There’s yet another political face-off coming in 2020. And this one involves Judith Light and Bette Midler.
Leave it to “The Politician,” the satirical take on American wealth and ambition from the minds of “Glee” collaborators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, to concoct such a scenario.
Now available to stream on Netflix, the series tracks the political rise of Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a success-obsessed teen determined to one day become president of the United States. The first season looks at Payton’s cutthroat tactics on his quest to become senior class president at his preppy Santa Barbara high school and gain admission to Harvard. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
While Payton achieved his goals, he’s ultimately forced to resign as class president and his offer of admission to Harvard is rescinded. The season finale, directed by Falchuk, opens with a three-year time jump — a down-on-his-luck Payton is now at New York University, drinking incessantly and spending his nights at a bar where he belts out tunes like Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” But the episode also sets up Season 2, introducing two new characters: majority leader and New York state Sen. Dede Standish (Light) and her loyal chief of staff, Hadassah Gold (Midler).
“When I first saw them in a [scene] together, I said ‘Holy …'” Murphy told The Times.
“It’s literally my dream board come to life,” is how Platt described it.
The roles for Light, 70, and Midler, 73, in “The Politician” add to Murphy’s efforts to challenge ageism toward women in Hollywood. Female characters on TV tend to skew younger than male. For the 2018-19 season, the majority of female characters were in their 20s and 30s (56%); 18% were in their 40s and just 4% were 60 or older, according to the annual “Boxed In” study conducted by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Murphy has consistently cast women of a certain age in prominent roles, including Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett and Susan Sarandon.
“You see it everywhere in his work,” Light said. “I mean, look at his relationship with Jessica Lange. He carries that appreciation for those who have been around a long time. He is one of the few people operating in this vein and giving us the kind of characters that aren’t just one-dimensional. They’re rich, bold, complicated, multi-layered women.”
“The Politician” reunites Light and Murphy; she previously appeared in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” as beauty product empress Marilyn Miglin, the wife of Andrew Cunanan’s third murder victim. The project marks the first time Murphy has worked with Midler.
“We wrote this part for [Judith] without knowing if she could do it,” Murphy said. “And we started writing Hadassah with Bette in mind because I always wanted to work with her. Brad, Ian and myself loved Bette’s reign of terror at Disney in the ’80s — the ‘Big Business’ and the ‘Ruthless People.’ They’re both fantastic.”
There’s a lot at play in what Dede and Hadassah represent. Early on in the episode, Light’s Dede is approached by a senator from Texas who has enlisted her to be his running mate for the U.S. presidency — which would make her the first woman vice president if they won. It’s a prospect of historic proportions that delights Dede and Hadassah, who’ve both grown politically complacent. An established politician in the Democratic Party who is hardly attuned to her constituents’ needs, Dede has gone unopposed for more than a decade. But her tenure is threatened as Platt’s Payton, re-energized by his inner circle, gets back on his political path and runs against Dede in a state senate race that will play out next season.
“Dede and Hadassah have been in the political realm for a really long time, with this idea that there’s nobody that’s going to come in and take this away from them,” Light said. “There’s this ownership and confidence ... at one point, she turns to Hadassah and says, ‘I don’t need to be worried about this, do I?’ We both sort of shake it off. And that’s not a very smart way for any politician to operate at any point in time in their career.”
The showdown has echoes of the 2018 New York congressional primary between state political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House of Representatives member Joseph Crowley.
“We knew Season 2 would come out in the summer of 2020,” Murphy said. “And one of the things we were wanting to write about is this idea of age and experience and the status quo versus youth and the energy of a more progressive, younger candidate. You can see that with somebody like AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. You can see the passing of the torch and the generational clash. We wanted to write to that.”
How deeply the loyalty runs between Dede and Hadassah will likely be an important thread next season. In chic, crisp pantsuits, they’re introduced as yin and yang. Hadassah knows the name of Dede’s preferred lipstick shade — MAC Lustre Politely Pink — and has it on hand in her purse. They go back so long, Hadassah quips while giving the Texas senator’s aide a tongue-lashing, that she’s worked with Dede “since the Earth’s crust was cooling.”
