Synopsis: Portrait of future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg early on in her legal career.
On the Basis of Sex tells the true story of real life legal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early legal career. By the end of the movie we will know how she earned the moniker the Notorious RBG.
A quick primer… Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York to Celia and Nathan, who were Ashkenazi Jews. She excelled in academics and graduated from Cornell University. Soon after graduation she married Cornell alum, Martin Ginsburg and they had a daughter, Jane. Marty entered Harvard Law School in 1955 and Ruth started at Harvard Law in 1956.
The movie begins with Ruth walking among throngs of men on the Harvard campus: in a class of about five hundred students, just nine were women.
You’ll be so excited to see who plays Ruth…maybe Natalie Portman? No, she was initially attached to the production, but dropped out. Lizzy Caplan would be a good choice. Again, no. Say ‘hi’ to the British Isles’ elfin-nosed Felicity Jones. Huh?
Yes, actors can play anyone and there is no specific Jewish ‘look’ but people with close ethnic ties to Sephardic or Ashkenazi groups can have commonalities that are a source of pride. So let’s not WASPwash. Here’s my case for Ms. Jones being miscast… 1) Felicity Jones’ looks don’t suggest Ruth’s at all, 2) While RBG wasn’t observant, her Jewish heritage was a source of pride and identity for her. For crying out loud, her dad emigrated from the Ukraine and her mom’s parents were from Poland– close ties, indeed. 3) Giving precedence to minority actors for roles which portray them is an important social counterweight to routinely favoring actors from socially/numerically dominant groups. (eg., white, Gentile, straight). 4) Casting a woman of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage would’ve been such a great chance for authentic Representation.
So that’s my argument. Alas, producers went for a high profile actress instead of making a smaller budget movie that could bet on a more authentic choice. Such is life. The good news is that Felicity Jones is a proficient actor.
Accompanying movie Ruth as movie husband Marty is tall, blond and fair Armie Hammer. Oy vey! But, wait a minute, even though he’s no Alden Ehrenreich (a better choice, imo), Hammer does have a Jewish great grandfather. Nonetheless, the movie could’ve been titled Ruth & Marty: A Goyim Interpretation.
So…Ruth begins her legal education, where she wows a professor with her understanding of a case under the glare of a male student whom she has corrected. Later, she attends a meet and greet dinner for the women students, hosted by the law school dean. Like a good host he insults his guests by asking the women to explain how they can justify taking places from men. Good point since the women are ruining a lot of men’s lives by taking up two percent of the Class of ’59. And so what if the women had to have demonstrated a stronger academic record than the average male applicant. These brazen girls need to get back to housework.
Later on in the movie this same dean will cause further trouble for Ruth in law school and beyond. This odious man, played with consummate arrogance by Sam Waterson, had me shaking my fist at the screen. According to movie lore, deans are usually just shutting down party houses on campus, but this guy shuts down women’s rights.
On the Basis of Sex‘s screenplay was written by Daniel Stiepleman, an RBG nephew. He has said that he wanted to present his aunt as more than a super hero and give the audience a sense of her as a person. Her accomplishments are hard won; while her remarkable intellect certainly distinguished her, she still had to put in grueling hours to master material and excel. That she managed to do this as a mother and as a caretaker to her husband when he was ill for a period is both inspiring (If Ruth can do it, so can I!) and discouraging (I’m no Ruth Bader Ginsburg).
During her laws school years we get plenty of zippy music as she literally runs to class and vigorously types essays. We even see a steamy scene of her and Marty in the boudoir- Go, Ruth! But the 1950’s was no friend to women lawyers looking to join a firm. Even if they did graduate at the top of their class. Which, naturally, Ruth did. (Okay, so she is a super hero.) But she is rejected by firm after firm while Marty’s career as a tax attorney takes off.
Things aren’t all bad though. Time passes and she finds work in academia and has another child. We also see how Ruth successfully takes on early 1970’s fashions and gender discrimination cases. And Marty and Ruth have a truly egalitarian marriage in which he cooks and she picks out the evening’s opera record.
Finally Ruth finds a career launching case. The IRS has denied a tax deduction for caregiver pay to a never-married man who hires an aide for his debilitated mother when he is at work. Essentially, the law acknowledges women as caregivers, but not men (unless they are widowed). If this case can be won, it would serve as a precedent to change other laws that discriminate on the basis of sex/gender.
But Ruth has a lot to get through before that can happen. She needs to endure some backtalk from her now teenaged daughter Jane who insinuates that her mom doesn’t understand women’s lib. At one point she goes to visit a pioneering woman lawyer, Dorothy Kenyon, to shore up support. As played by Kathy Bates, she’s a cantankerous firebrand who dismisses her with a sneering, “You’re a professor!”
All is not lost though because she has brought Jane with her (this didn’t happen IRL, btw) and when they get back outside they get sexually harassed by some construction workers as they try to hail a cab. Ignore them, says Ruth. But the youngster has seen Gloria Steinem speak, and she is having none of it. She hollers back at the men, giving them a piece of her mind. Ruth is in awe: You are a liberated and fearless young woman! And that’s how street harassment against women was defeated. Excuse me while I roll my eyes– the reason women usually don’t confront street harassers is because of warranted fear of physical retribution.
Anyway, the music starts getting very zippy so it looks good for the case, Moritz v. Commissioner which Marty and Ruth are presenting to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1972. But wait, two of the three judges on the panel look mean. Naturally they are all men, including the government lawyers who are quite smug. You half expect one of the men to jump up and yell at Marty to “Control your wife!”
The movie does a good job of laying out the meaning of the case and its goal: to successfully argue that the tax law violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause, i.e., everyone is equal before the law.
Does On the Basis of Sex show that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would be appointed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1993, was more than a legal hero? Yes, it lets us in on her day-to-day life and personality. But it doesn’t illuminate the particulars of her cerebral gifts, something that would take more patience and expect more from the audience.
Towards the end of the movie, suspense is drummed up when it looks like Ruth will falter in front of the judges. But let’s hear what happened from Justice Bader Ginsburg herself: I didn’t stumble.
And the fact that she didn’t stumble in her stellar legal career or her commitment to gender equality under the law is the story of how a tiny woman from Brooklyn became the Notorious RBG.
P.S. Ruth Bader Ginsburg become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 1993.
P.P.S. For a succinct discussion of the Moritz v Commissioner case, click the following link https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-case-center-basis-sex-180971110/