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‘On the Basis of Sex’ provides the origin story for a heroine of our times

Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer


At the age of 85, “The Notorious RBG” has become more icon than person and barely a day goes by without seeing “Protect RBG at all costs!” on social media. Many view her as a last line of defense — still a sitting Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court, she is seen as one of the few people with real power who has the interests of women, minorities, and other vulnerable Americans at heart. Unfortunately, on the day that On the Basis of Sex premiered, Ruth Bader Ginsburg fell and broke three ribs, but that hasn’t stopped her from recovering and returning to work quickly. Director Mimi Leder has now set out to bring some humanity to this symbol of American progressivism, by providing the origin story of what makes RBG such an extraordinary woman, still very much operating in a man’s world. This is, of course, something Leder can empathize with, unfortunately being one of a small minority of women directors whose films get a wide release or are noticed as “awards contenders.”

We first meet Joan Ruth Bader (Felicity Jones) as she starts her training at Harvard Law School in the 1950’s and it is immediately clear that she is very much an outlier — she can look out at the sea of dark suits and ties and pick out the very few spots of color provided by the women students (there were just nine in her class). It is also apparent that Ginsburg had to work harder and be smarter than the rest in order to justify her place that “could have gone to a man.” In a surprising twist, Ginsburg returns home after her first day to not just a husband (Armie Hammer), but also a baby. Marty Ginsburg is also a student at Harvard Law and the film’s portrayal of how they juggled this with raising a family is mind-boggling. Things are further complicated when Marty falls ill, but Ruth decides to just start attending his classes as well as her own, lest he fall behind. Despite transferring to Columbia and graduating at the top of her class, Ginsburg finds it impossible to find a job at a law firm, due to being a Jewish woman. The villains of the piece are Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) and Professor Brown (Stephen Root), who openly look down on Ginsburg and the other women students and who crop up again as adversaries when the film time-jumps by fifteen or so years.

In the 70’s, Ginsburg is now a Professor at Rutgers, teaching law to women who are starting to make some strides in terms of feminism. At home, she is experiencing battles with her teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) about changes the women’s rights movement have gone through, as well as more prosaic arguments on homework topics such as the heroism of Atticus Finch. Marty brings what seems like a boring tax case to Ruth, but is actually an example of sex discrimination against a man. RBG believes she can fight this case and win it, which would open up all sex discrimination laws to review. She takes the case to Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) at the ACLU and also tries to get the help of Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), a lawyer who fought and lost a case of discrimination against a woman. Her opposing counsel in this case are to be Griswold, Brown and a young lawyer played by a miscast Jack Reynor.

Although the story is, of course, inspirational and will leave the audience in awe of what Ginsburg achieved in the face of overwhelming opposition, the direction and acting fall a little flat. The casting of Ginsburg could have been more appropriate and convincing for a Jewish woman from Brooklyn. Hammer does a good job as the ultimate subversion of the “supportive wife” trope that we’ve seen over and over again, but his chemistry with Jones is non-existent. Theroux is one of the stronger aspects (reunited with his Leftovers director Leder), not afraid to play an unlikeable character who pushes and challenges Ginsburg, knowing what she will have to face in court. His scenes with Jones bring out her best acting, as she starts to doubt herself and panic about what she is taking on. Spaeny, who recently gave an excellent performance in Bad Times at the El Royale, is another highlight here, and Jane’s scenes with her mother are among the highlights. It is painful to see Ginsburg struggle to be a role model to her daughter, when she has had to face institutional discrimination which Jane struggles to comprehend.

As is often the case with biopics, the script occasionally falls into cheesy and clichéd soundbites which just do not ring true. Real life unfortunately does not provide as many perfectly-timed zingy retorts or bold statements which drip with the weight of history as the movies do. It is interesting to note that screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman is Ginsburg’s real-life nephew, so the film does have a hero-worship aspect which is understandable. The scenes at home, among the family, are the main strength, and do have a realism perhaps brought by the familial closeness of the writer to the subject. It is more when Ginsburg is “taking on” law school, a courtroom or some other large symbol of The Man’s World that On the Basis of Sex slips into sentimentality — Ginsburg may as well be shot with a halo shining around her angelic face as she ascends the corridors of power. The facts of Ginsburg’s life are enough to do away with the need for such a heavy-handed touch and at times more subtlety would have been preferable.

An aspect of the story that is intriguing, but frustratingly unexplored, is Ginsburg’s childhood. A few vague references are made to her mother, who was clearly a big influence on her, but who tragically died just as Ginsburg was leaving High School. Ginsburg would have felt like a more fleshed-out character if this movie had delved into that. Her mother must have been an extremely unusual woman for her time, to have brought up Ruth to have such resilience, determination and strength of character, particularly with regard to her place within the patriarchy. Marty Ginsburg’s past would also have been interesting to witness here — a man of the mid-twentieth century having such radical notions about his wife going to university and having a career. The fact that not only did Marty not oppose this, but to actively support, encourage and facilitate it… one can’t help but wonder where this came from.

It is good that we have not had to wait until Ginsburg’s passing to have both this biopic and also a documentary in movie theaters. Appreciating the living before they are gone is something we need right now. If you were not already full of respect and admiration for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this film will make you truly appreciate the war that she has had to wage throughout her life and unfortunately still battles to this day. An uneven but mostly successful origin story which will have you joining in the clamoring to “protect RBG at all costs.”

Rating: 3 Stars out of 5

Author: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer

Brit living in Southern California.
Former teacher of Media and Film Studies.
Current film writer for jumpcutonline.com, moviejawn.com and others.

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