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History has its eyes on the ladies. From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, the First Ladies of the White House have prevailed. The nation elected their husbands, not them. They don’t have their faces immortalized on the nation’s dollar bills. But they operated at their husband’s side and integrated themselves in the affairs of the nation.
In the musical, 1776 the First Ladies are granted songs, solos about their husbands and duets with their husbands. John Adams’s Abigail Adams (Virginia Vestoff) worries about her husband who’s out deciding the future of America in the middle of the Revolution. Her intellectual letters with him are a means of passing the time in the household.
There’s also Thomas Jefferson and his Martha Jefferson (Blythe Danner). Although in 1776, there had yet to be the presidential cabinets, if you’re aware of Jefferson and Adams’s historical rivalry and friendship, one has to wonder what a hypothetical conversational duet between Martha and Abigail would be like if they were to chat about their husbands. Do not forget the ladies, indeed.
Mary Todd Lincoln does not get a good rap from historians. She greets guests, waves her fan with a forced smile, and toots her horn about her husband’s illustriousness. Politics is not her profession, even as she futilely resists its power over her domestic life. But in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, actress Sally Field radiates an affected portrait of her idiosyncrasies. Mary watches the Congress session with trepidation. Having Mary present at congressional meetings is a historical artistic license on Spielberg’s part, as women would be frowned upon for attending. However, it does epitomize Mary’s curiosities of a man’s world she has no part of.
Although a bystander in these worldly affairs, behind the bedroom doors she lobbies to her husband not to pass the anti-slavery amendment. If her husband angers the South and perpetuates the Civil War, her son Robert will have to go back to war, a likely death sentence.
It’s simple to reduce this to selfishness, but she is clearly grappling with compromising her domesticity with a duty to the nation. In an arguable lapse of sensitivity, the well-intended Lincoln censures her for not thinking “less-selfishly”. The film alludes to the mental afflictions that couldn’t be accommodated by her time period or the understanding of her husband. She bemoans she’ll be remembered “as the one who ruined [Lincoln’s] happiness,” even though they reaffirm their love for each other by the end. But here, she has her image redeemed.
Compared to her other incarnation (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Spielberg’s Mary is enriched and layered. To director Bekmambetov’s credit, his depiction doesn’t ignore the heartache Mary would feel upon the revelation her presidential husband led a double-life slaughtering vampires and gives her the harrowing role of smuggling silver with Harriet Tubman to ensue victory against the vampires.
Southside with You occurs in a pre-President Obama era, Michelle’s own pre-First Lady era. Yet, this romantic dramedy emanates a retrospective poignancy for the current First Couple. Tika Sumpter plays Michelle Robinson before she bore the Obama surname.
With sass, she rebuffs Barack’s niceness, though she can’t help but be charmed by Barack’s good-nature. She doesn’t like the pie he buys her. She’s an ice cream person. He’s a pie person. They converse about their respective hardships and he thinks over her words, which he incorporates in a service speech, a sincere implementation of her inputs. Although the director Richard Tanne avoids the clichés of melodrama, there is a tension with Michelle knowing that her carefully guarded immaculate professional reputation is at stake if she is seen dating a black boy. It sounds trifling, but it represents a stake in Michelle’s mind.
When musing about her challenging office life, Michelle remarks, “I’ll complain about it. But I can live with it.” She abides by her professional and progressive objectives but also validates her own qualms with the problematic areas of the institution that employs her.
By depicting the humble and grimy origins of the current First Couple, down to Barack driving a run-down station wagon and Michele living with her parents in her adulthood, director Tanne dishes out a poignant prognostication of their later greatness.
Olive Stone’s Nixon is a radicalized interpretation of the controversial Richard Nixon. His domestic scenes with Pat Nixon stages Nixon’s sympathetic vulnerable moments. She’s a pillow for her husband as he laments his childhood and struggles. However, Pat is no doormat and lets her husband know when she’s at her wit’s ends. When he’s fresh out of debating with Kennedy, she fiercely counterpoints and reprimands his haughty invectives about his opponents.
Then there’s Jacqueline Kennedy, embodied by Natalie Portman, in Pablo Larraín’s 2016 Jackie.
Poise as the pink-wearing icon for the nation’s digestion, the wife of the famed Camelot Couple finds herself surrounded by the artifice of perfection. But with the closeness of the camera arrested on her smile, a silent suffocation lurks. Even before she bore the widow-black sable, she veered a fine line between magazine-cover smiling to “just grin and bear it”. The camera invades her space, close enough that we can’t ignore the grief leaking through Portman’s composure as the maneuver of fate choreographs her movement though history and White House.
Even if we won’t witness a First Lady evolving into President this year, we can hope in the realm of cinema, the First Ladies will become the protagonists rather than the supporting characters, emerging into the narrative spotlight, sometimes hand-in-hand with their powerful husbands, or in Jackie’s case, alone.