While the stage origins of First Monday in October remain much in evidence in the 1981 film adaptation starring Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh, it’s an early line delivered by Matthau—playing the liberal “lion” of the U.S. Supreme Court—that appears to place the movie, at least by the standards of today’s political discourse, more into the realm of fairy tale.
Matthau’s Justice Dan Snow—who looks like Antonin Scalia and thinks like The Notorious RBG—is required to speak at the funeral of a just-deceased conservative “brother” on the court with whom he had sparred on many cases. Even as he remarks on the irony that his colleague had insisted he be the one to deliver a graveside eulogy, Snow muses:
You don’t have to agree with a man in order to respect him.
That sentiment isn’t the only one from the film that strikes a viewer as somewhat out-of-date, but when revisiting this politically-charged dramedy about the appointment of America’s first female Supreme Court justice, we also find that many of the ideological rifts dramatized in the story remain in play today. The script for director Ronald Neame’s movie—adapted for the screen by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee from their 1978 stage production—also comes with some subtle but sharp observations about how the left-right divide can be more complex than it is often portrayed by the media, and how easily political opponents sacrifice, or perhaps forget, their own principles simply for the sake of taking the opposite side of a similar argument whenever expediency requires.
Rushed into release a month after President Reagan rather ambushed its provocative premise by nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to replace retiring Associate Justice Potter Stewart, First Monday in October initially mines laughs from the awkward situation “the brethren” find themselves in when forced to contemplate a female voice on the court for the first time in two centuries of U.S. history.
Chief Justice Crawford (Barnard Hughes)—affectionately referred to as “C.J.” by his colleagues—is so disoriented by the news of the nomination that he lies down on Snow’s couch like a patient needing his therapy. Upon hearing that the president (we assume it’s meant to be Reagan, as we can spot a political cartoon of the Gipper hanging in Snow’s office) has chosen California’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ruth Hagadorn Loomis (Clayburgh) to be the newest member of the Court, Matthau’s Snow decries the appointment of “the Mother Superior of Orange County” and fears her intelligently written (but nevertheless very wrong in his eyes) opinions will prove to be dangerous and damaging to the court and the country.
When C.J. tries to humanize her by remarking that “she plays tennis,” Snow bites back with a retort that has remained a favorite, and repellent, rhetorical device of partisans left and right:
Hitler played the harmonica.
If you’re a politics junkie, as I am on at least a part-time basis, it’s here you’ll likely begin to experience First Monday in October on two different “tracks.” Yes, you’re watching it on the surface level for its entertainment value—but you’ll also start to fight the film’s ideological battles inside your own head, and tick away at any oddities or inconsistencies of the film’s political content. As in: Apart from a plot consideration that the script needs to start justifying way in advance, why is Matthau’s Snow getting so overly vexed about Loomis being a hardcore conservative? Didn’t he just say at the funeral that the man she will be replacing was at odds with him at every turn?
Snow craves a court that will tip 5-4 in his favor, rather than against him as he says it does now, but would the character really be so naïve as to think that a conservative president would appoint a leftist judge? Or that a liberal could be so “stealth” about his (or her) inclinations as to escape recognition? There’s no tipping of the “balance” of the court with Loomis’ appointment. So why the fuss?
Ruth Loomis’ confirmation hearing doesn’t quite approach the circus theatrics of the real thing, although she is on the receiving end of the expected and moronic question:
Will your judgments be influenced by the fact that you’re a woman?
Her response is fairly brilliant, and frankly, with its talk of being able to ovulate and think at the same time, hints at an embrace of progressivism that modern viewers might regard as alien coming out of the mouth of a “conservative.”
Loomis tries to disabuse her male interrogators of the notion that her possession of a uterus handicaps her ability to impartially dispense justice. She talks about the ability to birth children as a gift rather than a curse, only to have it then snidely observed that the recently widowed nominee bore no children of her own. Cleverly parrying the criticism by defining her ideas as her offspring—requiring both conception and sometimes painful delivery—she has a drop-the-mic moment that comes as a spirited defense of small-D democratic values:
You may not like my children, you may find them ugly. But by God, your ideas and mine have equal rights to live together, to grow, to change, even to die.
We seem to enter more recognizable political territory when the newly constituted Supremes hear their first case together, that of a Nebraska town asserting its right to enforce community standards and have a film producer arrested for the exhibition of his “documentary work of art” (that is to say, porno), The Naked Nymphomaniac. Clayburgh’s Loomis makes the kinds of arguments that we’d expect to hear from a conservative in the era of the Moral Majority, while the liberal Snow predictably attacks her views on First Amendment grounds.
