Jessica Chastain, Scarlett Johansson, and Reese Witherspoon, oh my! Hollywood actresses are reportedly lining up to audition to play Hillary Rodham in Young Il Kim’s Rodham, a biopic of the former secretary of state, senator, and first lady that focuses on her time on the Watergate impeachment inquiry committee in the mid-’70s. So who should get the part?
On sheer physical resemblance to a young Rodham, I’d toss Elizabeth Olsen’s name in the ring. But looks alone don’t make a performance, especially when we are talking about a subject so different from most career-oriented Hollywood heroines.
Hillary is far from being an Erin Brockovich-style crusader in a push-up bra. As Melissa Silverstein of Women And Hollywood has noted, the first physical description of Rodham in the script is as “A blonde girl whose face is hidden behind an awful haircut and a hideous pair of Coke-Bottle glasses. Her tie-dyed t-shirt has a faded ‘AuH20’ on it. She’s the valedictorian of the ‘look-like-shit school of feminism.’ ” But unlike a typical movie ugly duckling, whose beauty eventually emerges after a dramatic makeover that leads to her getting her man, Rodham gets pursued by—and has pretty hot sex with—Bill Clinton without having to change a thing about herself. The “look-like-shit school of feminism,” as it turns out, doesn’t look like shit to everyone.
That’s a relatively radical idea to get into a big Hollywood movie, as is the narrative that young Bill and Hillary quite literally got off on each other’s ideas, whether they were talking about his political strategies in Arkansas or her legal work for the impeachment inquiry. In the movies, a commitment to justice has to get paired with a tight pencil skirt, but Rodham is a rare chance for public service to stand on its own as the thing that makes a woman luminously compelling to a man. (Emma Thompson nailed the sense of intellectual connection between Bill and Hillary, or at least fictionalized versions of them, in Primary Colors. But that movie depicted political work as the last thing that was holding together a failing marriage, rather than the thing that was driving a sizzling affair between two brilliant young people.)
So who plays a young Hillary isn’t just a matter of physical resemblance, but a willingness and ability to show that work and ideas can be the very things that make a woman attractive. Even more than nailing Hillary Rodham’s haircuts or accent, getting right that rebuke to movie-making convention will be the real accomplishment for any actress who takes the assignment.