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TV Preview: 'Iron Jawed Angels' takes fresh look at the women's movement

Friday, February 13, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HOLLYWOOD -- Move over Susan B. Anthony; new women's rights heroes are on HBO's horizon.

"Iron Jawed Angels"

When: 9:30 p.m. Sunday on HBO.


Hilary Swank stars as Alice Paul in the premium cable network's "Iron Jawed Angels," which premieres at 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Paul and Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor) were pivotal figures in getting American women the right to vote, and this film chronicles their struggle, which included in-fighting among women's-rights groups, unconstitutional imprisonment and a hunger strike.

"We don't make the laws, but we have to obey them like children," Paul says as their fight for equality begins.

Directed by Katja von Garnier (the 1997 German hit "Bandits"), "Iron Jawed Angels" takes place between 1912 and 1920, but the film is set to a modern music soundtrack. That was intentional.

"Everything started with the characters we wanted to portray," von Garnier said. "It's that cliche that women who fight for their rights don't have humor and are generally boring and men don't like them. We wanted to create characters that are not only intelligent and politically very smart but they're also inspiring and rebellious and have a sense of humor.

"That was the beat, and then it was just second nature for the style to be modern, contemporary and then also the music to follow along that way."

Executive producer Paula Weinstein said she appreciated the director's approach to a story set in a different era.

"What attracted me from the beginning for Katja to direct this is that she understood that you don't want to make a period movie as if you're still in the period," Weinstein said. "You want to have the perspective of now. And those women were very contemporary, pushing the edge of the envelope in their time."

There's also a resonance in modern times. Filmed in Richmond, Va., in late 2002, the film includes a scene of the women discussing whether to push their agenda during World War I and whether to picket the White House.

"We can't picket a war-time president," one of the suffragettes says, bringing to mind arguments about protesters and patriotism during last year's war in Iraq.

"It was the first time the White House was ever picketed and, on top of it, the first time in a war," Weinstein said. "It's one of the great things about our democracy that we don't have a king who we are frightened of. We indeed go to the White House and take our arguments and our agendas there. And the women did that and didn't have the reverence for the office but rather a respect for it."

For star Swank, who has some experience playing political characters from her Oscar-winning role in "Boys Don't Cry," "Iron Jawed Angels" was another learning experience.

"From what I learned in school, Susan B. Anthony is who I think of when I think of who helped women get the vote. I'd never heard of Alice Paul," she said. "I'd never heard of Lucy Burns. I certainly was awakened to a whole new slew of women who blazed a trail for us."

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Post questions about TV to under TV Q&A.

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