Review: On the Basis of Sex

Given her current role in keeping the U.S. Constitution on an even keel during these politically stormy times, it’s not surprising that there are two feature-length films about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and by most lights the Oscar-nominated RBG is the more rigorous of the two simply because it’s a documentary. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better movie. RBG is mostly a tribute to Ginsburg as a guiding personality for the 21st century, and while it explains her accomplishments and their effect on not only the legal landscape of America but the status of women, it does so in a manner that highlights her qualities as a woman rather than her mind. On the Basis of Sex is a dramatic recounting of Ginsburg’s early career centered on the case that brought her attention as the leading gender rights advocate of the 20th century, and while it tends toward easily processed characterizations in the mode of Hollywood biopics, it gets into the nitty-gritty of legal procedures more deeply than RBG does. When the phrase “radical social change” comes up—more than once—it has genuine meaning.

The film establishes its sexist context with hackneyed assurance, showing how Harvard Law School grudgingly accepts Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) as one of a handful of its first batch of female students in the mid-1950s. As it happens, her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), is already a student there, and when he contracts testicular cancer and is required to undergo debilitating radiation therapy, she takes on his class load in addition to hers so that she can tutor him on his subjects. Though the details of this part of her life are over-emphasized for dramatic effect, they do show how gender identifications played out in her everyday life. Much is made of Ginsburg’s lack of culinary skills—Martin turns out to be the much better cook, probably out of necessity—and even when, after graduation, Martin lands the choice position with the big New York law firm and Ruth doesn’t due to her sex (though all of her interviewers are keen to point out what a brilliant legal mind she has), after she takes up a teaching job it is portrayed as being much more socially relevant—and occupationally challenging—than Martin’s better-paid tax law consultancy. RBG stresses the marriage, but On the Basis of Sex shows how the mechanics of the marriage, and not just the intimacy and equitable nature of the union, provided Ginsburg with the impetus to forge a new way of framing gender discrimination. After all, it is Martin who suggests she take as her first-ever case as an advocate the matter of a middle-aged caregiver (Chris Mulkey) who has been denied a tax break usually given to wives who take care of their parents or parents-in-law simply because he is a man.

Given the ironies inherent in such a case in the early 1970s, it’s surprising RBG didn’t cover it at all, but On the Basis of Sex dives into it head first, showing how the difficulties of the presentation before the court was intimidating even for the age’s firebrand female civil liberties attorney (Kathy Bates) and the ACLU, which, as represented by the legendary Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), was still susceptible to certain sexist tropes, if only for the purpose of playing Devil’s Advocate. Unfortunately, director Mimi Leder steeps the legal niceties of the case in the briny broth of court melodrama, and while it’s good for providing more than a few instances of throat-catching emotion, it tends to make it seem as if all gender discrimination problems were solved in one legal swoop. RBG proves that wasn’t the case, and that there was still a long way to go (still is). Neither movie is perfect, but if the topic interests you, I recommend seeing both movies. They ably complement each other. RBG opens in Japan in May.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Humax Cinema (03-3462-2539).

On the Basis of Sex home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC

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