Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Daniel Stiepleman
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, and Justin Theroux
Running time: 2 hours
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some language and suggestive content
by Deborah Krieger
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is everywhere these days, as she should be. The “Notorious RBG” memes and Kate McKinnon impersonations on Saturday Night Live serve as catchy pop-culture testaments to her importance as one of the more progressive members of the United States Supreme Court in an era where civil rights are being eroded away. She breaks a rib and half the country holds its breath; we want to cocoon her in bubble wrap to keep her and her passionate sense of justice on the bench for as long as humanly possible. Hyperbolically (and likely quasi-sincerely), we offer her our organs, our limbs, our beating hearts. Facebook keeps encouraging me to buy earrings shaped like her famous lacy “dissent” collar. In the absence of a sense of common decency in the other branches of federal government, a nation turns its eyes to the second female Justice appointed to the Supreme Court to supply us with the food for the soul a stirring dissent or witty, spot-on remark can provide.
Fresh off the heels of RBG, the smart, revealing documentary directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West that had a crew nearly entirely composed of women, we now have On the Basis of Sex, a more clumsily-titled (and ultimately, less elegantly-wrought) biographical effort directed by Mimi Leder. Natalie Portman was set to star when the film was being developed in 2015 from a Black List screenplay; in hindsight, she was perhaps a more obvious choice to play the role, given how she was able to conjure up a stirring, haunting take on Jackie Kennedy despite not really resembling her physically. Yet, after having seen both Jackie and On the Basis of Sex, it’s clear that Mimi Leder is no Pablo Larraín in terms of creative approaches to the material. It’s tempting to imagine that when On the Basis of Sex switched directors from Portman’s first choice of Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) to Leder, perhaps Portman saw which way the wind was blowing, and opted to let Jackie be her big biopic role.
On the Basis of Sex, which stars Felicity Jones as Ruth and Armie Hammer as her utterly devoted husband Marty, is fairly middle-of-the-road as far as biopics of famous people go. It doesn’t try to tell all of Ruth’s life story; rather, it focuses on roughly a decade and a half of her life, from her entrance into Harvard Law School in 1956 to her arguing Moritz v. Commissioner before the 10th Circuit in 1972. As for the central performance, Felicity Jones gives it her all, and is able to affect the sort of soft, not-quite nasal quality of the actual Ruth’s voice, even if her accent wobbles at times. I doubt, though, that the quality of the film will elevate any of the performances to awards levels, despite everyone’s best efforts.
It’s to the movie’s credit that it shows the clear thematic progression of the individual sexist indignities Ruth faced both professionally and personally, and how those struggles led her to take on a tax law case that would slowly begin to chip away at the American legal system’s different treatment of men and women. RBG largely focused on a different and more well-known early legal case in Ginsburg’s legal career (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, which she argued before the Supreme Court). So On the Basis of Sex deserves credit for choosing historical accuracy over a more easily-digestible or dramatically cinematic case. And because (at least for me and the guest I took to the screening) Moritz v. Commissioner isn’t as famous as Weinberger, there’s a genuine element of suspense and risk as Ruth and Marty prepare to argue the case. There’s the actual possibility of crushing, humiliating failure, which is only heightened by the disastrous early performances of both husband and wife on the stand.
But it’s unfortunate that On the Basis of Sex never becomes all that compelling until Moritz itself is brought into the plot of the film. The movie opens with a sequence of innumerable young men all flowing towards the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School in an endless wave, and then we see that One Of These Things Doesn’t Belong: the skirt, the sensibly-heeled shoes, the line up the back of the stockings, telegraphing in a very obvious way that Ruth is outnumbered as one of the only women in her class. And once Ruth gets through those doors, everything goes precisely as you’d expect. She’s variously underestimated and ignored by the Dean of the School (Sam Waterston) and her professor (Stephen Root), despite being smarter than everyone else in the room. When the Dean asks her why she is taking the place at Harvard that could have gone to a man, we learn that Ruth is also sharper and faster on her feet than everyone else in the room. After finishing law school, she’s rejected from law firm after law firm, with one potential employer notably ogling her while informing her that as a woman, she would cause her coworkers’ wives to get jealous. Her only respite is the impossibly wonderful Marty (who ultimately would prove to be the most supportive and least insecure husband ever to live), played with warm eyes and a gentle mien by Armie Hammer.
Ruth gets a job at Rutgers Law School, becoming a well-liked professor, but remaining resentful of the fact that no one will let her practice law until Marty hands her the case that would become Moritz v. Commissioner. In very brief summary: Moritz, a single man caring for his sickly mother, was denied a tax credit given to caregivers because the tax law did not allow single men to claim the benefit. So with the aid of Mel Wulf of the ACLU (Justin Theroux, bristling with nervous energy and mustache power), the Ginsburgs prepare to argue that a law discriminates against a man, hoping that by establishing this precedent, courts will be able to justifying striking down further discriminatory laws. And, naturally, who would be the opposing counsel but a lawyer hired and advised by the same professor and dean who refused to take Ruth seriously back in the day?
It’s during the preparation for Moritz that one of the more prominent issues with current feminist movements is brought up, making me wish that On the Basis of Sex had the wherewithal to address it: Ruth and Marty attempt to argue in a practice moot court that laws that discriminate due to race and gender are essentially the same. And at one point Mel expresses to Ruth that it’s better, in terms of treatment under the law, to be a woman than an African American or a socialist, so at least on the level of screenwriting, there may have been some acknowledgement of the complicated relationship between white feminists fighting for equal rights for women and the reality of racial discrimination during that time period. We still see a privileging of gender struggles over racial ones in mainstream discourse. And yet, on the whole, On the Basis of Sex largely ignores racial issues, despite the inclusion of a few black students in Ruth’s Rutgers class and a black colleague of either Mel’s or Ruth’s who helps them practice their case in one entire scene (it’s never made entirely clear who she is).
On the Basis of Sex is most thrilling during that courtroom sequence, where the persuasive (if extremely on-the-nose) speech Ruth gives as her closing argument is stirring and inspiring. Yet the speechifying tendencies pop up elsewhere in the film, much to its detriment: Jane, Ruth’s and Marty’s daughter, basically exists to spout off ponderous lines of dialogue to indicate very, very clearly to the audience that she is why Ruth is fighting these battles for women’s equality, serving as a mouthpiece for a more radical politics of direct action than Ruth is comfortable espousing. While the epilogue text notes that Jane Ginsburg became a law professor, making the character of Jane Ginsburg a politically active young woman thematically appropriate, it comes at the cost of making the character of Jane Ginsburg come across as an actual teenager. It got to the point where, towards the end of the movie, I had to fight a preemptive giggle every time Jane opened her mouth, knowing that whatever was about to come out would be anvilicious and not at all something a sixteen-year old girl would say.
Ultimately, On the Basis of Sex is competent and adequate, and chock-full of information that I actually enjoyed learning. I entered the theater not knowing who Dorothy Kenyon was; now I can picture her as Kathy Bates, who plays her in what is a Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love-level supporting/cameo appearance. And yes, reader, I may have cheered at the very end, when Felicity Jones-as-Ruth walking up the steps of the Supreme Court turns into the actual Ruth (both wearing the same coat); it’s cheesy, but the film knows its audience. I just wish that the movie had taken a more unconventional approach to the story of this still-unconventional woman.