Vic’s Flix Movie Review: On The Basis of Sex

As prominently displayed on screen during a recent viewing of On The Basis of Sex, the year is 1956 when Ruth Ginsberg enters Harvard law school, one of nine women allowed to do so in a class of 500 men. And “allowed” pretty much captures the sentiment of the men in charge in that dark time. It was also the year I turned two, so I find it amazing that I grew up completely immersed in a culture of unenlightened people and archaic laws. I thought the 1960s were pretty cool. Guess not.
Flash forward to 1970, and several other dates along the way. I have a problem with stop action cinematic history, especially when filmmakers can only explain a timeline with titles on screen. It results in a film that lacks nuance, desperately seeking anecdotal highlights in a person’s life to develop a story. But this is quite a story.
Although women won the right to vote in 1920, the Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1971 was never ratified by enough states to become a constitutional amendment. In the early 1970s hundreds of antiquated laws remained on the books, limiting jobs for fear of women leaving their “intended role” inside the home. Queue Ginsberg, who buys into the notion that, concerning the law, “We must not be guided by the weather of the day, but by the climate of the era.” She decides to tackle a key case that establishes precedent for future cases, literally changing history in the process.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg is all the rage right now. RBG, as she is known, is hip, fierce, smart, tenacious and really, really old. She’s a living legend who vows to keep on living and serving on the Supreme Court as long as a Republican president is in power. Her seat on the court is priceless. Played in the film by a very youthful Felicity Jones, age 35, I had trouble reconciling the RBG we see on the news with the actress playing a young RBG, especially during love scenes. I had to force myself not to see the image above on the right and assume that Ruth was once young and Felicity-like. And in fact, she was. Roll tape.
Married to fellow law student Martin Ginsberg, played by Armie Hammer, who could be a stand-in for Captain America, the power couple takes on Harvard, even when Marty is so ill that Ruth sits in on his classes as well as her own, typing his papers and conveying lecture material while he rests on the couch. Maybe SHE is Captain America!
One unacknowledged character in this film is the typewriter. We see it evolve from a fully manual Smith-Corona to an IBM correcting Selectric, all in the capable hands of women, because that’s what women were allowed to do. Somewhere along the line there must have been a male secretary. I was one, but not until 1986. In fact, I related to those who pounded out legal briefs, since I typed some of my best friend’s papers while he worked in the Appeals Division of the Cook County States Attorney’s office. They are cumbersome typing jobs.
Justin Theroux plays Mel Wulf, an over-acting (or maybe just over-scripted) aggressive ACLU legal director who teams up with Ginsberg at her request to take on a seemingly unwinnable case. Perhaps he was this animated in real life, but he seemed exaggerated and kind of corny.
Sam Waterston is in his usual form as Erwin Griswold, Dean of the Harvard Law School who later became Solicitor General of the United States, an intense Washington-type character he was born to play. He’s good in just about any role.
Kathy Bates plays the quirky feminist and civil rights attorney, Dorothy Kenyon, who once lost a key case, and is now somewhat reclusive and combative. She wants nothing to do with Ginsberg, who idolizes her, but reluctantly comes around when she needs a favor from Wulf.
Jones is not entirely convincing as the brilliant and aggressive young Ruth Bader Ginsberg and seemed to have trouble consistently emulating her New York accent, if any. There it is. Oh, now it’s gone. Was I hearing things? She is also frequently seen rapidly walking through crowds, a counterpoint to her diminutive stature (she’s short), having “Aha” moments that light up her face and cause her to change direction. Oh boy, something cool is about to happen!
The Ginsberg character in this film was seemingly caught between the influence of a demanding mother, who wanted her to change the world, and her budding feminist daughter, who asks, “Why change the world, if not for me?”
On The Basis of Sex (or should we say gender, as one sensitive typist suggests) is recommended if you think you’ll enjoy a bio-drama about lawyers. They throw around enough legal jargon to engender authenticity, almost to the point at which you’ve had enough and would rather they just tell the story. And I think they fall short of completing the story, since the film ends long before Ginsberg’s eventual appointment as the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. For that perhaps you need to watch CNN’s movie entitled simply RBG.
On The Basis of Sex (2018) runs 2 hours and is rated PG-13

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