3 trailblazing women get the spotlight in Sundance docs
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Fonda and Gloria Allred were all born within eight years of one another — 1933, 1937 and 1941. While their trajectories couldn’t be more different, they’re also similar in some ways. Each went on to defy expectations of their time and become powerhouse representatives of women, and all are getting the spotlight this year in three films playing at the Sundance Film Festival.
Ginsburg soldiered through sexist obstacles, like the Dean of Harvard Law School asking “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” to become the second female Supreme Court Justice in history. Allred devoted her energy to the often thankless task of taking on powerful men like Bill Cosby and Donald Trump (and more recently Harvey Weinstein) on behalf of powerless women. And Fonda eschewed a life of comforts as the beautiful daughter of Hollywood royalty to become a self-actualized activist.
Director Susan Lacy’s “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” an HBO Films production that will air sometime this year, is an unflinching account of Fonda’s life told through archive footage and new interviews with Fonda, who reflects on everything from her mother’s suicide and her eating disorder to the Hanoi Jane infamy and history-making workout videotape with heart wrenching (and warming) candor and insight. It is the story of, as she says at age 80 and in the beginning of her last act, becoming a “fully realized Jane” separate from a man, whether it’s her various husbands (“none of my marriages were democratic,” she said), or the shadow of Henry Fonda, who was quite distant as a father but took the time to call her fat when she was growing up.
“I think Jane’s story has resonance for women of all ages and experiences,” Lacy said in her director’s statement. “Hopefully, viewers of this film will see a woman of courage and spunk whose life is an example of how change and growth are possible at any age,”
In the case of Ginsburg, “RBG” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West saw an opportunity to put a spotlight the newly “internet famous” Associate Justice.
“Justice Ginsburg started to gain some fame as the ‘Notorious RBG’ in the wake of some of her blistering dissents in 2013 and 2014,” West said. “She became a kind of internet sensation and Julie and I, great admirers of Justice Ginsburg, realized that a lot of her new fans didn’t know the whole story and didn’t understand the role that she played in changing the laws affecting men and women in this country.”
The film looks at her childhood (climbing on garage roofs and wanting to do what the boys did), her exceptionally supportive husband, some of her early triumphs for women, her friendship with Antonin Scalia, her love of opera and, yes, that workout that you may have heard about (you see Ginsburg holding a plank like a boss).
“By schooling people in some of the legal history of the women’s rights movement and some of the things that Justice Ginsburg achieved earlier in her career, we’re trying to create sort of an emotional experience,” Cohen said. “We want people leaving the theater feeling happy and inspired.”
Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman meanwhile started documenting women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred long before Me Too and sexual misconduct became the story of the moment — and even before the Bill Cosby accusers started getting significant attention.
The Netflix original documentary premieres on the streaming service on Feb. 9.
Their voices don’t stop on the screen, either, and all three women attended and spoke at the festival.
Both Allred, 76, and Fonda, 80, led the Respect Rally over the weekend, giving speeches to those who dared to brave the freezing temperatures and talking about this extraordinary moment for women.
“This is the year that women’s voices have been heard, the year when women broke our silence about the injustices we have suffered, and the year where we said to rich, powerful, famous men you can break our hearts, but you cannot break our spirit,” Allred said to the Park City crowd Saturday.
Ginsburg, too, in conversation Nina Totenberg on a Sundance panel, said “every woman of my vintage knows what sexual harassment is” though she said they didn’t have a name for it then.
“For so long women were silent,” said Ginsburg, 84. “I think it’s about time.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr