Most superhero origin stories don’t involve late-night typewriter sessions and legal arguments — but Ruth Bader Ginsburg is no ordinary superhero. Director Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex offers viewers a glimpse of RBG’s life before she became notorious, when she was “just” a smart, tenacious lawyer (as embodied by Felicity Jones) who was determined to fight for gender equality.
Those who saw Julie Cohen and Betsy West‘s excellent documentary RBG earlier this year will already be familiar with some of the major beats of Ginsburg’s early life: her mother’s untimely death when Ginsburg was still a teen, her success as a student, her happy marriage to Martin Ginsburg (here played by Armie Hammer). On the Basis of Sex focuses on Ginsburg’s rise to prominence as a lawyer, particularly her early-’70s work on the groundbreaking Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue case, in which she argued that a male caregiver should be entitled to the same tax deduction as a female one.
As Ginsburg fights to be taken seriously in the courtroom, she faces obstacles both large (a mountain of laws that institutionalize gender discrimination) and small (the patronizing attitude of ACLU legal director Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux). Leder — working from a script by Daniel Stiepleman — fictionalizes some aspects of Ginsburg’s life, but she never glosses over the struggles Ginsburg dealt with as a woman on her rise to the Supreme Court.
Jones delivers an earnest, thoughtful performance as Ginsburg; her passion for the law and equal rights are clear, and her dedication to her work never falters. On the Basis of Sex doesn’t reinvent the biopic, but it succeeds in telling an important story about one of the most memorable women in U.S. legal history. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Susan Wloszczyna: As biopics go, On the Basis of Sex can seem almost as old school as some of the laws that its worthy subject spent her career objecting to and sought to correct. That would be Ruth Bader Ginsberg, as the film is meant to celebrate her 25th year as the second female Supreme Court Justice. But as we watch RBG blossom into the notorious crusader against gender bias that she was born to be, one wishes that director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsberg’s nephew) took a few more chances in their approach to such an incredibly brave and smart woman whose super power was her cogent ability to state her arguments – a skill she eventually perfects in Sex just before the credits roll. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Director Mimi Leder has an eye for telling detail and a sure sense of pacing, especially in the scenes with the Ginsburg’s teen-age daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), whose own spirited feminism shows her mother that it is time for the law to catch up with the culture.
MaryAnn Johanson There are so many aspects of Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex that are so refreshing and so welcome, but perhaps the one that feels the most satisfying, from a feminist perspective, is how supportive Armie Hammer’s Marty, Ginsburg’s husband, is of her work and her life on the whole. We’re so used to seeing movies about men doing important work whose onscreen wives are quiet helpmeets, or sometimes women slightly perplexed by their husbands who eventually come around to being quiet helpmeets. It’s difficult to come up with even one example of a wholly supportive husband character to a wife doing important work. It’s so unusual that Basis screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman said (in The New York Times) that the movie had trouble attracting financing because Hammer’s Marty was allegedly too implausible! But that’s precisely why we need to see more depictions like his onscreen, and more depictions like the Ginsburgs’ marriage, one in which both partners share household duties without fuss or argument and give emotional and physical room for each other’s work. Marty cooks dinner so Ruth can practice her courtroom oratory. Amazing. Read full review.
Kristen Page Kirby Amazingly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not emerge, fully formed and clad in judges robes, from the ocean of awesomeness. “On the Basis of Sex” highlights her time in the fire that forged her into the woman she is now. While all fans of the Notorious RBG will enjoy seeing the beginning of her superheroic quest, what may be more valuable to younger viewers is how systemic discrimination was — and how recently sexism was coded into law. “On the Basis of Sex” is a valuable movie about one of America’s most valuable resources. Read full review.
Marilyn Ferdinand: Civil rights have taken major hits in recent decades, forcing a rematch of battles formerly fought and won. Understandably, a new generation of civil rights activists have looked for leaders and heroes to help show them the way—thus, the unlikely rise of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a pop culture icon. Justice Ginsburg’s momentous life was recounted earlier this year in the upbeat documentary RBG, and now we have a fictionalized account of her younger years in Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones. The film takes us from Ginsburg’s first day at Harvard Law School in 1956 through to her landmark victory in the 1972 gender discrimination lawsuit Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In between, the film shorthands her law school education, her teaching career at Columbia Law School, and her marriage to tax lawyer Martin Ginsburg while taking every opportunity to prick her with sexist barbs. The film gains some heft when she starts to work with the ACLU and finds the case that will launch her into her distinguished future. Jones doesn’t really embody the deep intelligence that animates Ginsburg’s work, but her final summation in Mortiz is truly inspiring.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Considering Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health is currently in a fragile state, it’s important to remember how the pioneering and iconic Supreme Court Justice got her start. On the Basis of Sex is as much a love story as it is a biopic, showing how RBG’s beloved late husband Marty (played as both adoring and adorable by Armie Hammer) helped and supported her through each step of her career. While Felicity Jones wouldn’t have been my first pick to play the young Bader Ginsburg, she definitely rises to the occasion and further humanizes the ambitious and brilliant young Ruth from her years as a young mother and wife attending Harvard Law to devoted law professor and finally as the litigator who seeks to change laws that discriminate, as the title makes clear, on the basis of sex. Ideally, audiences will see this AND the excellent documentary RBG.
Jennifer Merin Mimi Leder’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On The Basis of Sex, is the truth-based chronicling the heroic RBG’s crusade for equal rights since the earliest days of her extraordinary career. On The Basis of Sex is solid rather than spectacular filmmaking. And that’s fittingly respectful for the subject. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has gone about her business — changing the U.S. legal system for the better – without self-aggrandizement. She is a wise, dedicated and determined woman who continues to be an inspiration to all of us. The film is a well-deserved narrative tribute, complimented by RBG, the biodoc released earlier this year and AWFJ’s #MOTW for May 4, 2018. The latest news on our living legend is that she’s now at home, recovering from surgery she underwent recently to remove two malignant nodules from her lungs. She is already back at work and exercise. She’s 85 years young! Let’s start the new year with a boosting this tribute to the one and only RBG.
Cate Marquis On the Basis of Sex is not a subtle film but it is a crowd-pleaser, with the resourceful RBG fighting her own battle against sex discrimination and then taking on the legal fight for other women as well. The script for director Mimi Leder’s uplifting if conventional drama was written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman. The story focuses on the remarkable partnership between RBG and her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), who supported and encouraged his brilliant wife’s career ambitions, as much as the judge herself. Read full review.
Title: On the Basis of Sex
Directors: Mimi Leder
Release Date: December 25, 2018
Running Time: 120 minutes
Screenwriter: Daniel Stiepleman
Distribution Company: Focus Features
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin