On the Basis of Sex: A Conventional Biopic At Best

(l to r.) Armie Hammer as Marty Ginsburg and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg star in Mimi Leder's ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a Focus Features release.

The spotlight is on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex as the future justice begins her fight against gender discrimination.

A lot of what gets covered in this film was also covered in the Solzy Award-winning documentary, RBG.  This makes so much of the film feel rather redundant to say the least.  I won’t lie in that I questioned why would someone want to watch a biopic when one can just watch RBG instead.

Michael Grady’s cinematography in On the Basis of Sex is top-notch.  There are many points, including the opening scene in 1956, in which the film makes sure to point out that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of very few women in her Harvard class.  We see it again during the orientation when then-Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold addresses the entering class, the camera focuses on Ginsburg while making sure she has eye contact with two other women in the room.  Griswold’s address is rather sexist as he asks everyone, “What does it mean to be a Harvard man?”  Not the same to Ginsburg, one would assume.  Things cut to Ginsburg at her home with husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) talking about the orientation.

Her class marks the 6th year in which women can enter Harvard for a law degree.  As we learn later on, women’s restrooms have yet to be installed.  Dean Griswold plays host to nine women at his home for dinner.  It’s at this dinner where Griswold’s sexism is on display by asking the women why they wanted to take spots away from men.  This is one of those areas where the script hits the right emotional beat.  At the same time, I had an audible “What the fuck?!?” moments at this point in the film.  The sexism in the 1950s was alive and well.  Ginsburg reaches smart aleck territory in her response but it’s for the good of the film.  It’s one of the few times in which I felt the film captured the essence of her Jewishness.

There’s a lot that the film does in the early going to stress the issues that RBG faced because of her gender.  We see this from Griswold and later contracts professor Ernest Brown (Stephen Root).  Oh, does the film ever show just how much of a sexist that Brown is!

Anyone familiar with Ginsburg’s history will know that Martin was diagnosed with testicular cancer.  While he’s at home recovering, RBG is attending his classes in addition to her own!  It’s during this time while attending one of his classes, there’s a line that’s so important, it gets repeated twice.  Just for good measure, we’ll hear it again by the end of the film: “A court ought not to be affected by the weather of the day but by the climate of the era.”  In reality, the actual line from law professor Paul Freund was this: “The Court should never be influenced by the weather of the day but inevitably they will be influenced by the climate of the era.”

If you’ve seen RBG, you know the bulk of what happens next except that the script takes a lot of dramatic liberties by moving things up quite a bit.  It’s not quite bad as all the embellishments in Bohemian Rhapsody but Ginsburg doesn’t take a job at Rutgers until 1963 rather than 1959 in the film.  This is one of the biggest problems in making a biopic.  I’m sad to say that the film gets some of this wrong.  Anyway, we’re due for another time jump so we soon flash forward to Rutgers in 1970 when Ginsburg is teaching Sex Discrimination and the Law.  One of the cases she cites was one argued by Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), Hoyt v. Florida, 386 U.S. 57 (1961).  This case is just one of many reasons that led RBG to become such a fighter against discrimination.

At some point, Martin drops off a tax case for his wife to read.  Not having an interest in tax law, she shrugs him off.  She later reads it and whoa, she starts realizes that they have to take the case.  In doing so, she hopes to bring on Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) from the ALCU.  It takes some time but he eventually signs on.  In the meantime, RBG flies out to Colorado to meet with Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey).  She uses her charms to convince him that she’s serious.  He’s an unwed bachelor caring for his mom.  In the eyes of the law, he’s not eligible for a caregiver exception.  She believes that his case is winnable and offers to appeal it pro bono.

There’s some mother-daughter bonding time with Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who has grown up into quite the young rebel.  This only comes after the film hits another important beat.  But anyway, it lends the opportunity for RBG to bring her daughter to meet Kenyon, thus the quote: “change minds first–then change the law.”  With a montage of research scenes along the way, the old Harvard team of Griswold and Brown has reunited at the Department of Justice.  This time, they’re aided by James Bozarth (Jack Reynor).

“Let’s put the idea of gender discrimination to bed once and for all,” Griswold tells them.  If his sexism isn’t clear at this point, I don’t know what to tell you.  Bozarth has an idea that he thinks is great only it’ll just lead the way for another fight down the road.  With 178 laws, Bozarth unknowing invites RBG to take on the law until both men and women are equal under the law.

There’s no denying that this film hits all the emotional beats.  Unlike Marshall, the future justice is the star of On the Basis of Sex.  If there’s one positive to enjoy about Daniel Stiepleman’s screenplay gets right, it’s choosing a case that doesn’t silence her.  The screenwriter just happens to be the nephew of the justice. In any event, he decides upon the 1972 case, Charles Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revnue, argued in front of the Tenth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals.  Even though Ginsburg argued alongside her husband, Marty, this film doesn’t silence her in the same way Thurgood Marshall was in last year’s biopic.  At the time time, the film is so conventional in its treatment,

It’s a big year for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  This past August served as her 25th anniversary of joining the court.  The year saw the premiere of RBG during Sundance and a new biography, Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life, in October.  It’s only natural to finish up this milestone anniversary year with a biopic of the Brooklyn native.  Though there’s a part of me that wonders what could have been with Natalie Portman in the leading role.  Even as I sat in the theater watching the film, I couldn’t stop thinking about how awesome Portman would have been in the role.  One of our greatest Jewish actresses portraying one of our greatest Jewish-American heroes.  What could have been…

Instead, On the Basis of Sex is–at best–a conventional biopic that condenses a long period of time into a two hour film.

DIRECTOR:  Mimi Leder
SCREENWRITER:  Daniel Stiepleman
CAST:  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen Root, with Sam Waterston and Kathy Bates

Focus Features will open On The Basis of Sex in select theaters on December 25, 2018.  A theatrical expansion will follow.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.