Iron Jawed Angels

Produced by HBO and televised Feb. 15, 2004, color 35mm negative, 1.85:1 screen ratio, digital sound, 125 mins.
HBO film
HBO film
HBO film
Inez Milholland 1913
1913 March - bg
1913 March - bg

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Synopsis from the official press release by HBO Katja von Garnier's "Iron Jawed Angels" tells the remarkable and little-known story of a group of passionate and dynamic young women, led by Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and her friend Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor), who put their lives on the line to fight for American women's right to vote. Swank and O'Connor head an outstanding female ensemble, with Julia Ormond, Molly Parker, Laura Fraser, Brooke Smith and Vera Farmiga as a rebel band of young women seeking their seat at the table; and such cinematic icons as Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, and Anjelica Huston as the steely older generation of suffragettes. This true story has startling parallels to today, as the young activists struggle with issues such as the challenges of protesting a popular President during wartime and the perennial balancing act between love and career. Utilizing a pulsing soundtrack, vivid colors, and a freewheeling camera, Katja von Garnier's ("bandits") driving filmmaking style shakes up the preconceptions of the period film and gives history a vibrant contemporary energy and relevance.

In 1912 Philadelphia, young suffragist activists Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor) have a meeting with Carrie Chapman Catt (Anjelica Huston) and Anna Howard Shaw (Lois Smith) of NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association, formed in 1890 by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton). The breezy, rebellious spirit of the two younger activists is in stark contrast to the more conservative older women. Paul and Burns want to press for a constitutional amendment for women to have the right to vote, but the older women prefer a state-by-state approach. Still, Paul is permitted to take over NAWSA's Washington, D.C. committee, provided she and Burns raise their own funds. They begin planning their first big event, a parade to promote women's suffrage, and recruit a team of volunteers, including Alice's college friend Mabel Vernon (Brooke Smith), Polish factory worker Ruza Wenclawska (Vera Farmiga) and social worker Doris Stevens (Laura Fraser). While soliciting donations at an art gallery, Paul convinces labor lawyer Inez Mulholland (Julia Ormond) to serve as a figurehead for the parade and meets a Washington newspaper political cartoonist, Ben Weissman (Patrick Dempsey), causing romantic sparks to fly. Returning to Washington, President Woodrow Wilson (Bob Gunton) finds himself ignored, while across town, the parade turns into a riot, with hecklers attacking the suffragettes. Paul and Burns are pleased with the resulting front page publicity, and over Catt's objections, seek to press their advantage by leading a delegation to see President Wilson. He puts them off with promises to study the issue, and the women lobby members of Congress to get the suffrage amendment to the floor for a vote, but it dies in committee. Paul and Burns further antagonize Catt when they raise funds outside of NAWSA to publish a newspaper calling for women to boycott Wilson in the next election. Paul presses Weissman to help the cause, and agrees to go on a date with him. She is taken aback when Weissman, a widower, brings his young son to dinner with them. Although attracted to Weissman, Paul chooses to forego a relationship with him in order to devote herself completely to the suffrage cause.

When Catt calls for an NAWSA board investigation into the expenditures of Paul and Burns, they leave the organization to form the National Woman's Party (NWP), which opposes any candidate against the proposed constitutional amendment. The NWP disrupts President Wilson's speech to Congress with a protest, and the influential Senator Leighton (Joseph Adams) cuts off his wife Emily's (Molly Parker) allowance after discovering she has made donations to the NWP. The women embark on a cross-country speaking tour for the cause, and an exhausted Mulholland asks to remain home, but Paul convinces her to come along. World War I begins, and President Wilson seems headed for victory in the reelection campaign. Feeling it's better to have a friend than a foe in the White House, Catt tries to convince Paul and Burns to withdraw from the campaign. In San Francisco, an ailing Mulholland collapses and dies. Feeling that she is responsible for Mulholland's death, Paul retreats to her Quaker family's farm, until Burns arrives and convinces her to continue the fight. They return to Washington, with a bold plan to picket the White House. Senator Leighton objects to his wife's increasing involvement with the NWP, and she walks out on him.

Wartime fervor turns public opinion against the suffragettes, who are arrested on the trumped-up charge of "obstructing traffic," even though their picket line is on the sidewalk. Refusing to pay a fine for a crime they didn't commit, the women are sentenced to sixty days in an Occoquan, Virginia women's prison. Insisting that they're political prisoners, Burns demands the warden respect their rights, only to be cuffed with her arms above her cell door. In solidarity and defiance, the other suffragettes assume Burns' painful posture. When Paul and Mrs. Leighton join the picket line, they are attacked by a mob, and subsequently imprisoned themselves. Thrown into solitary confinement for breaking a window for fresh air, Paul goes on a hunger strike. She is then denied counsel, placed in a straitjacket, and subjected to examination in the psychiatric ward. The doctor tells President Wilson that Paul shows no signs of mania or delusion, and she returns to the prison's general population, where she leads the suffragettes on a hunger strike. The warden begins force-feeding them, and a sympathetic guard sneaks Paul pen and paper.

Catt tries to get President Wilson to repay her years of loyalty by finally supporting the suffrage amendment, but he refuses. Senator Leighton visits his wife in prison, and is appalled by her condition. During their meeting, she slips him Paul's note, describing in detail their mistreatment. Word of the force-feeding leaks out, and public opinion shifts in favor of the suffragettes, now known as the "iron jawed angels." Catt seizes the moment to press President Wilson into supporting the suffrage amendment, and the women are released from prison as he comes out in its favor in a Congressional speech. By 1920, 35 states have ratified the amendment, but one more state is needed. Tennessee becomes that state when a recalcitrant legislator casts the deciding vote after receiving a telegram from his mother (a real life event). On Aug. 26, 1920, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment becomes law, and 20 million American women win the right to vote.

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revised 3/1/04 by Steven Schoenherr | Filmnotes