Such is the respect and reverence that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has accumulated in her illustrious career, any attempt at a biopic is faced with the inevitable dilemma of trying to do justice to a life and legacy that is responsible for some of the most significant moments in the fight for gender equality. Whilst there is still a long way to go to achieve genuine parity between men and women, the significance of Ginsburg’s success in the United States Supreme Court in 1974 should never be underestimated in its significance to bringing about significant social, political and legislative reform. Since this time, Ginsburg has gone on to serve on the United States Court of Appeal and, since 1993, as a Justice of the Supreme Court. Wisely, director Mimi Leder elects to focus the film on Ginsburg’s groundbreaking work in the 1970’s, a time when sexism was firmly entrenched in American society with endorsement from both the legislature and the judiciary.
When we first meet Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), she is already married to Martin (Armie Hammer) and balancing motherhood with her law studies, initially at Harvard before switching to Columbia. With no insight offered into any aspect of their lives prior to this point, it is It is not really clear how they are able to sustain what seems to be a very comfortable lifestyle given that they are both studying and, even when Martin falls ill and relies on Ruth to take his classes (in addition to her own) and help with his course work, they don’t seem to experience any kind of financial stress whatsoever. Despite finishing top of her class, Ruth is unable to secure a job as a lawyer (for all manner of ridiculous reasons, such as the fact she would be a ‘distraction’ to her male colleagues), so she accepts a teaching position at Rutgers Law School. On the Basis of Sex can be seen as an origin story of sorts in that it focuses on Ginsburg’s first gender discrimination case, which took place in 1972. Knowing that a case in which a male was subject to discrimination would be her best opportunity to draw attention to gender inequity in law, Ginsburg argues that the United States Tax Code was unconstitutional in that it denied Charles Moritz, a single man who had never married, the right to deduct expenses for the care of his ailing mother.
The irony about the production of this film lies in the fact that many of the sexist attitudes that Ginsburg has fought so hard to eliminate are still rampant in Hollywood, to the point that securing support for the film proved difficult because producers felt that Martin Ginsburg was ‘too supportive’ of his wife and were adamant that conflict between them was needed to make the story believable. Apparently it is okay for women to play supportive wives and girlfriends ad nauseam, but having a man take on such a role is simply unacceptable in the minds of those responsible for so much of what we see on screen. There is nothing flashy in the way the story is told and much of the film plays out as a somewhat typical, but engrossing and high stakes, legal procedural. It may seem a strange choice in casting a British actress as the Jewish, Brooklyn-born Ginsburg, but Jones imbues her character with the intellectual rigor and propulsive drive that have made her a legal and cultural icon.
Hammer seems right at home as the loyal sidekick to his superhero wife, while the likes of Sam Waterston and Stephen Root play the bad guys determined to keep Ginsburg (and all women, for that matter) in their place. Justin Theroux features as Ginsburg’s civil liberties ally Mel Wulf and Kathy Bates also pops up as fellow legal pioneer Dorothy Kenyon, who actually died in 1972 and whose meeting with Ginsburg as depicted in the film never happened according to Ginsburg’s daughter Jane, who is played here by actress-on-the-rise Cailee Spaeny as a teenager both infuriated and inspired by her mother. With On the Basis of Sex, Leder has delivered a worthy tribute to an influential figure so far ahead of her time that the world still seems a long way from fully embracing her vision of equality for all.