APRIL 27, 2020
Cate Blanchett is unquestionably one of our greatest artists on stage or screen. A Tony Award nominee for her work on Broadway, Blanchett has been nominated for seven Academy Awards for her film work, winning twice (for 2004’s “The Aviator” in supporting and in 2013 for “Blue Jasmine” in lead). So there is no question that she has conquered those two media.
But if there’s one medium that has eluded Blanchett, it’s television. Yes, she was regularly seen on Australian television in the early 1990s and still makes occasional appearances there. But her sole live-action work on American screens was in her highly-acclaimed, hilariously droll work parodying artist Marina Abramovic on IFC’s “Documentary Now!” last year.
The idea that Blanchett would take on the lead in any kind of American series seemed far-fetched, at best.
So it came as a bit of a shock to many fans that Blanchett is now headlining FX on Hulu’s nine-part limited series “Mrs. America” in the unlikely role of notorious anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly. For those who may not remember, Schlafly was a conservative gadfly who was enormously alarmed at the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 and its likely ratification by the 38 states needed for the proposal to become the law of the land. The miniseries also provocatively suggests that Schlafly saw that leading an anti-ERA movement would be a handy vehicle to raise her profile in elite conservative circles.
When Phyllis harbored a few initial doubts about whether such a movement could succeed, her supportive husband Fred (John Slattery) reminded her that her pro-ERA opponents are feminists and that Americans hate feminists.
However, the series creator, Emmy winner Dahvi Waller, is an equal opportunity storyteller, and she gives as much, if not more time, to the characterizations on the feminist side, focusing on four leaders of the women’s movement — Ms. Magazine publisher Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), 1972 Presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) and pioneering feminist Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), each of whom was a household name at the time.
I was concerned that “Mrs. America” would depict Schafly as a white knight protecting America and lump all of the feminist characters together as one indistinguishable mass of socialism. Luckily, Waller has taken a much more sophisticated approach. In the first four episodes released for review, each episode is named after one of the principal characters — the premiere is titled “Phyllis,” the second “Gloria,” followed by “Shirley” and finally “Betty.” The episode then focuses primarily on that characters although, except for the premiere, all of the major players have stories as well. It’s a great idea and provides a showcase for each of these brilliant actresses to really show her stuff.
It takes a while for “Mrs. America” to settle in, however. The introductory scenes establishing the early ’70s setting are as cliché as they come — white girls with afros and miniskirts dancing mid-day as extras walk past TV screens showing napalmed Vietnamese babies. You’ve seen it all before, and it’s not particularly that well done here. But the premiere picks up with the introduction of Blanchett, who takes of her establishing story with ease, and by the conclusion, I had hopped aboard the “Mrs. America” train.
Episodes 2-4 are much stronger, particularly the third which focuses on Rep. Shirley Chisholm. The writing in this episode crackles in virtually every scene, aided no end by a powerful performance by Aduba. But there’s strength in all of the episodes, which try to show that these feminists have issues in their own lives with which they must deal and are not simply one-issue zealots.
History tells us how all of these events eventually work out, but just how “Mrs. America” dramatizes them remains to be seen. But I’m excited to find out, largely because this cast and crew have shown that they know what they’re doing, and that’s enough for me to stay on board.