The early years of the enduring career of Ruth Bader Ginsberg have been given the full Hollywood treatment, presenting Ginsburg as both a role model and champion for women’s rights as well as a trailblazer in law. Currently an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, the gentle biopic touches on Ginsberg’s studies at Harvard Law School, while married to a fellow law student and together raising a toddler. (Significantly, she goes on to complete her degree at Columbia Law School, and this fact sets up for the movie’s best riposte.) Spanning over a decade, the story goes on to chart her years as a mother, student, professor and, eventually, lawyer.
Directed by Mimi Leder and written by Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg’s nephew), On the Basis of Sex stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg, with Armie Hammer as her devoted husband Marty, and Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, and Kathy Bates in supporting roles. Sweet and driven, Jones is perfectly cast as the attractive and diminutive woman whose small stature belied her steely determination.
Dubbed “Notorious R.B.G.” — a play on the nickname of the late East-Coast rapper Biggie Smalls, alias Notorious B.I.G. — for her ferocious intellect, Justice Ginsburg remains a pioneering litigator for women’s rights. Beginning in the early 1970s, as a professor at Columbia Law School, its first tenured woman, and as a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, she successfully argued five cases before the Supreme Court, focusing on laws and government policies built on gender stereotypes.
In the fall of 1956, we see Ginsburg enrolling at Harvard Law School where she was one of only nine women in a class of around 500 men. The Dean of Harvard Law (crustily-played by Sam Waterston) challenges the female law students to explain themselves with his hostile query, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”
Curiously, the film opens with a classic study for first-year Harvard Law School students, entitled Hawkins v. McGee. The memorable case is also quoted at the beginning of 1973’s The Paper Chase in which the professor famously outlines the facts of the case after scolding Timothy Bottoms’ character for not reading it in advance of class. So, while a pleasing echo is present for anyone who remembers the earlier film, the specific case provides a moment for Ginsberg’s intelligence to shine even as a classmate scores a sly point at her expense.
While the filmmakers have crafted a romanticized version of actual events, they apparently strove to make Ginsberg appear more human and less heroic. Unfortunately, this results in a disappointingly low-stakes drama where the handful of obstacles presented offer insufficient threat to an inevitably successful outcome.
Ginsberg qualified for the Harvard Law Review in her second year and continued to excel even as she juggled caring for her young daughter, Jane, and her husband, Marty, during his illness. When Marty is hospitalised with cancer, she didn’t actually attend his classes for him (as we see in the film), but she collected notes from his friends and typed up his essays per his dictation—a process that reportedly often began near midnight. When he finished around 2 a.m., she would attend to her own studies. During this period, she apparently slept just a few hours per night, but it was her dedication—and that of their friends—that allowed Marty to graduate as planned. He thereafter received an offer from a prestigious tax law firm in Manhattan, while she fails to land a job upon graduating and becomes a law professor.
At the heart of the drama is Ginsburg’s first gender discrimination case, brought in 1972. The Ginsburgs argued as a team that the United States tax code—which denied Charles Moritz, a never-married man, the right to deduct expenses for the care of his ailing mother—was unconstitutional. The Ginsburgs recognize the case as the entry point for tackling all laws that discriminate according to gender. Crucially, she believes that an appellate court composed entirely of male judges will find it easier to identify with a male appellant, and that proves a brilliant strategy.
There’s a great scene where the opposing council avail themselves of the computer system at the Pentagon and inadvertently assist Ginsberg with a hit-list for future gender discrimination cases. For the climactic courtroom battle, amplifying the tension is necessary for the drama, but it does the subject a disservice by showing her as flustered when history indicates she had nerves of steel.
On the Basis of Sex is an ideal companion piece to RBG, a biographical documentary focusing on the larger life and career of Ginsburg that was also released in 2018.
Despite the low stakes of the drama, On the Basis of Sex has an uplifting and empowering tone that makes for an entertaining experience.
This review first appeared on Filmink.