There’s never going to be a television series centered on Utah Eagle Forum leader Gayle Ruzicka. Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett is never going to play Ruzicka. But there is a TV series about the woman who inspired Ruzicka, the much-admired/much-reviled conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly.
And Blanchett — winner of two Academy Awards — is playing Schlafly.
Schlafly, who died in 2016, led the national fight against the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights; Ruzicka led the fight in Utah. Schlafly founded the national Eagle Forum and asked Ruzicka to head the Utah chapter.
“Well, Phyllis and her army [of followers] really did bring together a whole disparate section of the religious community,” Blanchett said. “She brought the Baptists together with the evangelicals, with the Catholics and Anglicans and the conservative Jewish community, and she united them around the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment and what it would mean to what she saw as a breakdown of the American family.”
Not to mention members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Ruzicka proudly proclaims that she was “mentored” by and “in awe of” Schlafly, adding that they enjoyed “a special friendship that went beyond politics. She was like family to me.”
Schlafly was the “guiding force” behind Ruzicka as she became “a master grassroots political strategist who literally can strike fear in Republican legislators who want to serve beyond their current term,” in the words of retired Salt Lake Tribune columnist Paul Rolly.
And Schlafly is front and center in the nine-part drama “Mrs. America,” which begins streaming Wednesday on FX on Hulu … the FX-labeled part of the streaming service.
The series tries to encapsulate the women’s movement of the 1970s by focusing on leading women on both sides — Schlafly on the right, and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Shirley Chisolm (Uzo Aduba) and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) on the left. It’s too big to tackle in that amount of time, so “Mrs. America” is episodic and rather choppy, but it’s a valiant effort that’s watchable, enlightening and, ultimately, sort of depressing.
“One of my takeaways from making the series is just — we haven’t really come as far as I thought we had,” said creator/executive producer/writer Dahvi Waller (“Mad Men,” “Halt and Catch Fire”). “I find that distressing. And I hope that one of the audience’s takeaways is how much work there is still left to do.”
This is a “liberal” Hollywood production about a right-wing icon, but it’s not a character-assassination piece. Schlafly is painted in shades of gray — she seems like a lovely woman, at times, when she’s not knifing her political opponents and lying about what the effects of the ERA would be for American women.
“I don’t believe in demonizing anybody,” said Blanchett, adding that she “couldn’t be less interested” in folding her political views into any character she plays. “I think that that does lead to [propaganda], and the way you create ambiguity and juxtaposition in a character is to simply butt up two very contradictory thoughts or actions, butt them together, and then present it to an audience.
“No one is perfect, including Phyllis, although her hair was mostly always perfect. But it is a challenge, I think, when you are playing a figure who is so polarizing.”
It’s not so much that “Mrs. America” tries to portray Schlafly favorably. Her flaws are on display, although it does soft-pedal her racist tendencies. But she’s not treated any differently than the pro-ERA women in the series, who are not only highly flawed by generally battling each other as much (or more) than they’re battling Schlafly.
“I don’t think we benefit from painting the other side — the side that we don’t agree with — as monsters,” Waller said. “I don’t think there is 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.”
If you’re pro-ERA, you’re going to hate Schlafly and her followers. If you’re anti-ERA, you’re going to hate Steinam, Friedan, Chisholm, Abzug and their fellow “libbers.” Both sides will find much to praise and much to revile in “Mrs. America.”
“If you’re going to make something truly and fearlessly, you have to have a healthy lack of consequence,” Blanchett said. “We didn’t make this as a piece of [propaganda]. We didn’t make this from one perspective. It wasn’t a biopic about any one woman.
“It really does break apart the notion that women are a monolith. They’re all different political persuasions from all different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, and we kind of make up our contradictory, ever-changing whole.”
The first three episodes of “Mrs. America” begin streaming Wednesday, April 15 on Hulu. The remaining six episodes will begin streaming one each on successive Wednesdays.