In chambers, Snow and Loomis even undertake a mock trial situation to test each other’s arguments (with Snow play-acting the role of the movie producer and Loomis acting like a prosecuting attorney), with Snow resorting to the cheap sexism of referring to Loomis as a “Just-ess” and Loomis making overly florid appeals to family values and protecting the “innocent kid” who would somehow gain admission to an X-rated movie and be exposed to the “filth” that “washes over him.”
(Oh, the quaint old days when we argued whether or not pornographic material could be available to the public. What would these scolds make of the times we live in now, when that debate has been rendered obsolete by the instant availability of free smut across the Interwebs? We could ask them, but they’re probably busy trying to figure out ways to block web content from the children who know computers better than they do)
But then, their politics take an unusual turn, with Snow refusing to attend the justices’ screening of the film to evaluate its “socially redeeming value.” Snow’s rationale is that his hardline freedom-of-speech position obviates the need for him to sit through a movie he knows to be “crap” but still worthy of Constitutional protections, while Loomis replies with the kind of forceful argument we can all remember hearing from liberals when religious buffoons hurled their invective at The Last Temptation of Christ, sight unseen:
I think it’s essential that we see the film.
It’s an attention-getting reversal of what we’d consider the “usual” positions—in that the judge who wants the movie banned is the one who insists upon watching it, while the one who wants it to be exhibited freely refuses to make the time for it himself. With a little work, we can iron out their positions to our satisfaction: Matthau’s Snow is like a female liberal who wants to ensure that abortion rights are guaranteed, but would herself never choose to have one; Loomis is the anti-choice conservative who arranges an abortion for his mistress.
Over the course of the movie, we see just how readily Snow and Loomis play both sides of the ideological fence when it comes to the central case the plot revolves around. That case concerns the ominously-named multinational corporation Omnitech, accused of buying up the patents for, and then burying, a “momentum engine” that would eliminate the need for powering automobiles with gasoline.
When Snow insists that he wants desperately to see the firm’s long missing-in-action CEO come out of hiding and appear “in the flesh” to defend himself, Loomis makes the case that it’s the corporation, not the person, being sued. At one point, Loomis even goes so far as to suggest, during the second mock trial the two conduct with each other (with her taking up the persona of the businessman) that a CEO’s “right of privacy” entitles him to avoid a subpoena! (He) is Omnitech, Snow answers, maintaining that there should be no distinction made between the company and the person.
But when the two are arguing over the case at dinner, having just examined a prototype of the momentum engine at the Smithsonian and engaging in the usual back-and-forth about how my experts are right and your “experts” are wrong, Snow launches into an attack that embodies how he now sees the government’s role as vitally intrusive, to defend the citizenry from the machinations of “large,” not “great,” corporations.
And then, in the most shockingly still-relevant moment of First Monday in October, she says it:
Aren’t corporations people?
Owned by people? Run by people? For the benefit of people?
Once you’ve recovered from just how immediate in our past political discourse those words are, you observe that both Snow and Loomis have come full circle with some measure of hypocrisy. When it’s convenient to argue so, Snow wants to make no distinction between a person and a company. And when it helps her own case, Loomis tries to suggest that any judgment rendered against a private business entity, whatever their dishonest or harmful activities, is tantamount to tyranny against the individual. Except, of course, when it’s that government’s job to keep Americans from “going to Hell” by watching people screw.
The clashes between Snow and Loomis are so demanding of the court’s great liberal “dissenter” that he both wrecks his marriage and suffers a physical trauma that gives both robed gladiators pause to reconsider their roles in each other’s lives. Snow is forced to grapple with the fact that the person he considers “dangerous” might actually be essential to his own clarity of thought, while Loomis discovers that it’s easy to mount a moral pedestal and consider yourself “incorruptible”—as long you keep yourself cozy in a bubble of ignorance.
The film may indeed drape itself in a flag of fantasy idealism when it comes to how political appointees and their ideological foes actually behave when one of them becomes tied second-hand to scandal—does anyone think the last important conversation between Snow and Loomis would shake out in real life the way it does onscreen?—but, in a way, the extremity of the resolution between these two fascinating characters brings them, and us, back to the sentiments Snow expressed at the memorial service for his just-departed bête noire:
Like a pair of flying buttresses, leaning against opposite sides of a Gothic cathedral, we helped keep the roof from caving in.
How things wrap up between Dan Snow and Ruth Loomis at the end of First Monday in October may appear overly tidy to jaded viewers today, but the kind of relationship they settle on has a real basis in the country’s not-so-distant past, and should point the politically-motivated to the country’s necessary future.