Friday 22 March 2019

Mimi and RBG still battling over sex

Mimi Leder has never let her gender stand in her way, just like the legendary Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writes Anne Marie Scanlon

Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex
Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Director Mimi Leder and her husband Gary Werntz

Anne Marie Scanlon

Mimi Leder is that very rare thing - a female film director. Even rarer, Leder is a female film director who regularly works in Hollywood - her CV includes ER, Vanished and The Leftovers.

At first glance, Leder quite disconcertingly looks like Roseanne Barr, but that is where all similarities end.

While Barr is now notorious for shooting her mouth off, Leder is reserved and chooses her words carefully. She's rather formidable, not unlike the subject of her latest film, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

On the Basis of Sex stars Felicity Jones as RBG, as she is sometimes known, an iconic figure in the USA where she currently, at age 85, sits on the Supreme Court. However, Irish readers may not be as familiar with Ginsburg's life, work and role in the feminist movement as their American counterparts.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg

On the Basis of Sex documents two pivotal moments in Ginsburg's life and career - in essence it is almost two films.

The movie begins with the young Ruth entering the male-dominated world of Harvard Law School in 1956 - of 500 students only nine are female; it was just six years since they had started accepting women. The Dean (Law & Order's Sam Waterston) invites all nine women to a meal and then makes them individually justify why they are deserving of a place having usurped a man to get it.

The early part of the film is fascinating as Ginsburg is not only faced by institutional sexism but when her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) is struck with testicular cancer she manages not just to nurse him, care for their baby and keep on top of her classwork - but she takes on his student work as well. (If this was a work of fiction audiences would no doubt scoff at any woman - or man - being capable of juggling so much, but as the cliche goes, truth invariably is stranger than fiction.)

Despite graduating top of her class, Ginsburg found it difficult to find work (her husband was inundated with offers) and she instead went to Rutgers to teach law. Leder tells me that she admires Ginsburg "tremendously - as a woman who changed things, who made our country a better place".

Leder is referring to the latter part of the film and the landmark Moritz case that changed US law so that nobody could be discriminated against on the basis of their sex. Ironically, considering the huge implications the ruling had on the lives of women, Ginsburg was acting on behalf of a man who faced sex discrimination by the inland revenue. (Again, truth trumps fiction in oddness.)

Felicity Jones is marvellous as the powerhouse who keeps striving to improve the lot of women, while keeping the character's humanity up front. I see parallels between Leder and her fellow New Yorker Ginsburg and wonder if this had any influence on her decision to direct the film.

Director Mimi Leder and her husband Gary Werntz
Director Mimi Leder and her husband Gary Werntz

"I felt a lot of commonalities with her in very different generations - we both paved the way for women to come," the director replies. "We are both Jewish women, we are both mothers and we both have had very long marriages which thematically ties into this film because it's very much about how love prevails and the love story aspect was super important."

In terms of women's rights, Leder says that she can see a direct line from the Moritz case to the recent #MeToo movement.

I wonder if #MeToo has made a lasting impact on Hollywood or if now that the initial fuss has calmed whether things will return to 'normal'. Leder thinks not:#MeToo is in its infancy," she says "I think there's so much more to come and I don't think it's ever going back to the way it was… but we're never going back to the times when people rolled their eyes and let things slide and everybody told themselves stories so that they could get by."

I ask Leder how she would sell her movie to Irish audiences, who mostly would not have heard of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and suddenly the friendly reserve disappears and is replaced by genuine warmth and enthusiasm. "I just visited Ireland," she says. "I love it. The Irish people are beyond lovely, beyond sweet and funny. My husband wants to move to Ireland."

It transpires that Leder was in Ireland in May 2018 during the Repeal Referendum. "It was an exciting place to be," she tells me, "and it was the right result - for women to choose what is happening to their bodies. It was a great time and it was so interesting talking to Irish people about it. This is what Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been fighting for - equal rights for women, her entire life."

Leder thinks Ginsburg's story has a universal appeal.

"It's the story of an American woman who changed the world for the better, who was and still is a truth seeker, a woman who changed archaic laws for both women and men, who made the world a more truthful place. I think Irish people will definitely relate to this film as their country is evolving by the day."

Now that I'm no longer feeling intimidated I ask Leder what the secret to a long happy relationship is - she and husband Gary Werntz have been married for decades. "It's respect," she says firmly, "listening and love. I think listening is a big thing. When you're in a long-term relationship sometimes you stop listening. And being kind is big, and obviously honesty is key to all good relationships."

When I ask where she met her husband she replies instantly and flatly: "I picked him up in a bar." There's a second or two of silence before Leder laughs heartily and tells me they met in a restaurant and "it was love at first sight. I was 30-ish, (she's now in her late 60s) we fell in love and had a beautiful daughter and here we are."

Despite the strides made by women since Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School in 1956, many areas, including the film industry, are still heavily male dominated. I ask Leder what advice she would give to a young woman starting out.

"It's much easier to make your own film these days than when I was coming up," she replies and goes on to say that women should be "passionate, believe in yourself, have perseverance, tell your story and don't let anyone tell you you can't tell your story and don't let anyone tell your story for you. Stand up. Have no fear."

'On the Basis of Sex' will be in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

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