recreate that moment where Michelle drove Fox News crazy by saying, “For the first time in my adult life, I’m really proud of my country. because it looks like hope is returning, “without reflecting on life experiences that might have informed that very honest and recognizable statement.
Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in “The First Lady” (Daniel McFadden / SHOWTIME)We’re shown the beginning of Eleanor’s political marriage to Franklin D. Roosevelt (Kiefer Sutherland) without much indication of how her lack of affection affects her every day, until she conveniently comes across letters from her mistress Lucy Mercer.
Their stories simply. . . stay together.
We are introduced to Betty looking at Pfeiffer shaking him for Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” as a way to foreshadow her substance abuse problem at first. Eventually the Republican First Lady becomes a feminist working to pass the equal rights amendment and a public face for breast cancer survivors. But she was presented as the personification of a subject from a very special episode.
Their stories simply. . . being together rather than serving as entry points allowing access to the real personalities behind the women we see in archival footage, photos and films. And any actor who follows that non-original lead. Anderson royally embodies Eleanor Roosevelt’s determination to stand up for human rights, the working class and its anti-racist efforts. We see much of her private stubbornness and sadness, but little expression of Eleanor’s joy aside from what she gleaned from her relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok (Lily Rabe) written here as Eleanor’s lover.
The private moments shared by Michelle and Barack Obama (OT Fagbenle) allow for greater humanity, probably because we regularly see them loving and loving as a couple. Still, it’s Malia (Lexi Underwood) who has to explain the importance of publicly advocating LGBTQIA rights to her father, as if somehow the importance of giving her voice behind the cause was lost on him before he. At that time.
Kathleen Garrett as Laura Bush, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and OT Fagbenle as Barack Obama in “The First Lady” (Jackson Lee Davis / SHOWTIME)None of the actors can be blamed for skimping on passion in their performances – we expect nothing less. But the scripts are not suitable vessels to contain it. Hour after hour, the characters work their way through attacks or a breakup instead of relying on the emotional abilities of the actors to carry the action forward.
As a result, many of them are left hanging between the imitation and portrayal of celebrities, mainly Davis, Anderson, and Fagbenle. Sutherland, too, though his impression of FDR never comes close to the jarring irritation of others.
Playing a real person with distinctive mannerisms is a challenge regardless of who is tasked with carrying it out.
Davis recently admitted that she is terrified of what Michelle Obama would think of her performance, and the unfortunate effect of that nervousness manifests itself in the way she twists her lips to talk to Michelle, or awkwardly cuts her sentences.
Interpreting a real person with distinctive mannerisms is a challenge regardless of who is tasked with carrying it out; it’s so easy to overemphasize the ways someone talks or purses their lips to the point that it pushes a close study of parody. Davis’ portrait of Michelle takes on a long-term lease in that transitional neighborhood, swinging between genuine recognizability and distraction.
His impression is nowhere as overwhelming as Fagbenle’s bespoke imitation of Barack Obama’s quirky language patterns, which is both deadly and exaggerated. Meanwhile, the actors playing the younger versions of the Obamas, Jayme Lawson and Julian De Niro, largely forgo the representation. It doesn’t take away the scenes they share.
Lawson, in fact, beautifully captures the grace of the future first lady as she comes of age as she puts aside the doubts and offenses of others. She is extraordinary in her work of hers with Regina Taylor, playing Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, and Michael Potts, who plays her father her Fraser of her.
In many respects, Anderson has the most formidable task of bringing a singular version of a First Lady who has played Greer Garson, Jane Alexander and Cynthia Nixon, among others, and in better productions. This production disappoints her to the point that, at times, her performance struggles to divert her attention from her dentures.
Want a daily summary of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Sign up for our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
Of the three protagonists, Pfeiffer’s performance seems the freshest. The portrayal of her also has enough fortitude to take on the task of making Betty, pairing well with the actor who plays her younger version of her, Kristine Froseth.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford in “The First Lady” (Murray Close / SHOWTIME)
Of the three protagonists, Pfeiffer’s performance seems the freshest.
Pfeiffer captures Ford’s nimble personality, but also features the side of Betty who resents her husband Gerald (Aaron Eckhart) for putting her political aspirations before her marriage and family and complains about the death of her career as a dancer. Pfeiffer’s Betty maintains a softness in her strength as she also sublimates an anger that beautifully roars to the surface as Gerald’s colleagues try to silence her. Froseth reminds us of the dancer who was Betty and provides a basis for her insistence on finding and using her voice as a president’s wife.
The points where the actions taken by former First Ladies echo through the mandates of those to come are presented as connective devices rather than touching bridges. Only once does this touch work as it should, when the Obamas watching a clip of Marian Anderson’s performance at the National Mall is presented as the culmination of Eleanor Roosevelt’s intervention in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution prevented her from performing at the Constitution Hall.
Part of the blame for the show’s pale hodgepodge of narrative choices rests with Schulman; other distractions, such as those resulting from the performances, could have been mitigated by the direction of Susanne Biers. In any case, the result is an intertwining of biographies that is messy and light.
This too is educational, in the way it animates the difference between capturing a person’s likeness and bringing to light the essence of an individual’s life. One focuses on the line, the other is meticulous in indicating distinct gradations of shadows and shadows.
In terms of biographical drama, it’s the difference between making a sense of knowing the people behind the story and presenting a TV version of a harmless commemorative magazine profile that you might walk past the grocery store checkout line. “The First Lady” is the second: glossy and celebratory yet, it pains me to say, irrelevant, a word that should never be associated with the women who inspired this show.
“The First Lady” will debut at 9pm Sunday 17th April on Showtime. Watch a trailer below, via YouTube.
More stories like this: