Cate Blanchett became one of the industry’s most respected actors by elevating the period pieces in which she so often starred. From Queen Elizabeth to Katherine Hepburn, Blanchett was usually the protagonist and/or love interest, radiating strength, intelligence, and stoicism from under stuffy costumes and stiff hairstyles. So it was a huge departure when, three years ago, she hung up the suits and gowns (and the moral high ground) to play Hera in Taika Waititi’s wonderfully zany Thor: Ragnarok.
The two-time Oscar winner seemed to revel in her opportunity to play chaotic evil. Hela — all black leather, smeared eyeliner, and gleeful sneers, with her superhuman athleticism and ability to shapeshift, teleport, and travel between dimensions – was certainly intimidating to her brothers, Thor and Loki. But she was nowhere near as terrifying as the character Blanchett is currently inhabiting: conservative gadfly, Phyllis Schlafly, in Hulu’s new miniseries Mrs. America.
Mrs. America documents the battle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment with more urgency and intimacy than ever before. It does so by showing the fight from both sides, and by focusing on the social and inner-lives of the women who made ratifying the ERA (or halting it in its tracks) their lives’ purpose. In one camp are the second wave feminists, or “libbers,” led by Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan, and Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisolm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for President of the United States. While the other camp, STOP ERA (an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”) grows throughout the series’ run, it’s dominated by one outsized personality.
As Schlafly, Blanchett is once again buttoned up and tightly wound, but in this period piece, she’s the formidable antihero…and a type of character rarely seen on screen. The feminists often find themselves at odds with each other as they try to figure out their legislative priorities and lobbying tactics. That they are evenly matched and ultimately respect each other, despite real disagreements and petty squabbles, complicates their leadership. Schlafly runs her cabal of content housewives, racists, and homophobes with a well-manicured iron fist. Like a real-life Dolores Umbridge, Phyllis Schlafly was (and Blanchett is, in her chilling portrayal) a frustratingly unflappable force.
Yet, rather than draw her as a caricature-like Umbridge (Harry Potter is children’s literature after all), Blanchett plays Schlafly with humanity, several layers deep. A better comparison might be to Christian Bale’s performance as Dick Cheney is Vice. In both cases, the characters — who became sinister wielders of political power — start out as recognizable and relatable people. From there, the audience is asked to sympathize with them, to an extent. What’s scariest about these real-life villains is that they aren’t just villains, like Hela. It’s much more unsettling to realize that it’s those among us, and not gods from above, who disrupt peace and progress.
As she does in every project, Blanchett elevates Mrs. America because her portrayal of Schlafly perfectly distills what made her so infuriating to the Women’s Movement. She was a dutiful foot soldier for the conservative opposition, and maybe even cleverer and more powerful than that. The foot soldier theory explains why some people from oppressed groups work against their own interests, in exchange for status and privilege. This is not to suggest women like Schlafly didn’t actually believe what they preached, and the series does an excellent job showing how quickly she bought into her own rhetoric. But it also shows that Schlafly, who ascended to considerable status and privilege, was aware of the holes in her arguments, and would readily manipulate those who thought they were manipulating her, for personal gain. Schlafly may have claimed to be fighting for a traditional way of life, but fifty years of hindsight make it clear she was always fighting for an America made in her image, and for herself.
The series starts with Schlafly in a red, white, and blue bikini, being told to pose and smile. She deploys a smirk that placates men but seethes with ambition. In Episode 4, at the climax of a debate over the merits of the ERA, Betty Friedan loses her composure and calls Schlafly a witch that she’d like to burn at the stake. In response, Blanchett deploys the same composed smile and wins the day. It really happened that way, and it’s a testament to Schlafly’s effectiveness that she came out the victor and not the villain (and that she stopped the ERA from being ratified; it’s still not law). It’s a testament to Blanchett’s talent that the moment is every bit as painful to watch in Mrs. America‘s recreation.
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In Cate Blanchett's Mrs. America, it was a real woman, and not a Norse god, who stopped the Equal Rights Amendment in its tracks.