Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama are inspiring, fascinating women, but as characters on Showtime's new miniseries The First Lady, they've got nothing on Betty Ford. Each episode dips in and out of each of their stories, but where Roosevelt and Obama largely come across as preordained for the role, Ford is allowed to be as ugly as she is beautiful, as terrified as she is poised, and as pitiable as she is uplifting. In other words, she's a fantastic heroine, and she absolutely steals the show.
Take the premiere episode, when Betty (Michelle Pfeiffer) stands before a room of political wives in 1970s Washington to address a scandal about her husband Gerald (Aaron Eckhart) supposedly seeing a psychiatrist. She makes the room gasp when she discloses that it was her psychiatrist, and that Jerry only saw him as part of her treatment. Pfeiffer plays several emotions leading up to this revelation: She's nervous about being the center of attention. She's hopeful she can do some good for her husband's career. She's increasingly irritated that she's been dragged into the political spotlight to begin with. (Gerald Ford was only appointed Vice President and then President after Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon both resigned in disgrace. He never ran for either office.)
And then, as she's standing there at the podium, we see Betty Ford push all that aside and decide, to hell with it, she'll just tell these women what she's really thinking. She'd return to this playbook over rest of her public life, which included frank discussions of her breast cancer and her battle with substance abuse.
Dramatically speaking, it's satisfying to watch a woman who never asked for influence realize that she should go ahead and make the most of it. And as the series progresses, she's made even more compelling because we see how bleak her life was in the years before the White House. From her abusive first marriage and her dashed hopes of becoming a dancer to a pill addiction that was enabled by her doctors, she spends long stretches at rock bottom. Both Pfeiffer and Kristine Froseth, who plays the younger Betty, capture how frustrating it must have been for a woman of her intelligence, pluck, and decency to be thwarted so many times.
And so, when Betty finally thrives, the show convinvingly frames her as a true woman of the people. She may not be as well-remembered as Michelle Obama and Eleanor Roosevelt, but on this show she's the one we root for the most.
The First Lady premieres on Showtime Sunday, April 17 at 9:00 PM ET. New episodes drop Sundays through June 19.
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Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: The First Lady, Showtime, Aaron Eckhart, Kristine Froseth, Michelle Pfeiffer