Monday 18 February 2019

Paul Whitington: On the Basis of Sex is a very solid account of a remarkable life story

'It gave me the chance to change gears, to not let my career trajectory be decided for me'

Sense of decency: Hammer and Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex
Sense of decency: Hammer and Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Looking at Armie Hammer, I realise how rickety wartime Europeans must have felt when confronted with well-fed GIs. Six-foot-five, blindingly handsome, and with a deck of teeth no Irishman living or dead could rival, he looks like he comes from another planet, which might be called Hollywood. Indeed, he looks the perfect leading man, but a career glitch five or so years back has turned him into a better and more interesting actor.

He's in London to promote On the Basis of Sex, a new biopic based on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the legal trailblazer who played a huge role in the advancement of sexual equality in the US, and later became a strident liberal voice on the US Supreme Court. Hammer plays Ruth's husband, Martin Ginsburg, a brilliant tax lawyer who backed his wife's battle to pursue a legal career in an era when it was next to impossible for women.

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Felicity Jones plays Ruth, a young Brooklyn Jewish girl who's all at sea in her first year at Harvard Law when she meets the dashing Martin. They quickly become an inseparable team, at home and in court, where Martin helps his wife strategise and present the landmark cases that will challenge multiple instances of discrimination on the basis of sex.

In preparing for the film, Jones got to spend time with the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but as Martin Ginsburg sadly died back in 2010, Armie had to cast his investigative net wider. Late in life, Martin wrote a speech in which he described how he and Ruth had balanced work and family, and raised their children together: he had cooked and cleaned and done homework, and was a man ahead of his time.

"I did look at that speech," Armie tells me, "and I got to meet Ruth and ask her a bunch of questions. And then she gave me this cookbook Marty had put together, and his recipes were very Marty, very funny, very pithy, it was written much in the way that he spoke, so it was a really good clue. Ruth was a great help, of course, and the film's writer, Daniel Stiepleman, is Ruth's nephew - and he grew up with them so we had access to him as well."

What shines through in Hammer's performance is Marty's good humour and unerring sense of decency.

"I feel that guys like Marty are tragically under-represented in film. I mean, the kind of strength that he had, to defy the gender norms, to be willing to do what it took to allow his wife to succeed. She wouldn't have been able to do it without him, and he never seems to have had a moment of, you know, I guess I'm cooking again, I guess I'm cleaning the kitchen. Never. He relished it, and he was just this great, strong dependable human being."

In On the Basis of Sex we see Marty fight for his wife's cause, and for her right to work as a lawyer, but as Armie points out, "that doesn't mean that he's experiencing the same life she is". While he swans around the Harvard campus, Ruth is one of just two or three women studying law in a class of hundreds. Time and again she's condescended to, and at one point the Dean asks her to justify having taken a place that might have been filled by a man.

"You know it's hard for me as a straight, white male to even put myself in those positions," Armie admits, "but that has to be our job now, to educate ourselves, and understand that the root of what we're dealing with now came from these places. We've had it easy."

The 'Notorious RBG', as she'd come to be known by both admirers and detractors, was one tough cookie, and still is. Late last year, the 85-year-old, who still sits on the US Supreme Court, bounced back from treatment for cancerous lung nodes, and a serious fall at home.

"She's a tough old bird. She fell and broke three ribs but she didn't want to go to the hospital. If I stubbed my toe on this table, I'd be like, take me to the hospital, I have to die. She didn't get to where she is by not being a fighter."

The young RBG had to endure constant casual sexism, and the film shows how the nature of harassment has changed.

"My daughter's godmother is a woman named Florence," Armie tells me. "She's 103 years old, and she will tell stories about being in the workplace, and she was well-educated and she had a great job, but if she turned something over to her boss and it was good, he would pat her on the ass and say well done.

"These days it's almost more insidious. Because now you should know better, and if you don't, it's not like, bless his heart, he didn't know - you don't have an excuse any more."

