Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the focus of “On the Basis of Sex,” an inspiring biopic about her groundbreaking legal work for women’s rights. The rousing drama focuses on young Ruth Bader Ginsburg as one of the few women admitted to Harvard Law School in the 1950s, then follows her juggling law school with being a young wife and mother, facing the workplace sexism of the ’50s and ’60s, and her dogged early legal work for women facing discrimination “on the basis of sex.”
The film gives us a new view of the unsinkable woman on the Supreme Court also known by many as RBG. It depicts part of the story about how Ginsburg became a Supreme Court justice, and showcases her work as precedent-setting attorney battling for equal legal treatment for women.
The drama is a wonderful companion piece to the excellent documentary “RBG” released earlier this year. Audiences who saw the documentary will get the most out of this drama, but having seen it is not necessary to appreciate this new film.
Mimi Leder directs from a script written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman. The film’s release coincides with Ginsburg’s 25th anniversary on the Supreme Court.
Felicity Jones plays Ginsburg, who we first meet as she begins her education in law as one of only nine women admitted to the tradition-bound Harvard School of Law in the Class of 1956. At a dinner given by law school dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) to welcome new law students, the women are called on to justify why they should have been given a spot in the law school class, instead of a man.
If for no other reason, this film is worth seeing as a reminder of the kind of discrimination women faced in the not-too-distant past. But “On the Basis of Sex” has much more to offer, as a portrait of a critical time in Ginsburg’s life. The shy, serious, studious Ruth Bader meets and marries outgoing, fun-loving fellow student Martin “Marty” Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) before going on to Harvard. This seemingly mismatched pair form a formidable team as they both attend law school, juggling classes, study times and then children, too. Marty sees his brilliant wife’s potential and is willing to make the kind of sacrifices few men did in that era, taking care of children and domestic chores, so his wife could advance her career.
The film does a wonderful job of depicting the couple’s impressive feat of organization and focus. They are further challenged when Marty is diagnosed with cancer. While her husband battles cancer, Ginsburg displays superhuman strength, keeping up with her studies while taking notes in Marty’s classes and caring for both Marty and their baby daughter.
Marty recovers, graduates and quickly lands a job at a top law firm in New York. When Ruth graduates top of her class after transferring to Columbia law school, her job hunt is far different. Unable to find a New York firm willing to hire a woman attorney, no matter how brilliant, she ends up teaching law at Rutgers University. An unusual tax law case Marty comes across presents an opening for his wife to challenge sex discrimination laws, which brings her to the ACLU and the fight for women’s rights.
“On the Basis of Sex” is a crowd-pleasing drama with an inspirational story, which it tells in a straightforward, conventional manner. But what the drama lacks in cinematic flash, it makes up for in the service it provides in telling this important narrative.
The documentary “RBG” had a broader scope, and gave viewers more about Ginsburg’s childhood growing up in a modest-income New York Jewish family. It also showcased more of the couple’s shared Jewish faith. But “On the Basis of Sex” does touch on the couple’s Jewish identity as well as anti-Semitism.
Jones’ winning performance is a centerpiece of this film. Her dark hair, blue eyes and good looks are well matched to the young Ginsburg, whose pretty appearance and “ladylike” (her word) demeanor may have led some to underestimate her. While other women in the ’60s pursued equal rights with marches, Ginsburg worked quietly and relentlessly behind the scenes.
Waterston goes against his usual nice-guy type as the sexist dean of Harvard Law. Hammer does a serviceable job as Marty Ginsburg, but the role could have benefited from a stronger actor. The rest of the cast is fine too, with a nice turn by Kathy Bates as civil rights activist Dorothy Kenyon. Justin Theroux gives an effective if irritating performance as the ACLU’s Mel Wulf. The real Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself has a cameo in the drama, late in the film.
If you are looking for a feel-good film about impressive, against-the-odds accomplishments of one amazing woman, then “On the Basis of Sex” should top your movie-going list.