Women rule in the thrillingly acted Mrs. America, a fabulously robust re-creation of the 1970s battle over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (one that continues today). Over nine colorful and impassioned episodes, this riveting limited series depicts a new wave of feminist activists going up against an implacable grassroots conservative movement organized by the politically savvy Phyllis Schlafly, played with chillingly poised ferocity by Cate Blanchett (channeling a Joan Crawford-like hauteur).
Far from the caricature you might expect, Blanchett reveals layers of ambition and frustration in a happily married (to lawyer John Slattery) mother of six who is drawn to power and craves the spotlight, only to be repeatedly patronized by the establishment's boys' club. Her informed views on arms talks get her invited on TV, where she's advised (by James Marsden's deliciously smarmy congressman Phil Crane), "Don't forget to smile. With teeth." And oh how she bares those teeth. In a later scene, she's invited to sit in with movers and shakers on a policy meeting, where she's asked to take notes.
Little wonder that she seizes on an issue where she might actually be heard, even if it involves fudging facts and ratcheting up the hyperbole about the ERA's "threat to the traditional American family." Her entourage includes Jeanne Tripplehorn, quite touching as unmarried sister-in-law Eleanor, who secretly chafes at Phyllis's condescension; Sarah Paulson, reliably terrific as a loyal friend who becomes disillusioned at the Eagle Forum's ruthless tactics; and Melanie Lynskey as a jealous acolyte who seeks a portion of the credit that Phyllis so eagerly accepts.
But they're only half the story. The progressive feminist opposition, also fractured by internal divisions, is a who’s-who of marvelously embodied icons. Tracey Ullman scores as Betty Friedan, abrasive mother of the women’s-liberation movement, who envies the effortless celebrity of Rose Byrne's glamorously driven media darling Gloria Steinem. Margo Martindale is a riot as brash, tireless Bella Abzug, who initially dismisses the Schlafly threat to her later regret. ("I'm very upset, look at me. I'm eating a hot dog on a grapefruit diet.")
Elizabeth Banks brings wit and warmth to Jill Ruckelshaus, the group's inside line to the Republican establishment, and Orange Is the New Black's Uzo Aduba is perfectly cast as proudly pioneering presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. They're going to have to expand the Emmy lists to acknowledge this much terrific talent.
The tragic irony of Mrs. America, as Bella Abzug wryly notes, is that the well-connected Schlafly "might be one of the most liberated women in America," with her volunteer army virtually indistinguishable from the "working girls" they spend so much effort protesting against.
Mrs. America, Series Premiere, Wednesday, April 15, FX on Hulu
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