Lady Bird, as Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson was better known, is a nickname that conjures the frivolous and fanciful, but the fiftysomething woman from east Texas who emerges in Dawn Porter’s elegant documentary The Lady Bird Diaries was a paragon of substance. She was also a documentarian in her own right, chronicling her time in the White House over 123 hours of audio recordings that were released after her death in 2007.
With the exception of the wildflower footage captured by Porter at the Johnson family ranch in Texas, the film solely utilizes archived audio and video materials from Lyndon B Johnson’s presidency between 1963 and 1969, including the 1963 assassination of John F Kennedy. Inspired by an ABC News podcast, Porter’s piece is a captivating visual montage of America in the mid-20th century, highlighting one of its most intriguing figures.
According to Porter, being a first lady is typically associated with feminine roles such as caring for children, promoting reading, and tending to food gardens. However, Johnson broke tradition by not limiting herself to just these activities. She was actively involved in politics and served as an adviser and tutor to the president. In fact, there is a recording of her giving her husband grades on his speeches. Porter believes that there is always room for improvement and does not think her husband received many A-pluses.
The Johnsons had high standards for one another, reflecting the depth of their love and commitment. According to Porter, their relationship could be seen as a love story. He believes that the strongest marriages are those where each individual sees their partner as the most intelligent and capable person. When Porter met the Johnsons’ daughters, they confirmed this by saying, “Daddy always thought Mom was the smartest person he ever knew.”
Finding archival footage featuring her film’s subject was a bit of a treasure hunt, as scant material was catalogued with her name. “When we started and put in the words ‘Lady Bird Johnson’, very little came back,” the director said. Porter had better luck when she searched by the date and the names of other people who had been on the scenes of Johnson’s recounting. “She’s not noted in the description of the footage, and yet she’s right there in the middle of all of these events,” Porter said. “And I think that’s the story for a lot of women.”
Johnson’s tapes are filled with personal details, including her worries about her husband’s health and her own struggles with being in the public eye. She also documented her professional endeavors, such as helping with her husband’s re-election campaign and working towards environmental and anti-poverty initiatives. She was also the first First Lady to have her own staff, led by fellow Texan Liz Carpenter. Interestingly, Carpenter’s son, who enjoyed recording himself singing, owned the tape recorder that Johnson utilized.
The movie by Porter portrays Johnson’s efforts to beautify Washington DC as more than just a way to improve its appearance. Johnson went into impoverished neighborhoods, mostly inhabited by Black people, and recognized the need for outdoor spaces, playgrounds, and peaceful, beautiful places for children. She was not simply planting flowers. The movie also discusses a few controversies, such as when singer Eartha Kitt publicly criticized Johnson at a luncheon for the way the Johnson administration was handling the Vietnam war. However, the film remains firmly focused on Johnson’s perspective. Porter explained, “This is not a revealing movie. My goal was to showcase her viewpoint on the events.”
Porter noted that the subject of the film, Lady Bird, was meticulous in her documentation through recorded tapes. As someone who has worked on many projects, Porter has encountered instances where people’s recollections of events differ from what is found in archival material due to the fallibility of memory. However, in Lady Bird’s case, her version of events was eerily accurate, supported by the extensive collection of recorded footage.
Porter’s next two projects are about a reporter who embedded with the New York police department and ended up proving the innocence of a handful of wrongfully convicted inmates, as well as a film on the musician Luther Vandross, who died in 2005. While some documentarians like the immediacy of shadowing living subjects, Porter said that working with pre-existing footage guarantees an added layer of authenticity. “They’re not being interviewed for your movie so they’re not performing for you in any way,” she said. “The footage is very honest.”
The decision to not include interviews in Lady Bird was a deliberate one, and it is unlikely that viewers will be bothered by the lack of commentary. Director Porter explained, “I wanted the focus to be on her story. And to also highlight that she is present and influential in every aspect.” She added, “You just have to search for her, and you will discover her.”
“The Lady Bird Diaries” is currently streaming on Hulu in the United States.