Finally, a Biopic Pays Attention to Hillary Clinton's Backstory

What Women Really Think
May 1 2013 10:17 AM

Rodham Will Put Hillary Clinton's Backstory on the Big Screen

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We are so overdue for a story about Hillary Rodham Clinton that's actually about Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Fans of feminist history rarely get gifts from the movie industry, much less ones gift-wrapped in really snazzy paper. But we got lucky: James Ponsoldt, who directed the tremendous indie romantic tragedy Smashed and this year's The Spectacular Now, will helm Rodham, a script from writer Young Il Kim, about Hillary Rodham Clinton's life and work in the early '70s.

It's not as if Hillary fans haven't gotten inventive portrayals of the former first lady and secretary of state before. Emma Thompson played Susan Stanton, the riff on Rodham created for the movie adaptation of the novel Primary Colors, which painted her as someone who mortgaged her self-respect to service her husband's ambition. And Sigourney Weaver played Elaine Barrish, a fantasy futuristic version of Hillary in last summer's USA Network miniseries Political Animals. The show took steps toward consecrating Hillary as an empowered nerd: Barrish ditches her cheating husband after losing a presidential primary, embraces a tenure as secretary of state, plans her son's wedding, and is deemed beautiful by shady ambassadors. Yet Weaver's portrayal, like Thompson's, only addressed Hillary as she existed After Bill, as if he, rather than her intellect or ambition, were the only force in her life.

Rodham's very different time period offers up a different opportunity: to tell a story about Hillary's work and the ambitions that have always been hers. It's easy to forget that Hillary was a promising political commodity before she was married, so much so that she was featured flashing Coke-bottle glasses, big hair, and smarts in Life magazine in 1969. Betsey Wright, who became an important adviser to Bill Clinton, concentrated on the possibilities for Hillary's career first. Pop-culture narratives about the Clintons also tend to ignore that Bill pursued Hillary, rather than the other way around. He followed her to a summer internship in California and repeatedly asked her to marry him. It's about time we see a version of Hillary Clinton who gets to be smart and sexy, rather than the lesser half of two for the price of one.

Though biopics often turn into vehicles for established older men to tee up for Oscar contention, Rodham sets aside a substantive historical role for a young actress. (Might I suggest Elizabeth Olsen?) And it should allow a whole  raft of people to collectively portray an era that's often ignored in favor of the glamour of the '60s. Hillary tutored future Labor Secretary Robert Reich at Yale Law School, worked for Marian Wright Edelman at the Children's Defense Fund, collaborated with future Massachusetts Gov. William Weld on the Watergate inquiry, and passed through feminist circles at Ms. magazine and the National Women's Political Caucus. Done right, Rodham could shine a much-needed light on the people who kept up with the hard work after the  idealism of the '60s wore off.  May it end up as a welcome revenge of the nerds, and of the Nerd Girl in Chief in particular.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.