What links Eleanor Roosevelt and The Simpsons to James Callaghan’s daughter?

With the launch of TV drama The First Lady, we go down the rabbit hole with Michelle Pfeiffer, Nora Ephron and Bill Clinton

Political theatre

Few roles in public life are stranger than the partner of the US president. Now comes a series on Paramount+ from 22 June dramatising the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama. Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Viola Davis play the first ladies.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford in The First Lady
In The First Lady, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Betty Ford … Photograph: AP

Checkin’, checkin’ in

Betty Ford’s troubles with addiction led her to co-found a rehab clinic, whose services were invoked in The Simpsons with Kickin’ It: A Musical Journey Through the Betty Ford Center. Betty and Gerald’s son Steven Ford had minor roles in Heat and Escape from New York. He was also Sally’s handsome boyfriend Joe in When Harry Met Sally.

Steven Ford in 1981
… whose son Steven was in When Harry Met Sally … Photograph: Getty Images

When Carl met Margaret

That film’s writer, Nora Ephron, is no stranger to political shenanigans, having been married to Watergate’s Carl Bernstein: their breakup, after his affair with James Callaghan’s daughter Margaret Jay, was the inspiration for her novel Heartburn – and a film directed by Mike Nichols.

Nora Ephron
… written by Nora Ephron, whose Heartburn was made into a film directed by Mike Nichols … Photograph: Getty Images

Add some colour

Nichols is also no stranger to political life – his wife was broadcaster Diane Sawyer, who worked in the Nixon administration before she pivoted to media. Last year, Nichols’s towering career was the subject of a well-received biography by the great journalist Mark Harris, who himself is married to the great playwright Tony Kushner. Buried in Kushner’s extensive back catalogue is Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, a little one-act about the Iraq invasion, told from the POV of first lady Laura Bush. Nichols turned his attention to more troubled political couples with Primary Colors, his thinly veiled story of a philandering Bill Clinton on the 92 campaign trail, based on the novel of the same name by Joe Klein, the artist formerly known as Anonymous.

Bill Clinton
… who also directed Primary Colors, a thinly veiled story of Bill Clinton … Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Hard choices

Of course, things didn’t go well when Bill’s wife, Hillary, threw off the first lady shackles and ran for president in 2008. She was primarily defeated by Barack Obama, and the rest is, as they say … the source of one-third of prestige drama series The First Lady. Viola Davis has prompted puzzled responses with her studied process of becoming Michelle Obama. “Critics serve no purpose,” Davis told the BBC. “I feel it is my job as a leader to make bold choices.” Spoken like a true politician.

Viola Davis
… whose wife, Hillary, is portrayed in The First Lady, in which Viola Davis plays Michelle Obama. Photograph: Shutterstock

Pairing notes

Read Curtis Sittenfeld has made first ladies her business. American Wife offered a fictional version of Laura Bush, while Rodham imagined Hillary’s solo political life if she had rebuffed Bill.

Eat When Michelle Obama visited London in 2009, she was spotted at traditional Mayfair pub the Audley. She had the steak; her daughters, fish and chips.

Black and white cartoon rabbits going down holes in a red line
Illustration: Guardian Design


Larry Ryan

The GuardianTramp

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