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Biopics Should Be Made About These Spectacular First Ladies

“Jackie” is a wonderful portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, but these women are also worthy subjects for movies.

by Claire Downs

Oscar season is upon us, and it would be nothing without a good biopic to sink our candy-cane covered teeth into. Enter Jackie, the sad, elegant, and beautiful film about First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s time in the White House shortly before and after her husband’s horrific 1963 assassination. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín directed this ambitious undertaking, and his work is paying off. The film has already taken awards at the Venice Film Festival, garnered a 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with critical acclaim, and has serious Oscar buzz.

Natalie Portman, who portrays Kennedy, has been lauded for her “astonishing” and “never better” performance (David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter), that is “impossible to separate from the woman she embodies” (April Wolfe, Village Voice). It makes sense that the haunting glimpse into her life is such a hit. America’s unending fascination with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as she became when she married Aristotle Onassis in 1968, extends beyond her fashion and her connection to one of the most heartbreaking moments in U.S. history. Her approachability combined with her mystique, her strength, her intelligence, and our unending comparisons to Michelle Obama all keep our obsession with Jackie O alive.

While there have been numerous portrayals of Jackie, there are so many other fascinating First Ladies who deserve their own film. (For more FLOTUS research, I highly recommend Secret Lives of First Ladies, which sparked my own interest in the insane lives of First Ladies.) A few notable mentions before we begin: We’re due for an Eleanor Roosevelt biopic (Hyde Park on Hudson and the numerous TV movies just ain’t cuttin’ it), and LadyBird Johnson was an incredible First Lady who, though lacking much conflict, protected our National Parks. Of course, we’re also in need of a Hillary biopic, but we’ll have to wait until the dust settles. Until then, I recommend watching Primary Colors. Now that that is out of the way, keep reading to see why the following five First Ladies would make perfect feature film subjects.

Dolley Madison

Why she deserves a movie: Dolley wasn’t just James Madison’s First Lady; she also served as widower Thomas Jefferson’s First Lady. Dolley defined the role of First Lady as more than just a spouse. She organized fun parties, met with diplomats, and created the idea of the Inaugural Ball. She drank whiskey-punch, popularized ice cream, had an honorary seat in Congress, and was the first private citizen to transmit a telegraph.

Most notable was her role in the burning of the White House in 1814. As flames entered the building, Dolley saved the most famous portrait of George Washington in a brilliant act of patriotism.

Who would play her: Yes, I’m aware that Ginger Rogers played her in the 1946 movie Magnificent Doll, but it has a 13 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s barely historically accurate. Jennifer Lawrence would be a great choice for this party animal turned revolutionary.

Edith Wilson

Why she deserves a movie: Edith Wilson was the only woman to be a president’s second wife while in office, and she also served as Acting President when Woodrow Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1919. Wilson’s stroke left him debilitated to the point where Edith had to assume full duties of the President in a post-WWI United States. One Republican senator labeled her “the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man.” Reading newspapers voraciously, Edith presented the cabinet and Congress with “verbatim” notes from her bedridden husband that she herself thought up. These notes included debating the League of Nations and making decisions in the war’s aftermath.

Who would play her: Courteney Cox portrayed her in a hilarious episode of Drunk History, but if this were a dramatic retelling I’d have to pick Julia Roberts.

Harriet Lane

Why she deserves a movie: Harriet Lane was James Buchanan’s 27-year-old niece when she assumed the title of First Lady. Yep, you read that right. No, they weren’t married. They had a sort of “arrangement” for Buchanan’s “bachelorhood,” if you’re catching my flow. Lane was incredibly popular—ladies copied her hair and dress styles, especially her insistence of wearing lowered necklines (which infuriated Buchanan).

Harriet was also a bit of a brat: She couldn’t be bothered to entertain, she stole both vintage wine and men into private rooms during parties, and danced even though her uncle would not lift the White House ban on dancing. Harriet Lane is the YOLO First Lady, and it’s hard to believe she DGAF during a tense pre-Civil War time.

Who would play her: Rebel Wilson for the win.

Betty Ford

Why she deserves a movie: Other than being gorgeous and having a dope late-century wardrobe, Betty Ford was the first First Lady (and most notable political figure) to talk about her struggles with mental illness and addiction to painkillers openly. She watched her friend Pat Nixon go through Watergate, she was a huge proponent of legalizing abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, and she went through a mastectomy while her husband, Gerald Ford, was in office.

Betty also embraced ’70s pop culture—she was the first FLOTUS to appear on a sitcom (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), she discoed on the cabinet room table, and her style was distinctly groovy.

Last week, Melania Trump said that she wants to be a “traditional First Lady, like Betty Ford.” Maybe if this movie was made, Melania would realize how truly untraditional Betty was.

Who would play her: I wouldn’t mind an in-depth Julianne Moore performance!

Nancy Reagan

Why she deserves a movie: Nancy acted as Ronnie’s manager—kind of a White House Kris Kardashian. She also had a bizarre, Game of Thrones-like relationship with Ronald. When they weren’t playing social chess in Hollywood or DC, the two often wore matching outfits and published a strange book of their love letters. Nancy’s staunch belief in astrology was a huge impact on Reagan’s public life: She insisted he be inaugurated Governor of California at 12:10 a.m. and her personal psychic warned that there would be an “incident” the day her husband was shot. The couple carried good luck charms with them and both believed that Abraham Lincoln was haunting the White House.

Star charts aside, Nancy’s harsh views on drugs, her negligence of the AIDS epidemic, and her cold demeanor with her own children would make her a perfect candidate for a Mommy Dearest-style film.

Who would play her: Jane Fonda played Nancy in the recent movie The Butler, but after seeing Jean Smart’s portrayal of an evil mob matriarch in the second season of Fargo, it would have to be her.


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Claire Downs is a writer and comedian based out of Los Angeles. She's written for Nickelodeon, VH1, Funny or Die, and Hello Giggles. You can follow her on Twitter @clairecdowns. She prefers Indica to Sativa, in case you're wondering.



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