America's first woman justice -- the Hollywood version

This year, the first Monday in October falls on the third Friday in August. That's because "First Monday in October" is a new movie, starring Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh, due on-screen Aug. 21. It's based on a successful play of the same title, which happens to be about the first woman justice on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Hollywood is delighted with the timing of the film, which is arriving just after President Reagan's nomination of Judge Sandra D. O'Connor to the high court. Sure, life imitates art, but this is fantastic.

What's more, as "First Monday" producer Martha Scott notes, the coincidences go beyond gender alone. Like the real Judge O'Connor, the fictional Justice Ruth Loomis is also conservative, a sports enthusiast, and younger than the others on the court. Of course, whether Judge O'Connor proves as feisty as her stage and screen counterparts -- able to quell crusty collegues with a single phrase -- remains to be seen.

In all, the appearance of "First Monday" at this particular time is the most striking parallel between a headline and a movie since "The China Syndrome" anticipated the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Yet it's not entirely by chance that "First Monday" is showing up just now. According to producer Scott, it has been gathering dust in a vault at Paramount Pictures, waiting for a release date when the theaters aren't completely heated up with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and other noisy distractions. It was the nomination of Judge O'Connor that prompted moguls to whisk it out, dust if off, and arrange for a hurried summer premiere.

The way Hollywood sees things, a film like "First Monday" is a risky proposition in the age of "Star Wars" and its progeny. It's a "dialogue picture ," in Miss Scott's words, with nary a dragon nor a "man of steel" in sight. "When we previewed it," says the producer, "young people came up and said they'd never seen a picture like this before. But they liked it!" she concludes, adding here hope that it will catch on like such rare "dialogue" hits as "Ordinary People" and "The Elephant Man."

Maybe it will. There seems to be room for one or two "mature" hits each year. There was "Kramer vs. Kramer," then "Ordinary People" and "The Elephant Man." Right now it's "The Four Seasons," which is slicker and cuter than the others. "First Monday" isn't as soapy as "Kramer and "People," though, and it doesn't have big TV stars like Alan Alda and Carol Burnett in "The Four Seasons." It probably ism a risky proposition, though its wit and conviction may pull it through.

Certainly its producer believes in it -- which means a thing or two, given her long experience in plays, films, and TV shows. A first-time producer with "First Monday," she began her Broadway career as the original Emily in "Our Town" by Thorton Wilder, and made her movie debut in the same role, back in 1940 . Since then she has stayed active with credits ranging from "Ben-Hur" to "The Turning Point," from "The Voice of the Turtle" to a mid-'70s revival of "The Skin of Our Teeth."

Behind the scenes, Miss Scott has served as codirector of the Plumstead Playhouse, a group established by movie actors with a continuing commitment to the stage. Her interest in "First Monday" goes back to her first reading of the play, when it was still being worked on by authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Among her immediate responses was the conviction that Henry Fonda, a Plumstead colleague, had to play the lead role of Justice Dan Snow.

Fonda agreed, and with Jane Alexander as Justice Loomis, the play opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington -- the logical place for a dramatic comedy about government. Later, the same production flourished for a limited run on Broadway and the play has subsequently been cheered by audiences from Chicago to Los Angeles. A busy schedule precluded Fonda from repeating his role in the film version, but he readily agreed that Matthau would be an ideal on-screen successor.

Of course, "First Monday" is just a story, with some strong characters and a lot of funny lines. But any play or movie about politics has a measure of extra meaning, since the road between politics and life never runs one way. This was superbly summed up a while back by Jane Alexander, who discussed her character over dinner during the show's successful Broadway run.

Her own family background and schooling had inclined her toward the sciences, but her mind began to change when she realized how much impact the arts and entertainment have on people's lives. And the popular "First Monday" was an excellent example of this. Seeing a Supreme Court justice on stage, she decided , would plant the image of such a thing in people's minds -- and make the real thing seem less outlandish when it eventually came along as a genuine possibility.

Miss Alexander was clearly right, though she made her observations long before the advent of either President Reagan or Judge O'Connor. In its own modest way, the stage performance of "First Monday" may have helped prepare the American public consciousness for its first female Justice. The screen "First Monday" may consolidate that accomplishment, and cash in at the same time -- if there really is a mature audience out there, just waiting for another good "dialogue movie" with aspirations to wit, character, and intelligence.

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