“Hadassah is not just her chief of staff — she’s her mother, her office wife, the person who does all the killing for her, basically,” Midler says. “I think when two people have come up through the ranks together like that, they really have a shorthand. I don’t think there’s anything they don’t know about each other.”
Or could there be?
The season finale lets viewers in on a secret that could damage Dede’s political career if it got out: She’s involved in a throuple with her husband (Joe Morton) and another man (Teddy Sears) — revealed in a steamy bedroom scene that culminates with Light’s character sensually whispering, “Devil’s Triangle.” It’s unclear if Hadassah is aware of the three-way romance: “I’m not sure what she knows,” Midler said. “Ryan didn’t answer that question and we’re not going to spoil it for anybody, either. So, I’m waiting to see what happens.”
Murphy said the plot development partially stemmed from Light’s performance in “Versace” as a wife in a sexless marriage.
“I wanted to do the opposite of that,” Murphy said. “Let’s give her something that you’ve really never seen, where a woman of that stature and that station in her life is sexually desired not just by one man, but two... ‘More Judith Light in bed is always better,’ was my motto. And, look, [Judith’s character] is the architect of that relationship. She’s the one with all the power.”
Light has been thrilled by the responses to the unconventional romance, noting that the common refrain is: “Oh my God.” It’s not the first time she’s taken part in a groundbreaking, provocative and most importantly normalizing depiction of an older woman owning her pleasure. In the second season of “Transparent,” her character had an orgasm in a bathtub after being fondled by her former spouse (Jeffrey Tambor).
“There’s this idea that after you reach a certain age, you’re dead. You’re not attractive or attracted,” Light said. “But we’re sexual beings. And so this kind of interaction is so awakening, I think, for a lot of people.”
As for the series’ central subject — unbridled ambition — Light and Midler’s perspectives have changed with age.
Light said she prefers not to use the word: “It’s not ambition. Ambition means different things to different people. But, generally, it has the connotation of grabbing for, need for, want for, desperate for ... I don’t hold it like that. I used to in the very beginning of my career. It was, what was I going to get? How was I going to get it? And that was all from my ego. I was brought up short when things weren’t happening for me the way I thought they ‘should’ ... I don’t hold it like that anymore.”
“I was crazy. I was completely driven,” Midler said. “The interesting thing is that I’m not anymore. I was under a spell, I was enchanted, I was mesmerized by this life [when I was younger]. I almost think it was hormonal in a way. Because after I was menopausal, it sort of drifted away. The ambitions drifted away and all that was left was the work. And if you like the work, and if you like creation — the creation of characters or the creation of anything — then that becomes your reason to go on, as opposed to, ‘I have to get there, I have to show everybody I can get there.’”
While Light and Midler are veterans of the Broadway and New York scenes, they had never worked together before “The Politician.” Light said between takes, if they weren’t running their lines, they talked about living in New York and L.A.
“Getting to play with Bette was such a treat,” Light said. “Actually, ‘delicious’ is the word I would use.”
Midler said of her costar: “She looks very elegant and prestigious but, underneath it all, she really could go for the throat. It’s wonderful to watch.”
The actresses are mindful that the themes of the upcoming presidential election will inform the new season. Light, who said she’s usually averse to talking politics during interviews, said she isn’t modeling her character after any particular politician. Ask Murphy, and he’ll say Dede is in a league of her own, but “there’s a little bit of Elizabeth Warren in her. There’s a little bit of Dianne Feinstein in her.”
Midler, who is outspoken about her political beliefs, said she’s been trying to get more into the mind-set of her character as she gears up for Season 2. She’s had talks with a chief of staff for a politician.
“He’s filled me in on a lot of things, a lot of the behaviors and the corruption that goes on,” Midler said. “Hadassah is the power behind the throne. And I think that’s fine for her. She’s not the puppet master, but she’s the hammer. She’s the enforcer and she likes that. You see in the finale how strident she can be. But I don’t think they’ve shown how manipulative she can be.”
Really, though, the actresses are just ready to hold their own against their younger counterparts.
“Oh, my sweetheart Ben,” Light said. “I can’t wait to take him on.”