First Lady Movies: 6 of the Best On-Screen Portrayals

The president of the United States is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful positions in the world. However, while the commander-in-chief is often the subject of films, the woman behind the man too rarely gets her chance in the spotlight. After all, the first lady serves an integral role in any administration, oftentimes contributing an even more complex perspective on world events than her husband, a fact that is once again coming to light with the release of director Pablo Larraín’s Jackie.

By all accounts, star Natalie Portman may be vying for her second Academy Award for her tour-de-force performance as Jacqueline Kennedy in the days immediately following her husband’s assassination in 1963. With Jackie hitting theaters soon (and “for your consideration” ads sure to crop up anytime now), we’re checking in on some of the most memorable first lady performances ever put to film.

For the record, we’re considering both portrayals based on real-life women as well as fictional ones. In addition, television mini-series don’t qualify, since we’re looking specifically at feature films only.

1. Ellen Mitchell (Sigourney Weaver), Dave (1993)

This Ivan Reitman-directed comedy centers on a temp agency owner (Kevin Kline) who winds up impersonating the president when he enters a coma. As the first lady oblivious to the switch at first, Weaver brings her usual class and intelligence as well as her spot-on comic timing. For a film that follows the president himself so closely, Dave certainly does well to ensure that the first lady isn’t lost in the shuffle.

2. Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine), Guarding Tess (1994)

While the other entries on this list chronicle a first lady either before or during her White House stay, this comedy from director Hugh Wilson (The First Wives Club) hinges on the relationship between a widowed former first lady (Shirley MacLaine) and the Secret Service agent tasked to protect her (Nicolas Cage). Oscar winner MacLaine may be a bit more irascible than many other big-screen first ladies, but the film works thanks to her charm and chemistry with Cage.

3. Pat Nixon (Joan Allen), Nixon (1995)

Anthony Hopkins is Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s biopic about the controversial commander-in-chief. Both Hopkins and co-star, Joan Allen both landed Oscar nominations that year, Allen for her juicy role as the first lady who watches as her husband’s legacy comes crashing down around her. Allen’s strong presence only elevates the script that was co-written by Stone himself. The actress would later play a politician in her Oscar-nominated turn in the 2000 drama, The Contender.

4. Marilyn Whitmore (Mary McDonnell), Independence Day (1996)

Sure, everyone knows Bill Pullman’s rousing speech as President Thomas Whitmore in the third act of this Roland Emmerich blockbuster. Yet, the alien invasion film sneaks in a memorable turn by Mary McDonnell as the first lady herself. Though she doesn’t appear in too many scenes, McDonnell is completely believable in the role, a figure of grace and compassion that nicely complements her virtuous big-screen husband.

5. Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson), Primary Colors (1998)

The book on which this Mike Nichols film is based is a pretty thinly veiled story about President Bill Clinton’s bid for the White House. In that case, it falls to Emma Thompson to play the counterpart to John Travolta’s Clinton-esque Jack Stanton. Thankfully, the actress is more than up to the task of creating a fully developed, compelling character for the film, and Elaine May’s Oscar-nominated screenplay provides it for her.

6. Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks), W. (2008)

Another presidential film directed by Oliver Stone (the director also tackled JFK, by the way), this one sees Josh Brolin star as President George W. Bush. While the film itself received a decidedly mixed reaction from critics, the performances were praised across the board, including Elizabeth Banks as first lady Laura Bush. The usually comedic actress proves she has dramatic chops, and though the role never truly lets the actress take center stage, she offers effective support in a film where she could have easily gotten lost.

BONUS: Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), Lincoln (2012)

Most of the performances on this first lady list involve strong women remaining tough and holding their own with their powerful husbands. However, this Steven Spielberg film offers a more fragile lead female performance. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field — who earned an Oscar nomination for her work — represents the strain of living in the White House and turns in a complex, layered performance that more than holds its own against Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning turn as the titular president.

Follow Robert Yaniz Jr. on Twitter @CrookedTable

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