On the Basis of Sex might easily have picked up some Oscar nominations, but has been ignored in a strange and unpredictable year. But it's a very solid account of a remarkable life story, and Hammer is very good as the suave and dependable Marty. It's the latest in a series of eye-catching, varied roles that have re-established him as a top Hollywood actor.

Born in 1986 into a wealthy Californian dynasty, Armie has often talked in interviews that his family were not keen on his decision to take up acting.

"They are very sick of me saying that," he nods. "It's just, I don't think they ever thought I would take it as seriously as I did. They were concerned, I suppose - and by the way, if my kids ever said I want to be an actor, I'd be like ooh, that's not an easy road to hoe."

After playing bit parts in TV shows like Gossip Girl and Desperate Housewives, and being cast as Batman in a George Miller movie that never happened, Hammer finally got a break playing not one role but two in David Fincher's 2010 hit The Social Network. His portrayal of the preppy and aggrieved Winklevoss twins was note-perfect, and very witty. Bigger roles followed, in Clint Eastwood's biopic J Edgar, and the big-budget fantasy Mirror Mirror. Then, in 2013, The Lone Ranger happened.

Hammer was in the lead role opposite Johnny Depp's Tonto, and it should have been his big chance to become a dominant Hollywood player. But production and budget problems doomed Gore Verbinski's western epic before it was ever released: rather unfairly savaged by the critics, it bombed at the box office, lost a fortune and poor Armie got caught in the crossfire.

"It's true that the way all that went down probably did send me down a different road," he says, "but I'm 100pc satiated with the path I'm now on, I have no regrets about anything. Working on The Lone Ranger gave me the opportunity to work with someone like Gore, who is a criminally underrated film-maker.

"And then, you know, it gave me the opportunity to change gears, and to not let my career trajectory be decided for me. After that, I got to pick exactly what I wanted."

In fact, after a lean few years, he blossomed, expanding his range and proving he was more than just an impossibly handsome face. An arrogant slave owner in The Birth of a Nation, a loquacious 1970s criminal in Ben Wheatley's thriller Free Fire, sculptor Alberto Giacometti's muse in Final Portrait - suddenly Armie's choices grew wonderfully unpredictable, culminating in Luca Guadagnino's gay love story Call Me By Your Name.

"I knew about Luca, and I always respected him as an artist. But when I read that film first, I was like, you know this feels really progressive for an American audience, this is a love story between two men and there's no antagonist, also let's be totally honest, that guy just f***ed a peach and the other guy ate it, I'm not sure that middle America is really going to enjoy that.

"Fortunately, I was wrong. I thought we were making a niche film, that I was making for the sake of pushing and challenging myself, and then it really kind of paid off."

So did his eye-catching turn in Boots Riley's Gothic race comedy Sorry to Bother You, as a maniac billionaire who thinks he's a nice guy but really, really isn't. "I love Boots Riley and if he ever called me again, I would do whatever he was asking: for the first time really in my entire career, I got to play a character."

More good things are on the way, including Ben Wheatley's intriguing remake of Rebecca, which Armie is relishing. "It's part of the fun of the job - you get to change it up all the time."

The notorious RBG

If you look closely at anti-Trump protests in the US, you may notice T-shirts bearing the image of a thin, owlish, elderly woman. It's Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the arch liberal on the American Supreme Court, and the polar opposite of President Trump's recent appointee, Brett Kavanaugh. A hero to many, Ginsburg has been fighting the good fight since graduating in the late 1950s and facing a wall of derision and prejudice when she tried to practise law.

Instead, for a decade or so, she taught it, but in 1970, with the help of her husband Martin, she found a clever way of attacking the legality of discrimination on the basis of sex. Through that decade she made a name for herself, by successfully winning a series of Circuit and Supreme Court appeals proving that barring women from certain jobs and pay scales was unconstitutional. Jimmy Carter appointed her to the US Court of Appeals in 1980, Bill Clinton moved her up to the Supreme Court in 1992. Ever since, she's been a thorn in the side of the American right.

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