We may be at the height of RBG mania. The tiny and tenacious 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a bright spot and one last symbol of decency during a political landscape fraught with crime, corruption and collusion. And people have found solace in her image. This year brought us both the documentary “RBG” and the biopic “On The Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder, which chronicles Ginsburg’s rising career as a young lawyer in the ’70s. While there are none of RBG’s signature dissent collars here, it features her ever-present passion to change a world that’s determined not to let her.
Written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, “On the Basis of Sex” is an intimate portrait of the marriage between Ginsburg and her husband, Martin, and the role their family dynamic played in pursuit of her career. Felicity Jones plays the diminutive, brilliant Brooklynite Ruth, while Armie Hammer takes on the role of loving husband Marty.
It’s refreshing to see a biopic where the wife is the main agent of toil, change and struggle, where the husband is supportive, loving, confident – and cooks dinner, too. It’s reflective of the Ginsburgs’ real-life egalitarian marriage, almost never seen in Hollywood films. But the role is so much more than just the typical gender-swapped “spouse on phone” roles most often seen, and Hammer is a delight as the sunny Marty.
The story positions the constant gender discrimination Ruth faces while a student at Harvard Law and in her job search as her primary desire for wanting to change the laws. But it’s her fiery teen daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who motivates Ruth to take it on. Through her daughter’s activism, she realizes the world is ready for women’s rights as civil rights.
“On the Basis of Sex” is a biopic painted in broad strokes, like a fable of sorts. The spouse is endlessly patient, the changes in heart are telegraphed obviously, and the villains – a troika of cartoonishly evil white male lawyers – nearly twirl their mustaches in glee at the thought of keeping things in “the natural order.” As a character study, it’s simple, clear and lacking much nuance, but as a legal dissection, it’s fascinating. The unique case, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which the Ginsburgs argued together, serves as Trojan horse in which to smuggle in a legal precedent for gender equality.
Leder directs the film confidently, swiftly and with a sense of straightforward thematic clarity. There are shots you can almost predict will happen – Ruth turning on her heel and marching confidently away, the camera tracking out to take in her composed, yet triumphant expression, a montage of typewriter keys hitting the brief, decisively printing “on the basis of sex.”
Yet, for all its predictability as a biopic and legal drama, it’s difficult not to be rapt with attention during Ruth’s dramatic oral argument before the court. The stakes are high. They need this precedent, for this case and every other case of gender discrimination she needs to knock down. “On the Basis of Sex” might be a rather broad biopic, but it beautifully argues the importance of Ginsburg’s work – prior to the Supreme Court – and is a lovely tribute to the woman who would become the Notorious RBG.