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The Best First Ladies in Movie and Television History

Step aside, gentlemen. These actresses nail the roles and shine lights into presidencies we thought we knew

Michelle Pfeiffer stars as Betty Ford, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in the Showtime series The First Lady

Ramona Rosales/Showtime

(Left to right) Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in "The First Lady."

For too long, history has been told from the point of view of “great men,” but a new Showtime series is shining a light on the women behind those men. Premiering on April 17, The First Lady will explore the backstories, family lives and political accomplishments of Michelle Obama (Viola Davis, 56), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer, 63) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson, 53). See how the trio stacks up against some of our other favorite actresses who have played FLOTUS on the big and small screens.

The first lady: Edie Falco as Hillary Clinton

The series: Impeachment: American Crime Story (2021) 

As Carmela Soprano, four-time Emmy winner Edie Falco, now 58, had practice playing a wife who looked the other way as her husband misbehaved. And in this latest installment of the Ryan Murphy (56) anthology series, she brought real pathos to the role of Hillary as she dealt with the public humiliation of finding out about the affair between Bill (Clive Owen, 57) and Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein). For much of the series, she waits in the wings, as the narrative focuses on other figures from the scandal. But she’s given a chance to truly shine in the eighth episode, “Stand by Your Man,” which traces such events as her Today show appearance (in which she details a “vast right-wing conspiracy”) and Bill’s fraught birthday party on Martha’s Vineyard.

See also: Jan Hooks/Ana Gasteyer/Amy Poehler/Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live 

Watch it: Impeachment: American Crime Story on Amazon PrimeApple TVHuluYouTube

The first lady: Tika Sumpter as Michelle Obama

The film: Southside With You (2016)  

This sweet indie romance follows the first “non-date” (she insists!) of two young Chicago lawyers named Michelle and Barack (Parker Sawyers) — years before the political ambitions and the presidency. He’s a Harvard Law School student and summer associate, she’s his young supervisor, and they plan an outing that could double beautifully as a tourism ad for Chicago. They go to an art gallery to see paintings by Ernie Barnes, talk about their childhoods while strolling through a park, see a screening of Do the Right Thing and attend a community event, where Barack gives a rousing speech that hints at things to come. Oh, and they share their first kiss in front of an ice cream parlor. 

See also: Maya Rudolph/Kerry Washington/Sasheer Zamata/Leslie Jones on Saturday Night Live

Watch it: Southside With You on Amazon PrimeApple TVYouTube

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney star in the HBO miniseries John Adams

Kent Eanes/HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection

Paul Giamatti (left) as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams in "John Adams."

The first lady: Laura Linney as Abigail Adams

The miniseries: John Adams (2008)  

Future Ozark star Laura Linney, 58, picked up an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for her portrayal of the second first lady, Abigail Adams — opposite Paul Giamatti, 54, as John — in this HBO miniseries based on the acclaimed David McCullough biography. In her review for The New York Times, Alessandra Stanley wrote: “Abigail, the woman who stayed home in wartime, managing the farm and raising four children, is the moral center of the miniseries: hardworking, uncomplaining, thoughtful and devoted to her husband and the cause of freedom—women’s as well as men’s.” Indeed, she’s warm and witty, constantly keeping John’s ego in check and espousing proto-feminist thinking, and you can’t help but feel that, with the right composer, “Nabby” could really benefit from the Hamilton treatment. 

See also: Virginia Vestoff in 1776

Watch it: John Adams on Amazon PrimeHBO MaxYouTube


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The first lady: Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

The film: Jackie (2016) 

Partly based on a 1963 Life magazine article conducted in Hyannis Port, this wrenching film by Chilean director Pablo Larraín homes in on only a tiny chapter of Jackie’s life: the dark days immediately following JFK’s assassination. By dispensing with the decades-spanning approach of most biopics, the film offers an intimate window into the inner workings of Jackie’s mind. Audiences who hadn’t seen clips of Mrs. Onassis in a while found her accent jarring, but it was remarkably accurate, and Portman earned an Oscar nomination for the role. “The voice is very particular,” she said during a New York Film Festival screening Q&A. “I remember at the beginning, everyone was kind of, like, ‘Uh oh, what’s going on here? It’s a little over-the-top or campy.’ We were just, like, ‘Watch the White House tour tapes! It’s really extreme.’ ”

See also: Minka Kelly in The Butler, Jeanne Tripplehorn in Grey Gardens, Katie Holmes in The Kennedys

Watch it: Jackie on Amazon PrimeApple TVYouTube

The first lady: Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln

The film: Lincoln (2012) 

Mary Todd Lincoln is perhaps one of the trickiest first ladies to capture, known for her struggles with mental illness and her years of depression. And Lincoln director Steven Spielberg, 75, wasn’t originally convinced that Sally Field, 75, could pull it off — she was 10 years older than the actor cast as Abe (Daniel Day-Lewis, 64) and a full 20 years older than Mary would have been during the events of the film. But Field fought tooth and nail for the role: She read bios and other materials voraciously, visited Mary’s home and chatted with elderly Kentuckians to try to approximate her dialect. Field also gained 25 pounds, which made her feel like “a pâté de foie gras goose,” as she told NPR. She got the part — and her first Oscar nomination since 1984.

