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Thread: ON THE BASIS OF SEX (Mimi Leder 2018)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    ON THE BASIS OF SEX (Mimi Leder 2018)


    Ruth rises to the bar

    A little inspiration comes in handy this time of year and this movie provides lots of it, regardless of your gender.

    It appears, for starters, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg's typist is the one who came up with the idea of using the now widespread word "gender" instead of "sex" when discrimination is at issue. She perceived that in the brief, Mrs. Ginsburg (it was "Mrs." back then, in 1972) was preparing for her first case on this subject, "Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue" - the climactic sequence of Mimi Leder's On the Basis of Sex - the text was peppered constantly with the word "sex," and, well, not to sound like a porno book, she suggested the alternative.

    This isn't exactly a great movie. It's rather long for what comes off like an episode of "The Good Wife," the law-related TV series that, arguably, is smarter as well as sexier. Nonetheless "The Notorious RBG" certainly deserved a feature film as well as the documentary she also got last summer. In the lead, the English actress Felicity Jones (Oscar-nominated for The Theory of Everything) looks and sounds right, even to an understated version of a Brooklyn accent. As Ruth's exemplary husband Martin, Armie Hammer shines, seeming both suave and heroic. He's as good as his performance in Call Me by Your Name, just more selfless and inconspicuous. But not that inconspicuous. One of this film's aims is to show this was a partnership in every sense, at home and in the courtroom: he cooked and egged her on at every step, and in the Moritz case they presented the brief in tandem.

    When the movie begins, Ruth is just starting at Harvard Law School, and already married to Martin. We get glimpses of the Harvard Law dean's sexist public behavior toward the nine women then admitted to the class, which he clearly thinks was way too many. Skipped over are their marriage, his military service, the birth of their first child. And the action quickly jumps to the moment when Marty got a job with a New York law firm, and Ruth transferred to Columbia to keep the family together, winding up at the top of both classes and on both law reviews, this switch also opposed by the obstructionist dean of Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston).

    The action is simply outlined. The legal director of the ACLU, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) is clearly depicted as being what Ruth and Marty's sprightly teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) calls "a dick." The objections to women's equality are clearly not only on the right. Men just don't think it can happen. But neither does Dorothy Kenyon, a distinguished older woman lawyer and civil libertarian.

    Kathy Bates is terrific in the small role of Kenyon. The schematic writing does not mean the acting is crude; it's spirited, sometimes even subtle. At the center of it is the steadfast but never strident Felicity Jones and the warm, appealing Armie Hammer. Armie can be a Dick, as Theroux is here, and for that matter Waterston, and as he was earlier last year as the agent of the rich in Sorry to Bother You. It seems when Armie's stock went way up, as it surely did by being irresistibly charming in the universally loved Call Me by Your Name, being able to pick and choose, he has gone for political roles. But he can also do the ultra-privileged as he did in his first notable role as the Winkelvoss twins in the David Fincher-helmed/Aaron Sorkin-penned The Social Network.

    The screenwriter has said he looked to Rocky for inspiration, and there's a definite come-from-behind trajectory to the film's judicial climax. It's not hard to depict Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an underdog. Despite her brilliance - which at one point Jane insists she flaunts too much - she's not only tiny, Jewish, and a woman, but also, having been forced to work as a law professor instead of an advocate for many years, she's inexperienced at pleading before a higher court. It's not too forced to make her appear to be stumbling at first, bumping into the microphone, yielding to her husband, an experienced tax lawyer in his element in this tax-deduction case. And then when he's about to do the rebuttal, she stays his hand and gets up. There's fire in her! and quietly but firmly, in the film's most powerful moment, she delivers a simple but irrefutable case. She gets an extension of her rebuttal time on the basis on a zinger, when one of the three judges says the word "woman" doesn't occur once in the Constitution and she ripostes, "nor does the word 'freedom,' your honor." This could make a kid, especially a girl, fall in love with the law.

    During that climactic hearing in Denver, before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, there's the mood of Aaron Sorkin at his best. It's all about fast thinking. Words are the weapons. Argumentation is the combat. It's about being smart - dazzling us with your gift of gab. But the writer, it turns out, isn't Sorkin. He's Daniel Stiepleman, RBG's own nephew. So this is a nepotistic biopic? But it's not really a biopic, just a key slice of the life of the most important gender equality lawyer of her generation and most admired and known woman Supreme Court Judge. And one can't see nepotism in the writing.

    One watches movies like this for inspiration of several kinds. On the Basis of Sex will make you want to learn more about gender equality in the US; about the interrelation, key in the presentation of the case by Marty and Ruth in Denver, between changes in culture and society and a legal system that staggers to keep up. You may also be inspired by the picture of a marriage of equal and joyful love, sacrifice, and high achievement. One may not hope to rise to this level, or even get anywhere close. But one can rejoice that there are people who do.

    On the Basis of Sex, 120 mins., debuted at AFI Fest Nov. 2018; also Toronto; limited US release 25 Dec. 2018, wider, 11 Jan. 2018. Metascore 60.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-13-2019 at 01:14 AM.


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