On the Basis of Sex – RBG Gets the Biopic She Deserves

Not long after critically acclaimed documentary RBG – focusing on the life and career of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – comes the fictional equivalent On the Basis of Sex. An origin story for the women’s rights trailblazer, it’s clear to see why two films on the same subject have been released recently. Ginsburg’s experiences facing sexism and her later efforts to combat gender-based discrimination resonate strongly today.

Starting in the 1950s, the movie opens with young hopeful Ginsburg (a commanding Felicity Jones) attending a Harvard Law School which only recently began accepting women. Facing sexism and a health scare involving her husband and fellow student Martin Ginsburg (a charming Armie Hammer), she is forced to transfer to Columbia – graduating top of her class. Despite high grades in both prestigious schools, Ginsberg is unable to find work as a lawyer as none of the firms she applies for wants to hire a woman. One interviewer ponders what his male employees’ wives would say. Eventually, she settles for work as a college professor.

Jumping forward to 1970, a more prickly, embittered Ruth stumbles upon the case of unmarried man Charles Moritz (Twin Peaks’ Chris Mulkey). He hired a nurse to help him care for his aging mother so he could continue to work, yet was denied a tax reduction. This was because US law at the time limited this credit to women, presuming they are the sex automatically responsible for such matters. Taking on Mortiz’s case pro bono, Ruth believes that if she can set a precedent ruling that a man was unfairly discriminated against on the basis of sex, that it can be also cited in cases challenging laws discriminating women.

On the Basis of Sex benefits from a great screenplay by Ginsburg’s real life nephew Daniel Stiepleman. Essentially split into two sections, the first is a straightforward biopic with the second mostly a preparation for a David and Goliath-esque courtroom showdown. Both compliment each other very well. The opening section investigates sexism in the micro through Ruth’s personal story. Audiences will be filled with rage watching the extremely intelligent heroine be talked down to by male Harvard professors and forced out of her dream career.

These scenes capture deftly how gender based discrimination is not always a black and white issue. In the film Harvard Dean Erwin Griswald (Sam Waterston) and American Civil Union lawyer Mel Wolf (Justin Theroux) present themselves as progressive, advocates to people like Ginsburg’s cause. However, they spend much of their time, forcing Ruth to prove her right to be at Harvard or in a court room – not asking the same questions of men. 

As the movie enters into its legal drama second half, it expands its focus to detail just how restrictive the US laws of the time were. As Jones’ Ginsburg points out 178 differentiated on the basis of sex, with women of the era unable to work overtime, get credit cards in their own name or pursue careers in certain traditionally male dominated professions. These statistics, combined with Ruth’s personal story, add real dramatic weight to the inevitable courtroom showdown. Indeed, the movie’s finale is as satisfying as any underdog sports story out there.

Ginsberg’s overcoming of adversity clearly struck a chord with director Mimi Leder. The filmmaker’s work on shows like ER and The Leftovers pushed the envelope in terms of cinematic visuals on television.  Plus, two of her big Hollywood blockbusters – The Peacemaker and Deep Impact – were financial successes. Despite this, Leder was essentially put in ‘movie jail’ following her minor flop Pay It Forward. On the Basis of Sex is her first major studio film in 18 years. The fact that she, along with the likes of Karyn Kusama and Kathryn Bigelow, struggle to get movies made while Zack Snyder and Guy Ritchie regularly produce flops and are still given major franchises feels like another example of the sexism Ginsberg has spent her career fighting against.

Leder’s love for Ginsberg comes through in how the drama looks. Often framing Jones’ Ginsburg brightly in centre frame – surrounded by darkly lit anonymous men – the lead character always is presented visually as the one with the power, the person in control. Flourishes such as this, coupled with some gorgeous period decor and outfits (Is there an actor who looks better in a suit than Armie Hammer?), manage to make the film’s many scenes of people just talking in rooms cinematic.

On the Basis of Sex is a straightforward, mainstream heart warmer. It does not reinvent the wheel. It suffers from some problems that often tend to riddle biopics. It plays slightly too loose with the truth, making it appear Moritz’s case was Ginsburg’s first time defending someone in court which is untrue. There is some clumsy foreshadowing of events too. Ruth’s rival in court (Ireland’s own Jack Reynor) is literally introduced stating to camera: “Who has ever heard of gender-discrimination!?”

Yet, all this is forgivable. Especially when the person it’s based on lived such an interesting life and those behind the camera are willing to do it justice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been dubbed ‘The Notorious R.B.G’. After watching On the Basis of Sex, viewers will understand why.

On the Basis of Sex is out February 22.

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