Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a warrior. She’s tiny, but she is fierce. And now, well into her 80s, she is the unlikely spiritual/judicial icon who many hope will bring balance to the fight between the forces of political good and evil now engaged in a fight for the soul of America. When she broke three ribs in a recent fall, people online lined up to “volunteer” theirs. When a study came out suggesting the first person who will live to 150 years had already been born, devotees replied “I hope it’s RBG.” She went back to work two days after an operation to remove cancerous nodes from her lung – nodes discovered only because of that aforementioned fall. But once upon a time she was an ambitious student, a young mother, and a woman trying to make a place in a profession that wanted to shut her out. On The Basis Of Sex tells that story.
Before she was the Notorious RBG, she was a badass of another caliber. When her husband, Martin, at the time a second-year law student, was diagnosed with cancer, Ruth – herself a first-year law student – not only cared for him and their young daughter, she went to his classes in addition to her own, took his notes, and helped type his papers. She did this with confidence and an unshakeable can-do attitude. This display of strength is why, in the film’s second and third acts, it rubs when it takes the men in her life to convince her that she is worthy of practicing the law.
Armie Hammer and Felicity Jones
On The Basis Of Sex begins with Ruth, played with a determined glint in her eye by Felicity Jones, climbing the stairs toward her first class at Harvard Law. At that time, women had only been permitted to enroll for a handful of years, and only a handful of women were allowed to attend. What stings is how brazenly the men in control of the school, Sam Waterson as Erwin Griswold and Stephen Root as Professor Brown, both discourage their participation and demand to know why a woman would dare take a place away from a man. It comes as little surprise when those same men stand in her way in the film’s third act. Armie Hammer plays the handsome Martin Ginburg, while Justin Theroux and Kathy Bates play the very colorful roles of lawyer Melvin Wulf of the ACLU and lawyer, feminist, and activist Dorothy Kenyon, respectively.
The performances are of consistent high quality. British-born Felicity Jones took on Justice Ginsburg’s subtle Brooklyn accent and conquered. When Ginsburg gets into her zone in the film, it’s moving and patriotic, inspiring hairs to stand up on viewers’ arms. Armie Hammer is utterly charming as the man who would woo and win such a powerful woman, her foil in so many ways, including his skill as a cook as well as his gregarious nature. Still, there is something in their interplay for much of the film that doesn’t fit with what we see early on. Yes, Marty finds work in New York and Ruth is turned away from firm after firm, despite being the first in her class at Columbia Law among a long list of bona fides, finally taking a position as a professor at Rutgers University.
We know that, in order to have a satisfying conclusion, there must be a buildup of dramatic tension. What isn’t clear is why, in this case, that tension has to be built by undermining Ruth’s confidence and second-guessing her abilities. It would have been enough to see the power and deviousness, the underhanded methods men in office would take to fight her, to see the mountain of 170-plus discriminatory laws she was up against.
We can’t know how it really played out, what she was feeling about her career and her place in law, but in this telling, time and again, she needs to be encouraged, clued in, prompted, and reassured by the men. Marty all but directs her to pursue a discrimination case, Moritz vs. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Wulf continuously cuts her down, reinforcing the notion up until she enters the courtroom that she’s just not good enough. Dorothy Kenyon tells her she’s smart, but questions her abilities all the same, which seems crazy knowing what we know of Ginsburg and the force of her resolve. This undermining goes all the way to her appearance before the Tenth Circuit Court. The case was a boon for the civil rights movement because Moritz’s legal team argued that men can be victims of sexual discrimination, but in the film she is easily flustered, unsure of herself, and does not, until the final moments of her argument, show the intellectual ferocity for which she is known.
A documentary about Justice Ginsburg, titled RBG, was released earlier in 2018. It touches on much of the same story covered in On The Basis of Sex and continues to the present day. We see the effects Justice Ginsburg has had on the court and the country. It speaks to a legacy that is likely to be as much about popularity as powerful oratory. On The Basis Of Sex is like a coming-of-age story, but instead she’s coming into her own as a first-rate legal practitioner despite the best efforts of the powerful men who want to keep her down. It’s a rousing and emotional experience as seen through a filmmaker’s lens, the evolution of a woman who first changes herself, and then changes the world.
Top photo: Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder’s ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a Focus Features release.