Mimi Lede's fall from grace as one of Hollywood’s top female directors entrusted to helm tent pole action projects like The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998) to someone relegated to pilots and direct-to-DVD projects after the failure her Pay It Forward (2000) is symptomatic of the sexist attitudes that pervade the movie-making business.
At the prime of her career, Leder was one of the very few women working in not just an industry but a genre dominated by men. When she was no longer in demand, she also struggled with second chances after a critical and box office bomb. This, despite her male peers churning failure after failure while still being given adequate work... on the clear basis of sex.
Second female justice
On the Basis of Sex, Leder’s first film in 10 years, is about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who from being one of the token women accepted into Harvard Law School made a name for herself litigating for women’s rights, eventually becoming the second female justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Clearly, Leder fits the role of bringing Ginsburg’s important struggle to the big screen.
It can even be said that Ginsburg’s story is also her story. When Ginsburg, played luminously by Felicity Jones, is made fun of by her male classmates and her male professor for her stark answer during recitation, Leder sees the scene as not just the adroitly written exchange of wit-filled dialogue in Daniel Stiepelman’s serviceable screenplay but as a way to lay the veiled sexism that still pervades in the present.
On the surface, On the Basis of Sex seems like just a crowd-pleasing underdog story, but the overtness and urgency of its moods and impulses reflect that it is much more personal than it seems.
The beauty of On the Basis of Sex is that while it depicts Ginsburg as a gifted law student, its plot centers on how she has also been defeated by the system, forced to play second fiddle to a husband (Armie Hammer) with a blazing career. Instead of navigating Ginsburg’s rise to becoming a top litigator, it concentrates on one particular landmark case that sees the character’s ideals and the country’s appreciation of gender equality in their infancy.
This allows Leder to present Ginsburg less of an advocate and more of a woman rediscovering her strength amidst a society that is too quick to disown her skills and intellect just because of her gender.
On the Basis of Sex is quite a spirited biopic.
Its ability to translate the esoteric world of suits, trials and legalese into concise sequences that provoke not just interest and intrigue but actual thrills and excitement is a testament to Leder’s experience as a director of action films. One only needs to see the scene in the appeals court where the characters both bungle and rise from the ashes to understand that flowery words and ornate gestures can also be gripping.
While the film can be accused of looking flat and dated, it can also be said that On the Basis of Sex isn’t a film that would have benefited from pretty pictures and spectacle.
It is deeply entertaining while keeping its relevance and purpose. It sustains the interest of its audience not just by its advocacy but also its sturdy and elegant pacing.
Pomp and drama
On the Basis of Sex often overdoes the pageantry and the dramatics to push the climax, sometimes lumping its characters – especially the close-minded men Ginsurg has to deal with – into boxes and stereotypes
Clearly, the film has problems that are mostly part and parcel of the business of fictionalizing the lives of important people. But the lessons it imparts more than justifies its pomp and drama. – Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas' Tirad Pass.
Since then, he's been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.