Cate Blanchett rules unapologetic ERA story


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What’s that they say about those who ignore history being doomed to repeat it?

FX’s new star-studded miniseries “Mrs. America” (streaming on Hulu)  aims to shine a light on a part of 20th-century history that has come to define our modern political era. Equal parts entertainment and education, “America” (weekly episodes Wednesdays, ★★★½ out of four) meticulously brings to life the fight for (and against) the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. What once seemed like a sure thing ultimately failed, thanks largely to the efforts of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, embodied with searing detail by Cate Blanchett.

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in “Mrs. America.” (Photo: Sabrina Lantos/FX)

On the other side of the issue, “America” has a talented cast portraying leaders of the women’s liberation movement, including Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem (the other big standout performance), Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus and Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug. 

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“America” debuts at a time when a lot of us, practicing social distancing at home as we await a scary, unknowable future, are reflecting on a lot of the same topics the series deals with. What are our priorities when it comes to work and family? What is the role of the government in our lives? Who gets to decide how anyone else’s life will go? Whose voice matters?

Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm on “Mrs. America.” (Photo: Sabrina Lantos/FX)

The series doesn’t offer answers to these big societal questions, although there’s no question its sympathy leans toward the second-wave feminists caught flat-footed by Schlafly’s keen politicking. It does remind (or educate us in the first place) about an incredibly important period of recent American history.

Each episode focuses primarily on a single character, beginning with a peek into Phyllis’s world (and her introduction to anti-ERA zealotry). This point-of-view structure offers deep, empathetic portraits of each figure and lends ample screen time for each actress to luxuriate in her performance.

There’s no question who the series is most interested in examining – Schlafly (and Blanchett, in her first TV series), gets most of the airtime. When viewed with all the other episodes, a premiere entirely focused on her winking, measured portrait of an anti-hero or a villain, depending on your perspective, fits in. However, that first episode drags a bit and the series really begins to sing with a detailed look at Gloria in Episode 2. 

There is no denying that Blanchett’s performance is a tour de force, her best work since 2015’s “Carol.” The actress embodies Schlafly’s contradictions without making her performance muddied. Her vocal affectation and microscopic facial expressions are exquisite. With Steinem’s signature eyewear and a long wig, Byrne, too, is a natural pick as Gloria. Portraying a living, even more famous figure, Byrne must do a bit more heavy lifting to move her performance beyond a mere celebrity impression. She does so ably. 

The scripts are detailed and informative, but don’t think this is a dry history lesson. There is wit, levity and propulsion to the episodes, which zip by after the slow opener. The cast offers an embarrassment of riches. Aduba is superb – and nearly unrecognizable – as Shirley, and her part of the story is key to understanding the full picture of American women, not just white American women. Ullman’s depiction of Friedan is free-wheeling and fun.

The series’ world is rounded out with additional talented actors, including John Slattery as  Fred Schlafly, James Marsden as U.S. Rep. Phil Crane, Jeanne Tripplehorn as Phyllis’s sister, Eleanor, and Sarah Paulson as her best friend Alice (a fictionalized amalgam of Schlafly’s circle).

Even if you know how the story ends (Spoiler alert: The ERA is not the law of the land), the journey is really the point here. At a time when we are living through history, analyzing the past provides a certain comfort and productivity: Only by knowing where we’ve been can we chart a course for where we are going.

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