LOS ANGELES – “Mrs. America” is a pageant for the ages. The nine-part series revisits the 1970s battle over the Equal Rights Amendment from the viewpoints of activists on both sides of the issue.
The docudrama, which premieres Wednesday on Hulu, was catnip for star Cate Blanchett, who plays conservative Phyllis Schlafly, a polarizing figure vilified by liberals, but not before she set the table for the Reagan revolution.
“I’m a passionate lover of history,” two-time Oscar winner Blanchett said in January. “I don’t think we can in any way understand the present unless you look into the past. We often just don’t learn very much and just make the same mistakes. So [‘Mrs. America’] was like ‘Groundhog Day.’ The actual literal discussions that we were having back in 1971, 1972 and all the way through the series [are] constantly popping up in today’s media: same-sex bathrooms, same-sex marriage, will women be drafted into the military. It couldn’t be more relevant.”
Part of the draw is seeing how celebrated actors slip into the roles of other famous folks. The cast, which includes Elizabeth Banks, Niecy Nash and John Slattery, has collectively garnered more than 50 Emmy nominations.
As Gloria Steinem, Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids”) rocks both the feminist icon’s oversized glasses and withering sarcasm. And it’s no surprise that comedy legend Tracey Ullman delivers a pitch-perfect impression of Betty Friedan. But the actor also lays bare the lonely side of the “Feminine Mystique” author, who spent most of the ’70s feeling underappreciated.
“Of course I can do that voice, but it’s what’s underneath it. You have to be people behind all the stuff you can see on YouTube,” Ullman said. “They gave me a really hard time to get this part, by the way. I had to audition many times and prove that it wasn’t stunt casting or just me doing an impersonation or something. I really wanted this role.”
But “Mrs. America” is just as interested in shining a spotlight on those who are no longer household names.
Ringers on your pub-quiz team will remember that Shirley Chisholm was the first woman to make a serious run at the presidency, but her name probably doesn’t resonate beyond that.
“Over the years, we’ve glossed over some of those intersectional figures and their importance and relevance,” said “Orange Is the New Black” breakout star Uzo Aduba, who plays Chisholm. “I think it was great that we were able to include them and right that historical wrong in our cultural atmosphere.”
Shades of gray
Schlafly is at the heart of the series — even if it’s clear that creator Dahvi Waller isn’t a big fan. In Waller’s scripts, Schlafly is caught playing fast and loose with the truth, even making up legal cases in TV appearances.
But Blanchett was drawn to her character’s fortitude. She points to a scene in which a prankster smacks her in the face with a pie. Instead of weeping and praying like anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant did in the same predicament, Blanchett’s Schlafly quips that she was thankful that it wasn’t a cherry pie; that would have stained her dress.
“That speaks volumes about the difference between the two women,” said Blanchett, who also signed on as an executive producer. “She was a true alpha and absolute force of nature, much like myself.”
Schlafly’s motives are continuously questioned. It’s clear she’d rather be secretary of defense than an advocate for housewives. She’s all too often willing to look the other way when male politicians ask her to take notes during brainstorming sessions and keep their hands on her back a few seconds too long.
“You want to get ahead by climbing on the shoulders of men? You go ahead,” says Washington insider Jill Ruckelshaus (Banks) during a temporary truce with Schlafly over cocktails. “Just know they’re looking up your skirt.”
But those fighting for the passage of the ERA don’t come across as saints. Backroom meetings often turn into bitter debates over who should get the lion’s share of the attention. Margo Martindale’s Bella Abzug is presented as a savvy dealmaker, but not much of a friend.
“It was very intentional to create a series with shades of gray,” said Waller, who previously worked on “Desperate Housewives” and “Mad Men.” “I don’t think we benefit from painting the side we disagree with as monsters. And I don’t think there’s any benefit to portraying heroes as perfect. What really struck me about all the women from this period was how messy they were. They’re complex. They’re contradictory in nature. They quarrel. There’s joy, there’s love and there’s hate.”
Icons on the screen
“Mrs. America” is not the only high-profile project this year revisiting icons of the women’s movement. In July, PBS will air an “American Experience” documentary tied to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. PBS has other programs on the schedule honoring trailblazers like Mae West and Toni Morrison. “Great Performances” will air one-woman shows about Steinem and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. “We want to teach our daughters about these women,” said Christine Lahti, who stars in “Gloria: A Life,” which was staged at St. Paul’s History Theatre. Lahti’s version is scheduled to air in late June. “We can never forget the hard work that was done and how much work we have to do.”
“Hillary,” the multipart documentary about Hillary Clinton currently streaming on Hulu, dedicates considerable time to the former secretary of state’s fight for equal rights, and the enemies she made along the way.
“The reason I wanted to tell her life story is that I felt it was so remarkably emblematic of our history over the last 40 years, particularly when it comes to women’s rights,” said “Hillary” director Nanette Burstein. “She has been the tip of the spear in various ways and that’s overlapped with these various huge historical moments.”
The timing of these projects couldn’t be better. Even those who were around in the ’70s are getting foggy memories.
Slattery, who plays Schlafly’s husband in “Mrs. America,” admits that before he read the script, he was under the impression that the Equal Rights Amendment had passed; it hasn’t.
ERA advocates finally got ratification from the required 38 states this year, but well past the original deadline. The future of the amendment will most likely be fought over in Congress and courts for years. That leaves us plenty of time to get better educated. “Mrs. America” is the ideal place to start.
“We get to go to work and sometimes get equal pay and have some control over our bodies because of all of these people,” Elizabeth Banks said. “These are the women that I owe my debts of gratitude to.”