THE BLOG
05/13/2008 05:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Casting Hillary: The Movie

Is she Barbara Stanwyck of Night Nurse and Baby Face? The pre-Code 1930s Stanwyck was a tough cookie who did not stay home baking them.

Sally Field, Hillary Rodham Clinton's contemporary, could play her on screen. The Oscar winner for Norma Rae won again for Places in the Heart and understands politics. "You like me," she told Academy voters in 1986. "Right now, you like me." Also, her Flying Nun best describes the Clinton campaign's caucus-state strategy.

If there's box-office potential in a movie about George and Laura Bush, then casting Hillary could become the biggest audience-participation show since moviegoers kibitzed Hollywood's choice for Scarlett O'Hara in 1939's Gone With the Wind. Anyone remotely interested in showbiz must acknowledge that the junior senator from New York is a trouper.

Acting and politics are cousins. The former head of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, mused in 1988 that he used to wonder how an actor could become president. After eight years in the White House, he now wondered how anyone could be president without being an actor.

Candidates are actors, too. Either that, or Hillary's many competent biographers failed to inform us of her membership in the Wellesley College Rod & Gun Club and Yale Law School's venerable Chug-a-Lug Society. The former first lady, having absorbed hubby Bill's thespian skills up close, is ready for her own close-up. What screen stars does she evoke? Emma Thompson (any politician should be so lucky) has already played a Hillarylike character in Primary Colors, based on Joe Klein's novel.

Now, no cheap shots: off the menu is Glenn Close's bunny-boiling turn ("I won't be ignored!") in Fatal Attraction. Ditto for Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz."

In 2007, when she symbolized inevitability and invincibility, Hillary was Helen Mirren, not the tough-cookie cop in Prime Suspect, but the title role in The Queen. The primary

struggle changed demure into scrappy, the royal carriage became a flag-draped pickup, and the scene shifted abruptly from Jane Austen to Jane Greer and film noir's tough-talking chorus: Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, Gloria Grahame. Throughout 2008, Hillary has confronted adversity the way Sigourney Weaver tackled Alien. This campaigner has affected more accents than Meryl Streep while channeling a dozen divas.

Katharine Hepburn's Hartford hauteur offended moguls in the 1930s and they labeled her "box-office poison," much the way superdelegates from the Plains and Rocky Mountains, where the Democratic party is fragile, regard Hillary. Hepburn went on to win 12 Oscar nominations and four Oscars. Carol Burnett represents the senator's longest lunge for inspiration. In a debate, Clinton called for "massive retaliation" against Iran, using a Cold War phrase long discredited. In the 1950s, Burnett starred in the show "Once Upon A Mattress," singing "I Made A Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles."

Way off Broadway, Bill Clinton has been visiting towns often ignored by county commissioners, while his wife has become a rural gal, droppin' them final consonants at the tail end of them fightin' gerunds. Together, they recall Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main, stars of Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki and The Kettles in the Ozarks. The obvious sequel is Ma and Pa Kettle Run for President.

The screwball comedy was the high tide of feminism in Hollywood. Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday showed Hillaryesque spunk. Jean Harlow, too, especially in Bombshell from 1933, a funny, yet poignant account of a movie star done in by a squabbling staff. Harlow portrays Lola Burns, exploited by a scheming publicist-strategist, Space Hanlon, played by the cheerfully cynical Lee Tracy, whose resemblance to Clinton strategists is less cheerful than chilling.

For energy, determination and indomitable pluck, the prize for the most Hillaryesque candidate goes to an actress born 100 years ago. Her large-eyed gaze in "The Petrified Forest" in 1936 captivated audiences and even studio tycoons, with whom she feuded throughout her life. For decades Bette Davis dominated the screen, still battling the bosses. In 1950, according to David Thomson's magisterial "Biographical Dictionary of Film," Bette "took her greatest part, Margo Channing in All About Eve," a stage star who won't be ignored, shouting "peace and quiet are for libraries!"

In a mid-century monologue, Margo sums up the demographic strength and enduring dilemma of a serious female candidate running for president 58 years later: "Funny business, a woman's career, the things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. It's one career all females have in common -- being a woman."

The film won six Oscars, including one for director Joe Mankiewicz, who assembled a cast with strong women: Celeste Holm, Anne Baxter and Marilyn Monroe, all of whom Davis treated with disdain. As Thomson writes, "What sort of actress is Margo Channing? Not just ham, but ham baked in honey, and studded with cloves."

In a birthday tribute to Bette Davis, Turner Classic Movies asked other actresses to describe her. "She never played it safe," said Jane Fonda. Ellen Burstyn said Davis urged her to "make your own enemies. How do you recognize your enemies? Anyone who gets in the way of your work."