When I thought of Ruth Bader Ginsburg before seeing “On the Basis of Sex,” I thought of three things: female empowerment, the Supreme Court and scrunchies. I did not know much about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The film, which follows the Supreme Court Justice through law school, professorship and the beginning of her law career, clears up a lot. Felicity Jones plays the iconic Bader Ginsburg, opposite Armie Hammer as her husband Martin Ginsburg and Sam Waterston as the blatantly sexist dean of Harvard Law School, where the couple begins the film as students.
On top of working through Harvard Law, Ruth raises her and Martin’s young daughter, Jane, attends his classes for him while he’s sick with testicular cancer and helps nurse him back to health. He takes a job in New York City, so Ruth finishes her degree at Columbia in 1959, only to enter a workforce appalled at the idea of hiring a woman—Harvard education be damned.
Relentlessly rejected by law firms for her sex, Ruth takes a teaching job at Rutgers as her equally qualified husband enjoys enormous success. But she wants to be a working lawyer, and eventually, she’s given the chance. She, Martin and the ACLU tag-team a gender discrimination case that (spoiler alert) sets her on the path to, ultimately, becoming a Supreme Court Justice.
“On the Basis of Sex,” written by Bader Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder (who’s most recently helmed episodes of “Shameless” and “The Leftovers”), is pretty and polished, almost to a fault.
According to the film’s actors and real-life Ruth Bader Ginsburg, though, “On the Basis of Sex” is fairly accurate. The Justice was adamant, however, at a mid-December screening, that in reality she “didn’t stumble” at all as Jones does during a pivotal courtroom scene.
But Bader Ginsburg still praised English-born Jones’ Brooklyn accent, and Hammer’s resemblance to her late husband, at the film’s New York premiere.
Also at the New York premiere, Stiepleman and Leder agreed that “Basis of Sex” does not intend to depict Bader Ginsburg as a “superhero.”
While Leder deemed the film “an origin story,” she didn’t mean the Marvel kind.
“ … Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not a superhero,” she said. “She’s a woman who, like countless generations of women before her and since, withstood the subtle slights and overt discrimination of the culture around her.”
Since the documentary “RBG” was released last spring, chronicling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s workout habits as well as her legal legacy, she’s become a symbol of feminine freedom and a requisite sticker on female college students’ laptops everywhere. Superhero or not, she’s considered one by many.
But Leder and Stiepleman do achieve their goal in “Basis of Sex” of humanizing the now-85-year-old woman. Jones plays her with considerable but measured fury at her (and all women’s) circumstances at the start of her career. While headlines detailing Bader Ginsburg’s declining health have been prominent lately, it is still difficult (for me, at least) to think of her as anything but a borderline superhuman powerhouse.
Hammer is, as usual, distractingly handsome but a solid, steady presence on screen, and Cailee Spaeny is convincing (albeit cliché, but that has more to do with the writing than her) as teenage Jane.
The film does a good job exploring her life long before she reached icon status, though it dips into sappy territory when she’s lectured by her teenage daughter about being an antiquated feminist, and subsequently has a revelation that maybe she IS an antiquated feminist.
Having seen this film, I feel like I know more about the dynamic of Ruth and Martin Ginsburg’s relationship than her legal career, but I guess that’s why we have “RBG,” too. The jury’s still out on whether “On the Basis of Sex” is a fun, frivolous dramedy or a very serious romantic comedy.