Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, first lady (1974-1977); Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, first lady (2009-2017); Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady (1933-1945) in “The First Lady” (2022). Photograph: Ramona Rosales/Showtime.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, first lady (1974-1977); Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, first lady (2009-2017); Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady (1933-1945) in “The First Lady” (2022). Photograph: Ramona Rosales/Showtime.

Betty Ford once said, “Any woman should have the right to a safe and legal abortion.” Who knew the wife of a Republican politician would have this view? Actually, there’s a lot about the first (and second) lady of the 1970s that today’s voters probably don’t know.

A leader in the feminist movement, the Chicago native supported equal pay for women. She also drew from her own experience to raise awareness of breast cancer and alcoholism, founding the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction.

These and other facts are touched on in Showtime’s The First Lady (2022) directed by Susanne Bier. The 10-part anthology series intertwines Ford’s story with narratives on former first ladies Michelle Obama and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Back in 2014, the second season of Comedy Central’s Drunk History also covered the contributions of three first ladies. Aptly titled “First Ladies,” episode 10 features Alia Shawkat as Frances Cleveland (the popular, charitable and youngest first lady); Courteney Cox as Edith Wilson (who secretly ran the country after Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke); and Casey Wilson as Dolley Madison (who saved priceless pieces from the White House when it was under attack in 1814).

Casey Wilson as Dolley Madison, first lady (1809-1817); Alia Shawkat as Frances Cleveland, first lady (1886-1889, 1893-1897) with Bobby Moynihan as President Grover Cleveland; Courteney Cox as Edith Wilson, first lady (1915-1921) in Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” (2014).

Drunk History creator/director Jeremy Konner uses humor and brevity to relay the often overlooked accomplishments of these women. With the exception of the Betty Ford segment, Showtime’s soap operatic series retraces familiar territory.

Michelle Pfeiffer, Aaron Eckhart, and Dakota Fanning are well cast as Betty, Gerald, and Susan Ford, respectively. But Gillian Anderson’s diminutive stature makes a less convincing Eleanor Roosevelt. Fortunately, the always excellent Ellen Burstyn is on hand to play FDR’s mother Sara Delano Roosevelt.

Kiefer Sutherland may not be an obvious choice as Franklin D. Roosevelt but he’s definitely more believable than Bill Murray, who played the four-term president in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012). Yes, there’s no shortage of material on the Roosevelts.

In addition to Eleanor’s biography being told in documentaries (The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Restless Spirit, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, American Experience: Eleanor Roosevelt), fictional accounts of her character have been portrayed in movies (Warm Springs, FDR: American Badass!); a miniseries (Eleanor and Franklin); and on TV shows (The Simpsons, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow).

With so much existing content on Eleanor, First Lady creator Aaron Cooley could have profiled the lesser-known yet equally-important Edith Wilson. And opting for the 19th century’s Frances Cleveland over the 21st century’s Michelle Obama would have proved less problematic since no one knows if she pursed her lips.

Although Viola Davis has an Oscar, Emmy and two Tonys, she doesn’t have a handle on Michelle’s mouth. Not since Beanie Feldstein played Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story (2021) has the small screen seen such an unflattering portrayal. Unless it’s a parody, Davis’s caricaturist performance (paired with O-T Fagbenle’s impersonation of Barack Obama) seems better suited for Saturday Night Live.

Audiences willing to sit through nearly 10 hours of footage (preferably fast-forwarding to the Betty Ford scenes) can stream The First Lady on Showtime. More recommended is a 22-minute viewing of Drunk History’s “First Ladies” (season 2/episode 10) on Hulu.

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Janet Arvia

Ms. Arvia is a Rebellious columnist and movie critic; entertainment ghostwriter; award-winning artist; and grant-winning filmmaker.