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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019 12:04 am

Basis of Sex doesn't ring true

During the ‘30s and ‘40s, biopics were a staple of the major studios, particularly Warner Brothers and MGM, where films were made recounting the greatness of the men – and occasional woman – that made the country, and sometimes the world, a wonderful place to live.  These portraits espoused the virtues of their subject, presenting them as models we should aspire to, suggesting that if we were to live as Thomas Edison or Abe Lincoln had, all would be well. Of course, in retrospect, these films come off as ridiculous what with the subjects’ positive attributes often exaggerated, their faults never mentioned and facts sometimes being reimagined as heroic acts (Check out They Died With Their Boots On with Errol Flynn as General Custer for an egregious misrepresentation of the bigoted, megalomaniac).

Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, an examination of a key section of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, comes off as one of those old, hoary biopics, a simplistic look at a complex woman that fails to realistically capture her spirit. Following her struggles to be taken seriously by her peers and the men who controlled the legal profession in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the film focuses primarily on a key case dealing with sexual discrimination that Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court and was the basis for overturning other discriminatory laws and practices.  This is all fairly interesting, but there are far too many distractions in the way the movie’s subject is portrayed to prevent us from becoming fully immersed in it.

As one of just nine women in the Harvard class of 1956, Ginsburg not only raised a child while completing her studies, but nursed her husband Martin (Armie Hammer, in a thankless role) back to health after he was diagnosed with cancer.  She also attended his classes, took notes for him and helped write his papers so that he might graduate on time and go out to be the breadwinner of the family. For her trouble, she was still unable to find a job as an attorney in any New York firm and settled for a professorship at Rutgers.

As the film hits upon her various plights, Leder goes out of her way to underscore again and again, in large ways and small, that Ginsburg was put upon at every turn, seemingly unable to get through a single day without having to endure a slight of some sort because she was a smart woman trying to succeed in a man’s world.  Whether it be at a posh dinner, in class, at a hospital or walking down the street, Ginsburg suffers in a world that’s intent on keeping her down because of her sex.  It all becomes too much to bear, so much so that the irony that she’s defending a man in a case of sexual discrimination rings hollow.

As Ginsburg, Felicity Jones takes on the role, chin up, shoulders squared, chest out, her gleaming eyes looking far into the future to the recognition she knows awaits her, a heroine cut from pristine cloth.  Other than being a bit of an overbearing mother, Daniel Stiepleman’s script gives us a woman with nary a blemish, making her not only unrealistic but a bit of a bore as well.

The movie, as well as its subject, is much too good to be true and simply doesn’t hold any water in an era in which well-rounded biopics are wanted and expected.  On the Basis of Sex simply doesn’t dig deep enough where this fascinating woman is concerned, and as such, fails to do her justice.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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