Elaine Benes For 'Veep'
"Glasses are like wheelchairs for the eyes," says Vice President Selina Meyer, just before rejecting their use. After all, politics is about appearance -- especially if you're a woman.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star of the new HBO series Veep, is the latest on a very short list of females who have taken on Washington on the small or big screen. Each portrayal has been different -- from the villainous back-stabber played by Patricia Wettig in Fox's Prison Break to the saintly but hapless Cherry Jones in 24 -- but Louis-Dreyfus is the first one to play the role for laughs. You could say that Veep is The West Wing reinvented by Ricky Gervais of The Office.
In fact, Louis-Dreyfus' and Gervais' characters share one very important comedic trait: ineffectuality. Jokes about the powerlessness of vice presidents abound on late-night TV:
"President Obama says his daughters will take care of the dog, but who picks up the dog's poop after the kids go to sleep? Well, that duty will fall on a low-level employee with nothing else to do. Joe Biden's going to be cleaning up." -- Craig Ferguson
"Vice President Joe Biden is on a trip to Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo. The White House is calling it 'Operation Keep Biden Away From the Microphones.'" -- Jay Leno
And on Veep, Louis-Dreyfus is continually reminded of just how small her influence is and how no one wants her opinions. A speech she is supposed to give is so severely redacted that she is all but reduced to talking about the weather. She continually asks her secretary if the president has called, only to be told that he has not. And when she visits a female senator to lobby for some important legislation, she sits and waits to begin talking until the senator finishes answering emails.
At the same time, you root for Veep Selina, who gives you the impression that at least once upon a time, she really did want to make a difference. Just not this way -- having to lobby for more environmentally friendly disposable party utensils.
Producers don't shy away from the fact that women politicians face tougher scrutiny about looks than their male counterparts. Who can forget the uproar in 2007 when Hilary Clinton showed a peek of cleavage? In an upcoming episode of Veep, a magazine pits Selina against the first lady in a faux war of clothing budgets and stylists. Selina is continually asked about the fashion "war" rather than her Clean Jobs Act, and her aide has to keep correcting Selina's Wikipedia page because someone keeps hacking into the site and changing her weight.
Interestingly, Selina has no significant male character to romance or support her, which makes her all the more like a modern 50-something woman. The only reference to her divorce is when she encourages her aide to accept a politically expedient invitation to dinner. "It's a date and no sex," she says. "For me, that was 12 years of marriage."
This "veep" is an everywoman with the same issues as many of us. She now takes her place alongside these six esteemed actresses who have also portrayed Washington executives:
1. Veep Under Terrorist Siege: Glenn Close as Vice President Kathryn Bennet in the action film Air Force One is thrust into the power position when President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) is hijacked on the presidential plane by terrorists. As if that weren't enough to ruin her day, she also has to contend with an uprising of the inner circle led by a hawkish (and sexist) Secretary of State. She stands her ground, tearing up an executive order declaring Marshall dead when he, of course, turns up alive, having tidily disposed of the terrorists. Who says a veep's life is dull?
2. Veep Under Political Siege: Joan Allen was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Senator Laine Hanson, a VP candidate in the 2000 film The Contender. A promising newcomer on the political scene, Hanson is forced to undergo grueling examination, which turns up a false accusation of sexual misconduct. She sticks to her guns throughout the film, making one wonder why she would go to all the trouble for a role that is basically powerless.
3. Reluctant Veep: Geena Davis as Vice President and then President Mackenzie Allen in the ABC drama Commander in Chief. The country's first female veep barely has time to get used to the role when the commander in chief has a stroke, forcing her to take the reins. Davis was terrific in the smart, peppery role, winning the best actress Emmy in 2005, but the series was canceled after 18 episodes. Perhaps the country wasn't yet ready for a female with her finger on the button?
4. Evil Veep: Patricia Wettig portrayed Vice President Caroline Reynolds in Fox's Prison Break as an overly ambitious politician who seeks to secure the presidency through any means necessary, including murder. (Perhaps she grew tired of those redacted speeches?) In one season finale, Reynolds secretly poisons and kills the president, and is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.
5. Saintly Chief Executive: Less than three weeks after Barack Obama's election, Cherry Jones debuted as TV's first female chief executive as President Allison Taylor on Fox's 24, which earned the actress a following and an Emmy. Flawed but noble, Taylor's undoing was her desire for peace, which caused her to take some shortcuts on human rights. Good thing that would never happen in real life.
6. Unqualified/Wannabe Veep: This list wouldn't be complete without mentioning Julianne Moore's astonishing recent turn as VP hopeful Sarah Palin in HBO's Game Change. No matter your politics, this is must-see viewing for anyone who wants an inside look at how running mates are chosen -- for better or for worse -- and how women can expect, at least for the near future, to get more attention for their wardrobe than their political acumen...or lack thereof.
SecondAct asks: Which female chief executive role is your favorite? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
Veep airs on HBO Sunday nights at 10 p.m.