The crowd-pleasing biopic “On the Basis of Sex” tells the origin story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s crusading career, focusing on a court case that chipped away at codified gender discrimination.
But it also shares a real-life love story practically unprecedented in cinema history: The loving, supportive, equal partnership between the future “Notorious RGB” (Oscar nominee Felicity Jones) and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), a successful fellow lawyer who did the cooking, took on his share of the childcare and household duties and championed his wife throughout her career.
The good wife waiting at home to support a man working to achieve Great Things is one of Hollywood’s favorite archetypes (and where female film stars all too often get stuck once they reach a certain age), but seeing a gender-swapped version of that scenario is so unusual that Ginsburg nephew Daniel Stiepleman, who wrote the screenplay, told The New York Times it was actually hard to get financing for the biopic because his uncle’s character seemed too far-fetched.
For that reason alone, “On the Basis of Sex” is worth seeing.
The biopic begins in the 1950s, as Ruth is following her spouse into Harvard Law School. She is one of nine female students there; Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterson) invites them all to a special tea, where he demands that they explain why they’re occupying a spot that could have gone to a man.
Director Mimi Leder briskly chronicles Ruth’s care for Marty (including taking on twice the schoolwork so he can graduate on time) during his battle with testicular cancer, her struggles to find a job as an attorney despite graduating law school with honors and her 1960s career as a professor at Rutgers Law School, where she shatters the illusions of her increasingly revolutionary female students by informing that discrimination on the basis of sex is legal and in fact written into many U.S. laws. (Leder knows a thing or two about institutionalized sexism; after she followed her 1998 blockbuster “Deep Impact” with the underperforming 2000 drama “Pay It Forward,” her filmmaking prospects vanished, prompting her to turn for many years to television.)
She gets the chance to change that when her tax-attorney husband brings her the only case they argued together: 1972’s Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, in which Colorado bachelor Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) is denied a tax deduction for caring for his ailing mother because the law assumes that caretakers must be women. The Ginsburgs view the case as a chance to prove that discriminatory laws hurt men as well as women and to set a vital legal precedent – and they believe Ruth as the right person to argue it, despite her dearth of courtroom inexperience.
While even their allies like ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) and women’s rights activist Dorothy Kenyon (Oscar winner Kathy Bates) have their doubts that Ruth can win, both Marty and the Ginsburgs’ daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), urge her to keep forging ahead.
Although “On the Basis of Sex” sticks too closely to the standard conventions of fact-based underdog movies, Leder’s storytelling has vibrancy that keeps the biopic from feeling dutiful. With the help of her top-notch cast, she manages to make tax law compelling, and her focus on the Ginsburg family takes them out of the headlines and history books and makes them real people.