Arts, Culture & Entertainment

Cardinal Sins: ‘The First Lady’

The first episode of Showtime’s biopic series gets mixed reviews from these USC students.

Three separate images of Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, in separate scenes from Showtime's The First Lady."

Prof. Miki Turner’s feature writing students have learned the art of the two-minute pitch and now the two-minute critique. After watching “The First Lady” the students recorded their thoughts on the show during a two-minute time limit. Cardinal Sins will be a recurring feature on this site.

Chelsea Hylton

A headshot of USC student, Chelsea Hylton.

“Showtime’s new limited series, “First Lady,” takes the time to examine the lives of three historical first ladies that seemed to challenge the stereotypes of how a first lady should be. The narrative of the show is based on the lives of Michelle Obama, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt from even before their husbands held the seat of the presidency. Viola Davis stars as the young Michelle Obama and truly embodies the apprehension, worry and conviction that our former first lady had as she prepared to step into her role. Davis seems to fully dive into her role, even mimicking the talking style of Obama with her pursed lips and eloquent way of speaking. This may sound a bit strange, but it seemed like Davis even walked in the same manner that Obama does. Needless to say, Davis did her job and was doing our former first lady justice.”

—  Chelsea Hylton

Catherine Orihuela

A headshot fo Catherine Orihuela in a green shirt and jeans surrounded by greenery

“It’s one thing for an actor to take on the role of playing a real person. But it’s quite another for them to actually become that person. This is exactly what the three leading ladies of “The First Lady” have accomplished in just the first episode of the series. Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeifer and Gillian Anderson—who respectively play Michelle Obama, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt—step into their characters with alarming precision. All three performances are powerful and moving in their own ways, from Anderson’s subtle turns of phrase and Pfeifer’s silent gaze to Davis’ perfect mimetic gestures and intonations. Though Davis has mastered the way Obama puckers her lips, her walk and expressive hand gestures, the portrayal seems a bit too soon. Enough time and distance from the public discourse have passed for performances of Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt to feel justified and new, but a Michelle Obama portrayal needs more time to mature. At the very least, the show’s producers should have waited at least 10 years after the Obamas left the White House before approaching Davis and starting work on the show. Surprisingly, one of the biggest letdowns of the episode is O-T Fagbenle’s portrayal of Barack Obama which is, in one word, cringy. Fagbenle focuses more on trying to sound like the former president, rather than delivering a powerful performance through what he says. President Obama is a captivating speaker, and that does not come through in this performance. But to give Fagbenle some credit, he does have a comeback later in the episode during a more intimate scene with Davis where Barack tells Michelle that his campaign is so much bigger than just the two of them. Fagbenle’s performance aside, the pilot episode of “The First Lady” sets the tone for a very promising series that will hopefully dig deeper into the lives of these three remarkable women.”

—  Catherine Orihuela

Maya Abu-Zahra

A headshot of USC student, Maya Abu-Zahra.

“Day-to-day life might be mundane for most, but for first ladies in the White House, that certainly isn’t the case. Showtime’s “The First Lady” plays back the lives of the First Ladies—from Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle Obama—and unravels any misplaced notions the public might have of presidential life. And while the flashbacks serve as a captivating form for divulging details of their personal life, it wasn’t nearly as compelling as the actual performances of the first ladies. Betty Ford, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, tipped off the resilient and fiery nature of the first ladies. Each of their performances was somewhat oriented toward their opinions of their husbands as presidents, whether they signed up for it or not and how they were dealing with it. While this theme resonated throughout the episode, the nuances of each shined through: Roosevelt’s resolute confidence in her husband despite his diagnosis with polio, Fords’ fortitude in discussing mental health and Obama’s laudable apprehension in Obama becoming president. Eerie stillness defined Gillian Anderson’s interpretation of Roosevelt, that is with her hard-to-look-away protruding set of teeth. Her few words captured the essence of Roosevelt and her faith in her husband. Viola Davis’ interpretation of Michelle Obama exceeded, almost awkwardly, OT Fagbenle’s interpretation of Barack Obama. Her unadulterated expression of protecting her family over the newfound power of her husband spoke volumes and ran as one of the main themes of the show. Simply from the depiction of their unique initiatives, one can tell the ongoing storyline of struggle, advocacy and sudden fame in their place as first ladies.”

—  Maya Abu-Zahra

Victoria L. Westover

A headshot of USC student, Victoria L. Westover.

“The lead actresses in Showtime’s “The First Lady” (Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt) bring to life the unalterable truths behind being America’s first lady—the danger, the difficulty, the awkwardness and the unconditional love that is needed for anyone to survive the White House for four (plus) years. Episode one, “That White House,” showcases how first ladies Obama, Ford and Roosevelt began their iconic legacies. While Obama, Ford and Roosevelt’s lives were forever changed by their husband’s political ambitions, Davis, Pfeiffer and Anderson’s acting makes it clear that each first lady approached the situation differently: Obama with reluctance, Ford with pluck and Roosevelt with resolve (in regard to the gubernatorial race, not the White House, for now.) The audience immediately sees Davis’ remarkable ability to transform into her character. In the opening scene, Davis speaks and poses exactly like Obama, in the way she puckers her mouth and in the way her face rests and moves. While Davis’ exaggerated lip-puckering to mimic Obama grew slightly distracting as the show went on, I remained convinced that no one could play her better than Davis. The acting was unmatched. Davis was even able to master the way Obama walks—with a slight sway, a tad of a stagger and shoulders hunched slightly forward. Davis shows Obama for who she is—a real woman, wife and mother. Davis opened her palms in frustration and her eyes darted at the White House decor, unveiling Obama’s uneasiness at where she found herself: the most powerful house in the world. Davis and Pfeiffer portray Obama and Ford’s motherly instincts in incredibly opposite but similarly effective ways. Davis plays into a mother-bear personality, defending her two young daughters while Pfeiffer taps into a younger version of herself while playing the mother to an older and composed daughter who I couldn’t help but admire, played by Dakota Harris. Pfeiffer played the feisty, young-at-heart Ford wonderfully. Ford’s alcohol problem was portrayed perfectly; Pfeiffer drunkenly danced and grooved barefoot to Harry Nilsson’s cabana music. Pfeiffer also brings to light the awkwardness of becoming a “prim and proper first lady” throughout the show. Pfeiffer was able to express embarrassment, pride and awkwardness all at once when Ford fumbled with her wine glass, purse and microphone when she made her first public appearance as Second Lady. But Pfeiffer was sure to never let the expression of embarrassment win out to ensure that the audience knows that Ford was a confident force to be reckoned with, with a quirky yet pleasing personality. Anderson immediately created awkward tension between her and Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Franklin Roosevelt, to unveil to the audience a degree of marital struggle. While Anderson and Sutherland do not play love birds in the show, they are able to express a deep devotion towards each other in small glances and touches. Anderson helps bring to life the idea that the Roosevelts were more life partners than lovers. Another reason why the lead actresses might have shined so much in this episode is because of the lack of believable acting from two of the male figures, Sutherland and O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama. Both performances felt forced. It was as though Sutherland and Fagbenle were impersonating the presidents rather than acting like them. This was in large part due to both actors’ failed yet entertaining attempts to speak like the former presidents. To be fair, it might be because it is nearly impossible to impersonate Obama perfectly due to his recognizable and well-known voice and speaking habits. But O-T Fagbenle’s performance did become a tad comical as the show progressed. While the accents need a little work, I do think that the viewer was supposed to dislike and not feel deeply connected to Barack Obama in this episode and only feel that connection with Michelle. It often seemed like the former president was giving a speech instead of having a conversation with his wife. It wasn’t until late in the first episode that he became a real character. And maybe that was the point. It was to highlight Michelle’s experiences and what she went through and not focus on the former president as much, because he was always the focus.”

