There are two movies at play in Anna Kendrick's directorial debut, Woman of the Hour, that intersect in disconcerting fashion. In one there's the story of a serial killer who is raping and murdering women and girls across the country, offering to take their pictures before his crimes. In another, there's the saga of an aspiring young actor who takes a gig on The Dating Game for visibility. One of her potential bachelors? That very serial killer.
The terrifying fact: It's based on a true story.
In 1978, Rodney Alcala, who was ultimately convicted of seven murders but may have committed over 100, appeared on The Dating Game alongside Cheryl Bradshaw, played by Kendrick herself on screen. Woman of the Hour, which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, fictionalizes the incident with an eye to exploring the gender dynamics that allowed Alcala to elude capture to such an extent that he was able to appear on national television in the midst of his spree. It's an unbelievable story that now gets a glossy cinematic treatment that puts the horror of Alcala's actions on full display. But it also aims to swerve away from the typical entry in the oversaturated true crime genre by offering almost comedic commentary about retrograde Hollywood sexism.
Read more: The 16 Best True Crime Books of All Time
How the film works
Kendrick was not at the premiere in Toronto in accordance with the SAG-AFTRA strike rules, sending a producer to introduce the movie in her stead. Still, it's material to which she's evidently dedicated: She was first attached as just the star before ultimately pitching it to direct herself when the previous director fell through.
The movie opens in 1977 with Alcala, played by Station Eleven's Daniel Zovatto, taking photographs of a woman he will soon assault in Wyoming. The film, with a screenplay by Ian MacCallister McDonald, then proceeds to hop around in time. All of the parts involving Cheryl take place in linear fashion as she reluctantly agrees to go on The Dating Game, after failing to book a job where her looks are discussed openly in the audition. Every so often, it cuts back to Rodney, repeating his pattern with a runaway in San Gabriel in 1979 and a flight attendant in New York in 1971, both of whom are based on real victims of Alcala's.
Whereas the sections involving Kendrick's Cheryl are marked by the actor-director's trademark zippy style, the sections involving Zovatto's Rodney play out with increasingly upsetting menace. He's lumbering and unrelentingly slimy, even when he's ostensibly supposed to be charming women into agreeing to follow him to remote locations.
As Cheryl's episode plays out, an audience member (Nicolette Robinson) recognizes Rodney as the person who was last seen with her friend who was later sexually assaulted and killed, but her pleas to speak with someone in charge to warn them go unheeded. The themes of women's voices and experiences being ignored are persistent throughout the film; what's less convincing is how anyone could possibly not see right to the core of Rodney's malice.
The real story
Woman of the Hour takes some liberties with the facts of its narrative, especially when it comes to The Dating Game set up. It curiously doesn't go into how Alcala was cast on the show—despite having reportedly been already convicted of and gone to prison for child molestation. Additionally, in a 2021 interview on 20/20 the show's executive producer Mike Metzger said he had conflicted feelings before choosing Alcala, the producer saying, "“He had a mystique about him that I found uncomfortable."
The Dating Game's structure involves the woman quizzing three male contestants—whose looks are shielded from her behind a barricade—before ultimately making a choice as to who she will go out with. While in the film Alcala is "Bachelor Number Three" in actuality he was "Bachelor Number One," a minor distinction. In both cases, he won.
Although in the film, Cheryl takes charge by posing questions to her potential paramours that are more intelligent than the innuendo-filled queries on her cue cards, in real life Alcala's winning answers were lascivious and, frankly, creepy from the beginning. Bradshaw asked: "I’m serving you for dinner. What are you called and what do you look like?” Alcala responded, "I’m called the banana and I look good." When she followed up, he said, "Peel me."
Afterwards, Bradshaw called the contestant coordinator Ellen Metzger and, according to Metzger's interview with 20/20, said she didn't want to follow through on the date, an instinct which ended up likely saving her life. "She said, 'Ellen, I can’t go out with this guy,'" Metzger said. "'There’s weird vibes that are coming off of him. He’s very strange. I am not comfortable. Is that going to be a problem?’ And of course, I said, 'No.'" Alcala was ultimately sentenced to death in California in 2010 for five killings of women and girls in the 1970s. In 2013 he was sentenced to more time in New York for two further murders. He died on death row in 2021.
Woman of the Hour imagines a post-show meeting where Cheryl learns firsthand how dangerous Rodney potentially could be, a dark moment that nonetheless ends in something of a triumph for her. Not much is known about the actual Bradshaw, so Kendrick and McDonald flesh her out, framing her as a woman butting up against the Hollywood machine that wants her to be brainless and just judges her on her body. While the plot eventually circles back to Rodney and his apprehension, Cheryl is the character that is most vivid and recognizable on screen, even if in real life she remains mysterious.
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