Mrs America review: Cate Blanchett is formidable as a 1970s ‘anti-feminist’

The Oscar winner shines as Phyllis Schlafly, the controversial campaigner who railed against the Equal Rights Amendment

Ed Cumming
Wednesday 08 July 2020 22:03 BST
The new Mrs America trailer starring Cate Blanchett

Even in Cate Blanchett’s bad films, and there are a few Charlotte Greys and Monuments Men stirred in with all the Carols and Blue Jasmines and Ragnaroks, she is rarely less than compelling. No star of her calibre is as versatile, except possibly Tilda Swinton, and none can make vulnerability so commanding. Even as she steals The Aviator from under Leo Dio’s nose as Katherine Hepburn, she seems like she could crumple at any moment. She only appears in Talented Mr Ripley for a few minutes, but it’s enough to lend the film new layers of intelligence. There’s a reason she makes such a good queen.

Mrs America (BBC Two), a new nine-part drama based on real events, presents a double challenge even to her lavish gifts. First she must make us sympathetic to Phyllis Schlafly, the 1970s “anti-feminist” campaigner whose views were considered spicy even then, let alone to an audience of angry Twitter users. She also has to rouse our interest in a piece of American legislation, the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, opposition to which became Schlafly’s principal cause.

If anyone can breathe life into an acronym, Blanchett can. Her Schlafly is a kind of Stepford Margaret Thatcher, shrewd, frustrated and charming, alternating stares that could melt steel with a smile visible from space. The “institution of marriage,” she says, “is the best deal for women yet devised.” Looking after men, whether they are presidential candidates, babies or some combination of the two, is women’s lot.

The series’ creator is Dahvi Waller, who wrote for Mad Men, and Mrs America shares that programme’s attention to detail in setting and costume. Schlafly is nobody’s fool, a published author with a degree in political science, six children and an excellent proto-Hillary wardrobe, but she must still battle a phalanx of dull men in suits for the privilege of waging her anti-feminist campaign. This includes her husband Fred (John Slattery, another nod to Mad Men), a patronising lawyer who treats her campaigning ambitions like a harmless hobby, at least to begin with. He also insists on sex even when she doesn’t feel like it, which, as far as she is concerned, is a husband’s right.

Phyllis and her band of fellow homemakers worry that the ERA is the thin end of a wedge that will ultimately see alimony abolished and their daughters drafted to fight in Vietnam. They believe they speak for the “silent majority”, the 40 million women who feel alienated by the feminist movement. Schlafly proves a formidable campaigner, even as we wince as she decries unmarried women in front of her unhappily single sister-in-law, Eleanor (Jeanne Tripplehorn). As they start to succeed in fighting the legislation, and Schlafly becomes a media star, the Republicans realise they could have a vote-winner.

Across the hall, the feminists, played by an unassailable ensemble, realise they have a problem. They are led by Representative Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale, fresh from playing Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale on BoJack Horseman), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). Each of the nine episodes tells a different woman’s story. The second focuses on Steinem, played with sensitivity by Byrne, who became the public face of the movement, mainly because she had the kind of face the public likes to look at. The script revels in these ironies, and they pile up to form a picture of a messy, conflicted battlefield, where interests and ideology are rarely in perfect alignment.

It’s testament to Blanchett’s performance that although she’s firmly an anti-hero, with views on abortion and gay marriage and ethnic minorities that will appal many viewers, she never feels like the villain. The all-round intelligence and wattage of this series means that a back-and-forth over legislation never feels dull. Schlafly lived until 2016, long enough to see many of her nightmares come true. Her vision of American life, however, a Cold War in which the nuclear family is under constant existential threat from the forces of social liberalism, remains as powerful a force in Trump’s America as it was in 1971. Being persuasive has never been the same as being right.

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