—  Victoria L. Westover

Pauline Woodley

A headshot of USC student, Pauline Woodley.

“On “Saturday Night Live,” powerhouse celebrities portray caricatures of different characters. Some are historical figures, some are current political candidates and others are current pop stars. Sadly, those same performances can be seen in Showtime’s “The First Lady.” Viola Davis is Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer is Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson is Eleanor Roosevelt. All are dedicated to their craft, all overacting to the point of cringe-inducing performances. This is especially apparent in Davis’ portrayal of Obama. With pursed lips and thinly plucked eyebrows, Davis is entirely recognizable as herself, not the previous first lady she was meant to embody. Though the premise is intriguing, “The First Lady” provides distracting makeovers that blanket the subject matter. Truth be told, I wish “The First Lady” leaned on subtlety rather than star-power. Instead of allowing these women their time in the spotlight, Obama, Ford and Roosevelt were outshone yet again by the celebrities tasked with portraying them.”

—  Pauline Woodley

Savannah Thomas

A headshot of USC student, Savannah Thomas.

“Showtime’s newest mini-series, “The First Lady,” follows the stories of three women—Michelle Obama, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt—as they navigate their marriages with their prolific president husbands. The writing, makeup, hair, costumes, plotlines, cinematography and set design are all worthy of praise, but it is truly the acting that sets this show apart. Viola Davis is certainly the stand-out actress, even among her star-studded castmates. Perhaps because the Obama family is the most recent to leave the White House and Michelle Obama’s distinct personality is still fresh in our minds, it’s natural to pick apart Davis’ performance as Obama. But Davis perfectly captures the sheer amount of panic, awe, stress and fatigue that can rattle even as cool a woman as the former first lady. Davis’ impressive acting is captured in her smaller mannerisms: during the scene when she’s first meeting the Bush family, Davis makes the choice to shake the first lady’s hand and reflexively reach up to pat down her hair. Something about that small gesture conveys a lot—Obama might have been hyper-aware of her own image as a tall, dark-skinned Black woman having her picture taken next to a much smaller, older white woman. This small gesture conveyed to the audience how her public image was something she needed to work hard to maintain, and how often she would need to be camera-ready in the future. Michelle Pfeiffer’s interpretation of Betty Ford was surprising in the best way possible. Although Pfeiffer’s character seemed almost like a parody of what a first lady should be for most of the pilot episode, that facade melted away when her character snapped in the last few minutes before credits rolled. Pfeiffer—or Ford—learns of her husband’s intention to take up the president’s role post-Watergate and loses her composure. Audiences are able to see the real frustration and fear for her plans, for her family and for her own personal freedom to voice a dissenting opinion. Similar to Davis, Pfeiffer’s interpretation of Ford goes beyond the image of what a first lady should be—calm, quiet and a devoted wife to her husband. Instead, audiences are able to see that Pfeiffer’s character is constantly up against a force much bigger than herself (in this case, the constant monitoring of her words and actions as a first lady), and is put into such a precarious situation as a result of her husband’s desire for the presidency. She comes off as more human and more empathetic than her title (or her alcoholism) would lead people to believe. Likewise, Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt was impressive and nuanced. Anderson’s portrayal of Roosevelt makes it very clear to audiences that her husband is not the one in charge. Anderson gives Roosevelt the dimension and texture that’s often missing from female historical figures, and the writers of the show make sure to highlight that Roosevelt had dreams of her own outside of her husband’s career. That’s not to say that the show doesn’t have a few criticisms—the various, jumbled plotlines and constant flashbacks are enough to give the audience whiplash. While Davis’ and Anderson’s attempts to mimic their character’s speech patterns occasionally come off corny and forced. But all of that aside, “The First Lady” is truly a series worth investing time in. Not only are the performances and storyline spectacular, but this series is one of the few times when women over the age of 25 are highlighted in television or cinema. It’s a great show, and has a lot of potential to be one of the best-released pieces in 2022.”

—  Savannah Thomas

“The First Lady” is available to stream now on Showtime.