On the basis of sex

ON THE BASIS OF SEX,  US, 2018.  Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Steven Root, Chris Mulkey. Directed by Mimi Leder.  120 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).

In 2018, a fine documentary made its mark in the United States, award nominations, but also had successful release outside America. The title was simply initials, RBG. For Americans in the know, they were the initials of a significant Justice of the Supreme Court since the 1990s, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The documentary was always interesting, giving the background Ruth Bader, her studies in law in the 1950s, not the time for women to be studying law, especially at Harvard, and her marriage to fellow lawyer, Martin Ginsberg.

The documentary traced her life, her 56 year marriage to Martin Ginsberg, their children. But it also traced her career, lecturing, getting jobs, focusing on equal rights for men and women, especially for women, making her pleas in the court, fighting for progressive issues and, ultimately, her appointment to the Supreme Court.

While she herself appeared in the documentary, many an audience, especially those who don’t see documentaries, would like to know more of her personality and her life, her struggles and achievement, in the form of the feature film. Here it is.

An American would realise the significance of the title. Audiences outside America might be wondering about the emphasis on “sex” and prefer more legal usage, “gender”. In fact, the initial phrase is that used in many legal documents and judgements. And, later in the film, Ruth’s secretary, preparing a brief for the court, suggest to her that there is too much emphasis on the word sex and suggests gender. Ruth agrees. (But, that might not make a sufficiently attractive from title!)

British actress, Felicity Jones (Stephen Hawking’s wife in Theory of Everything, warrior in the Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One) portrays the young Ruth in her early decades. She is small (as was Ruth whom we actually see mounting the steps of the Supreme Court at the end of the film), strong-minded, determined, stubborn. We see her admitted to Harvard, one of the few women there in the mid-1950s, and treated by some of the male staff (especially Sam Waterston as the Dean of Law at Harvard) as something of an unwelcome appendage to the student body which should be male.

However, Ruth has also married Martin (an engaging presence by Armie Hammer) and they have a daughter Jane. Lecturers discriminate against asking questions of women in class, but Ruth is always volunteering answers, writing papers, topping her class. The couple endure a great blow when Martin is diagnosed with cancer, has to go into surgery, with Ruth sitting in on his classes as well as her own, doing his work as he recuperates.

Then there is the irony of her interviews for jobs and, even the most sympathetic interviewers, saying they don’t have a position for her. She becomes a professor instead. In transition to 1970, we see a very changed United States after the growing freedoms and experiences of the 1960s. It is an era of protests and demonstrations, the younger generation speaking out more forthrightly (including Ruth’s daughter, Jane).

Ruth admires Dorothy Kenyon, a prominent female lawyer of the early 1960s, a robust crusty Kathy Bates, and is friends with a leading lawyer in the organisation promoting legal action for minorities. He is played with energy and determination by Justin Theroux.

At the core of the film is a particular case, a bachelor looking after his ill mother, falling foul of some government regulations which presumed that women care for parents at home, with various tax complications. He is played by Chris Mulkey and Ruth takes his case, refusing to do a deal with the old Harvard authorities and professors.

The film shows Ruth’s inexperience as well as her skills. We see her preparing her brief, relying on Martin for his collaboration, rehearsing her defence in front of Judge friends and not being too successful – which leads to the case itself, dividing the 30 minutes of presentation between herself and Martin, the judges grilling Martin, her having a very limited time to make her case but, historically, she did, she won, she changed interpretations and applications of the law.

The way the film was written is that it starts as we might expect in a biography but becomes more and more interesting as Ruth’s character develops, in her work with Martin, and the legal details about the case.

So, 2018 was a most significant year for RBG at 85 and for audiences to get to know her.

eOne                                        Released February 7th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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