The year is 1971.
Iconic feminists Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem have gathered in an office in Washington, D.C., to celebrate progress in the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Someone mentions an anti-ERA newsletter written and distributed by someone named Phyllis Schlafly, but Schlafly is quickly dismissed as a nobody — “a right-wing nut from Illinois.”
Well … to say Phyllis Schlafly turned out to be more than just some minor annoyance would be a massive understatement. As the pitch-perfect period piece FX/Hulu limited series “Mrs. America” so aptly lays out, Schlafly became THE leading voice against the ERA in the 1970s. Cate Blanchett delivers electric, layered, beautifully nuanced work as the indefatigable Schlafly, heading an amazing ensemble cast including Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem; Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug; Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm; Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan; Sarah Paulson as a composite anti-feminist character named Alice Macray, and John Slattery as Phyllis’ husband Fred.
Thanks to the first-rate makeup, hair and wardrobe team, in most cases the actors strike a remarkable physical resemblance to their real-life counterparts; even more impressive is how they capture the essence of these social warriors and the passion they brought to the movement, whether they were on the front lines of feminism or stubbornly, sometimes inexplicably, digging in to stop progress. Blanchett’s Schlafly dresses and comports herself like a 1950s TV housewife in her Alton, Illinois, home, and endures the condescending words and deeds of her old-school husband — but when she’s marshaling the troops for her grassroots movement, killing it on talk shows such as “Donahue” or consistently proving to be smarter and better-prepared than the Republican legislators, she’s a force to be reckoned with.
“Mrs. America” showrunner Dahvi Waller expertly captures the historic feminist movement of the 1970s while juggling multiple storylines, from the machinations and rivalries and disagreements within the feminist movement to the founding of Steinem’s Ms. Magazine to Schlafly welcoming fellow female conservatives while fiercely protecting and boosting her status as the unquestioned leader of the movement. The show favors period-appropriate pop-culture graphics and catchy tunes such as “A Fifth of Beethoven” (the opening title theme), “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” and “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” but has its devastatingly effective dramatic emotional scenes as well, e.g., when a reader of Ms. Magazine approaches Steinem on the street and asks her to sign an article in which dozens of women talked about having an abortion, and it’s clear this young woman has been through the experience as well. Rose Byrne turns in one of the finest performances of her career as Steinem, who is constantly reminded of her good looks (even by some of her fellow feminists) and says Wonder Woman is her hero and is at the forefront of the most progressive faction of the movement.
In the premiere episode, James Marsden delivers a decidedly unflattering portrayal of Phil Crane, a Republican congressman from the northwest suburbs of Chicago who is like a wolf baring his teeth as he has Schlafly on his “Conservative Viewpoint” talk show, invites her to dinner when she visits Washington, D.C., and always finds an excuse to put his hand on her arm or her back when they interact. Phyllis knows how to handle guys like Crane. She knows how to work a room filled with men who think they know more than she does.
Later in the series, we’re in 1973 and we hear “I Just Want to Celebrate” by Rare Earth on the soundtrack, kicking off a showcase episode for Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan, the mother of the feminist movement, whose contributions were invaluable — as she would be the first to remind you. A nearly unrecognizable Ullman does a magnificent job of capturing Friedan’s razor-sharp intelligence, undying bravery, true heart and ever-present ego. Even as Friedan exchanges barbs with fellow feminists Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem in the press, she makes it her mission to take down that pesky Schlafly woman, who is NOT going gently into the good night, not on your life pal. Bristling from a Nora Ephron article, Friedan says, “Is that what everybody thinks, that I’m the Wicked Witch of the West and Gloria is Glinda? Somebody should tell Nora the real Wicked Witch of the West of the movement is that Phyllis SHAH-FLY woman.”
Meanwhile, Phyllis is downplaying rumors her group has accepted donations and support from the likes of the John Birch Society and the KKK, saying “the libbers” are running scared and desperate. There are times when Phyllis’ flintiness and her often wildly hyperbolic and convoluted reasoning make her nearly unbearable, but Blanchett is far too good to allow Phyllis to become a caricature. “Mrs. America” isn’t exactly a sympathetic portrayal, but it’s a fair one.