Review: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne And More Shine In 'Mrs. America' The Hulu series Mrs. America follows the epic battle between Phyllis Schlafly on one side and a battery of 1970s feminist activists on the other.
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'Mrs. America': A Star-Studded Cast Puts The ERA In The Spotlight

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'Mrs. America': A Star-Studded Cast Puts The ERA In The Spotlight

Review

'Mrs. America': A Star-Studded Cast Puts The ERA In The Spotlight

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Cate Blanchett plays conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in Hulu's "Mrs. America." The nine-part series tells the story of the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Pop culture correspondent Linda Holmes says Blanchett and the rest of the cast tell a complicated story of politics and persuasion.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: It becomes clear a few hours into "Mrs. America" - there's something ironic about Phyllis Schlafly's hair. As played by Cate Blanchett, Schlafly wears what amounts to an impeccable blond helmet, resolutely impervious to the fashions of the 1970s. Her hair says rigidity, sameness, tradition. But the Schlafly we see in "Mrs. America" is very different. Initially interested in foreign policy, she seizes on the Equal Rights Amendment while looking for a hook for her own political future during a meeting with powerful Republicans in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MRS. AMERICA")

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Phyllis Schlafly) The women I know are terrified. They don't want to be drafted into combat duty. And you'll have to answer to them come November. I'm sorry. If saying all this costs me your endorsement, well, so be it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, laughter) I thought this wasn't your area of expertise.

BLANCHETT: (As Phyllis Schlafly) Well, I've been reading up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, there's your stump speech.

HOLMES: Far from seeing her as a rigid traditionalist, the series presents Schlafly as an ambitious opportunist. On the opposing side of this epic battle is a group of feminists. They include Gloria Steinem of Ms. magazine, played by Rose Byrne; Congresswoman Bella Abzug, played by Margo Martindale; influential author Betty Friedan, played by Tracey Ullman; and Congresswoman and 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, played by Uzo Aduba.

At its best, "Mrs. America" is an examination of the blind spots some of the most prominent advocates of the ERA had on issues like gay rights and particularly race. Aduba is especially good as Chisholm, who finds her presidential campaign treated as a matter of symbolism rather than power by people like Bella Abzug.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MRS. AMERICA")

MARGO MARTINDALE: (As Bella Abzug) You ran a terrific campaign.

UZO ADUBA: (As Shirley Chisholm) Well, I'm still running.

MARTINDALE: (As Bella Abzug) Primaries are over. Everyone's getting on the McGovern bandwagon.

ADUBA: (As Shirley Chisholm) Humphrey, Muskie, Jackson (ph) - they aren't getting on it.

MARTINDALE: (As Bella Abzug) You know how it goes. Party unity - we can't look divided.

ADUBA: (As Shirley Chisholm) We are divided.

HOLMES: There's also some very good work from Rose Byrne as Steinem, whose prominence within the movement is something she wants. But when Abzug explains that the fight needs a pretty face, Steinem blanches.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MRS. AMERICA")

ROSE BYRNE: (As Gloria Steinem) I don't want people listening to me just because I have a pretty face.

MARTINDALE: (As Bella Abzug) I would love it if people listened to me because I have a pretty face, then I wouldn't have to shout. Who cares why they're listening? They're listening.

HOLMES: But the central figure of "Mrs. America" is Phyllis Schlafly. The series thesis on her success is that she was very ambitious and very smart - but that her real skill was convincing people their ways of life were in danger then convincing them she was acting as their protector. And somehow, a well-off woman who craved and attained power and prominence became the champion of women finding all their satisfaction at home.

There's a lot about "Mrs. America" that's very bleak, particularly in creator Dahvi Waller's attention to the power of fear and the flaws that persist in social movements. And to stick with this series, you really have to be prepared to spend a lot of time with Cate Blanchett's Phyllis Schlafly. And you have to buy the writer's premise that her sometimes cynical, sometimes very nasty crusade is fascinating rather than just depressing.

Linda Holmes. NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GHOSTFACE KILLAH AND BADBADNOTGOOD'S "SOUR SOUL")

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