The defense concedes that the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex hits its marks with the subtlety of a legal brief. But that’s not fatal. The sexism Ginsburg went up against was amazingly unsubtle, and a brief is at the heart of the film’s most momentous scenes. The Ginsburgs — Ruth and her husband, Martin — probably did talk in civic-minded placards. It’s why we love them.
Directed by Mimi Leder from a script by Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg’s nephew), On the Basis of Sex opens in a burst of lyricism, with Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) as a bobbing island of blue in a tide of dark-suited young masters pouring into Harvard Law School’s fortress of white male privilege. A heavy-handed image but apt: Ginsburg’s buoyancy — her refusal to be deflated — is a central motif. Male students smirk at her, professors patronize her, and, at a dinner for incoming female students (Harvard Law didn’t admit women until 1950), the dean (Sam Waterston) asks her to justify taking the place of a man. She parries with sarcasm and goes on to be first in her class. She also sits through her husband’s courses when Marty (Armie Hammer) is diagnosed with testicular cancer — while she’s simultaneously caring for their baby girl. She’s a star.
Or she should be — in 1960, no New York law firm will hire her. Gender-based discrimination is both legal and (insult to injury) smugly righteous, such that male lawyers can cite women’s subservience as part of the “natural order” in place for “100,000 years.” It falls to Ginsburg to find a ladylike way of asking, “Whose natural order, kemosabe?”
Ladylike is Ginsburg’s term: She raised eyebrows in the rousing documentary RBG by advising women, “Be a lady and be independent.” That’s the Ginsburg we meet in On the Basis of Sex. While other ’60s women are marching and snarling in defiance, Ginsburg is hitting the books and teaching the next generation of lawyers across the Hudson at Rutgers. She’s brought up short when her teenage daughter (Cailee Spaeny) compares her witheringly with the activists in the streets, but she never stops believing in changing the system from within.
Stiepleman’s script is meant as a tribute to his uncle as well as his aunt, and much is made of Marty being a feminist to the core. He has chosen to dramatize a lesser-known case because the couple worked on it together: Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, in which the plaintiff, a man taking care of his sick mother, is denied a tax deduction on the grounds that only women can be caregivers. Enlisting Marty makes sense, since his specialty is taxes, but it’s also clear that Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the ACLU director who’s calling the shots, likes having a man in the mix. Wulf thinks Ruth will set the women’s movement back by a decade unless she frames the case as being about one particular man instead of gender inequality as a whole. But in front of the judges, Ruth can’t find her voice until she goes big.
Like many period pieces, On the Basis of Sex often feels posed, but that isn’t fatal either. Leder wants to show Ginsburg chafing against the kind of formality that enforces the status quo. Jones — who bears some resemblance to the young Ruth — nails Ginsburg’s constant struggle to soften her edges to keep from alienating the men she’s attempting to persuade. Her best scenes are barbed, though, as when she goes up against the abrasively patronizing Wulf. (Theroux’s jabbing delivery gives the film a welcome shot of energy and vulgarity. Why isn’t he more appreciated? Is it his tabloid notoriety?) The other supporting actors don’t fare as well. It’s great that Stiepleman wanted to show Ginsburg’s debt to such predecessors as Dorothy Kenyon, but scenes with the crabby judge and activist (Kathy Bates) feel shoehorned in. Meanwhile, Ginsburg’s Tenth Circuit opponents (Waterston, Stephen Root as a Harvard professor, Jack Reynor as a hotdog chauvinist) confer in shadow like villains in a B-Western (“Let’s put this idea of gender discrimination to bed once and for all!”).
The final sequence is like Rocky Goes to Court (says Marty, “Go in there and let the judges see the Ruth Ginsburg I know!”), but that’s not a bad way to frame this story. Opponents thought the diminutive Ginsburg was punching above her weight, only to realize that she won every round on points. That’s why the lady is a champ.
*This article appears in the December 24, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!