See also: Ruth Gordon in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Julie Harris in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, Mary Tyler Moore in Lincoln, Donna Murphy in The Day Lincoln Was Shot, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Watch it: Lincoln on Amazon PrimeApple TVYouTube

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The first lady: Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson

The film: All the Way (2016)  

Based on the Tony-winning biographical play, this HBO film saw Bryan Cranston, 66, reprising his role as Lyndon B. Johnson, with The Fighter Oscar winner Melissa Leo, 61, signing on as Lady Bird. She makes the most of a supporting role that doesn’t give her much to work with beyond playing the devoted wife. “Boy, was she a smart lady, and I don't know that Lyndon could have done what he did in his life without her,” Leo said at the time. “It moves me a lot, because I think she is a very unsung hero.” 

See also: Jennifer Jason Leigh in LBJ, Patti LuPone in LBJ: The Early Years, Felicity Huffman in Path to War 

Watch it: All the Way on Amazon PrimeApple TVHBO MaxYouTube

Joan Allen as Pat Nixon and Anthony Hopkins star in the film Nixon

Buena Vista/Courtesy Everett Collection

Joan Allen (left) as Pat Nixon and Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in "Nixon."

The first lady: Joan Allen as Pat Nixon

The film: Nixon (1995) 

Oliver Stone’s 1995 historical drama was a sprawling political epic with a cast of dozens and a plot that spanned decades. But Joan Allen, 65, cut through the noise with a performance that Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers called “uncanny and unforgettable.” Allen earned a best-supporting-actress nomination for the role, and Roger Ebert summed up what made her so compelling: “She emerges as strong-willed and clear-eyed, a truth-teller who sees through Nixon’s masks and evasions. She is sick of being a politician’s wife. Their daughters, she says, know Nixon only from television. More than anyone else in the film, she supplies the conscience.” And in a film about Watergate, conscience is a commodity in short supply.

See also: Patty McCormack in Frost/Nixon, Nicole Sullivan in Black Dynamite 

Watch it: Nixon on Amazon PrimeApple TVYouTube

The first lady: Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush

The film: W. (2008) 

For his third presidential film after JFK and Nixon, director Oliver Stone, 75, turned his attention to the rise of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin, 54), from his frat boy days at Yale to his struggles with addiction and eventually his turn to Christianity and marriage to Laura. Banks had the unenviable task of playing a sitting and well-regarded first lady and, despite having opposing political views, she told Entertainment Weekly that she had “nothing but admiration and respect” for Bush. “I think Laura is very even-keeled and a great supporter of her husband, which as first lady and his wife is probably the right move,” Banks said before the film’s release. “So I will be honoring that. I guess I would say that, overall, that’s my hope — that I honor Laura Bush with my performance.”

See also: Carrie Quinn Dolin in That’s My Bush! 

Watch it: Amazon PrimeApple TVPeacockYouTube​​

The first lady: Greer Garson as Eleanor Roosevelt

The film: Sunrise at Campobello (1960)  

Greer Garson earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for her portrayal of a pre-presidency Eleanor Roosevelt in this adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway play of the same name. Set in the 1920s, the film focuses on FDR’s (Ralph Bellamy) early struggles with polio-induced paralysis and his fight to save his political career. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote at the time that Garson plays the role of Eleanor “most sweetly, and with firmness and humor, too. But someone has seen fit to equip her with a set of protruding teeth that make her look positively comic when the camera closes in.” Eleanor doesn’t seem to have cared a lick: The Roosevelt family gave their blessing to the production, it was partially shot at their estate in Hyde Park, and the first lady was even on set for some of the filming. 

See also: Cynthia Nixon in Warm Springs, Lois de Banzie in Annie, Harriet Sansom Harris in Atlantic Crossing, Jane Alexander in Eleanor and Franklin, Olivia Williams in Hyde Park on Hudson

Watch it: Sunrise at Campobello on Amazon PrimeApple TV, YouTube

Judy Davis as Nancy Reagan in the TV miniseries The Reagans

Cliff Lipson/CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Judy Davis stars as Nancy Reagan in "The Reagans."

The first lady: Judy Davis as Nancy Reagan

The film: The Reagans (2003) 

The chameleonic actress, 66, has played such real-life figures as Judy Garland, Lillian Hellman, Golda Meir and Hedda Hopper, and she earned one of her dozen Emmy nominations for playing Nancy in this controversy-courting film, opposite James Brolin, 81, as the Gipper. When conservative critics threatened to boycott CBS over it being a rumored hatchet job, the project was moved to Showtime — though most critics agreed it wasn’t nearly as polemical as some feared. “For all the concern about how the president is portrayed,” Sean Smith wrote in Newsweek before the film premiered, “Davis’s take on Nancy looks like Lady Macbeth in a couture dress.”

See also: Holland Taylor in The Day Reagan Was Shot, Jane Fonda in The Butler, Cynthia Nixon in Killing Reagan, Penelope Ann Miller in the upcoming Reagan  

Watch it: The Reagans on Amazon PrimeRoku Channel

The first lady: Courteney Cox as Edith Wilson

The show: Drunk History (2014) 

If you don’t know about the Comedy Central series Drunk History, it’s a wildly original concept: Comedians read about a historical event, drink copious amounts of alcohol and then try to retell the story while inebriated, as a cast of famous actors reenacts their skewed narrations. A 2014 episode dedicated to first ladies featured Arrested Development actress Alia Shawkat as Frances Cleveland, the youngest first lady in history, and SNL alum Casey Wilson as Dolley Madison, who helped save several artifacts as the White House burned during the War of 1812. But the true I-had-no-idea moment comes with the story of Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith (Courteney Cox), who essentially ran the country in secret after the president’s debilitating stroke. Who knew?!

See also: Geraldine Fitzgerald in Wilson

Watch it: Drunk History on Amazon PrimeApple TVHulu

Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.