A game-changing legal case crushing gender discrimination is portrayed in “On the Basis of Sex,” now at theaters — and it was Francis X. McCarthy’s job to portray a judge who resisted equality of the sexes but was finally persuaded by the moving arguments of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The movie covers the life of Ginsburg, her struggles to be admitted to Harvard Law School, then a men’s domain, and her fight in 1973 to be taken seriously by a three-judge appeals court that was “solidly against her, but she made her points very well and starts to turn me in favor of her,” says McCarthy.
His character chides Ginsburg when she persists in answering questions addressed to the appellant, a man who is fighting the IRS for taking deductions for caretaking of his invalid mother — and the government has ruled caretaking is only a woman’s job.
“My character is a hard man,” McCarthy notes. The high moment comes when Ginsburg is lectured that the word “woman” is not found in the Constitution and she replies, “Neither is the word freedom, (long pause) your honor.”
“To me, personally, she’s an extraordinary figure, fighting for human rights most of her life. Harvard wouldn’t admit her because she was a woman, and she just wouldn’t take no for an answer. She’s so admirable to me,” McCarthy says.
McCarthy, 76, a stage, screen and TV actor with scores of credits, discovered Ashland in 1988. “I love this place. Every time we (he and wife Helene Boucher) dropped down into the valley on the freeway, it was a big feeling of ‘welcome home.’”
Before the digital revolution, film-TV actors assumed you had to live in Los Angeles or New York to get steady work, but with Skype and (FaceTime), he can sit at home and audition, edit on iMovie and get roles anywhere.
For “Basis,” he read a couple of scenes with his wife off-camera, speaking lines of the other character, sent it off to the director in Montreal, got a request to read it again on Skype, waited a few hours and heard he got the role.
“This technology is wonderful,” he says. “I get the job, go do it and get back here in Ashland with Helene.”
In the same fashion, he landed a role in the TV series “Dear White People” (Netflix) playing an irascible old Professor Queensfield, who “deals harshly” with a female student and a campus black caucus around gender and race issues.
“I’m a force on campus, a hardass, and do not suffer fools gladly,” says McCarthy, adding he is often typecast as “Mr. Authority,” as seen in cops and judges. He has broken out of that role in some pictures, in “fun roles” with Steve Martin in “The Man With Two Brains,” directed by Carl Reiner, later as a bad cop in “Hill Street Blues” and as a badass bomb-making biker in “The Bikers.”
It was in his leading role in “Imaginaerum” in 2011 that digital technology got the dependability and quality to enable him to live in Ashland, following shorter spells here.
“It was like bingo, the universe answered and I realized, ‘Oh, I can move here full time.’”
A native of Boston, McCarthy in 1958 got the stage bug in a three-month class at Cambridge Center for Adult Education, costing $25. “I so fell in love with it and how it made me feel, an overwhelming feeling of love for what I wanted to do in life. Nothing else mattered.”
Soon he was being mentored by a young, budding Al Pacino. “It was fabulous. He put me in his shows every time he was in town.”
He toured as McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” then did 25 years in movies and TV in Los Angeles, acting in “NYPD Blue,” “The Dead Zone,” “Frazier,” “Melrose Place” and “Bates Motel.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.