2019 Film Essays

‘On the Basis of Sex’: Mimi Leder Looks at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Early Work

Compared to the Betsy West and Julie Cohen documentary RBG, Mimi Leder’s period biographical slice On the Basis of Sex is nowhere near as notorious as one might hope, but the hagiographic reverence for Ruth Bader Ginsburg is tempered by enough heart and humor to overcome some of the film’s more predictable adherence to its genre. Like a good law student, Leder focuses on a presentation of the factual and procedural. That choice, similar to Reginald Hudlin’s time-and case-specific look at a pre-iconic Thurgood Marshall in 2017’s Marshall, sacrifices some elements of richer and deeper characterization — including the flaws that help viewers recognize heroes as humans.

Felicity Jones, trying a slightly odd facsimile of RBG’s Brooklyn accent, handles all the condescension, sexism and dismissiveness that can be dished out by the likes of white Harvard men in suits, nevertheless persisting when faced with the insufferable bullshit of Sam Waterston’s dean and Stephen Root’s professor. The screenplay, by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, makes hay with a few choice shots at the storied Ivy League institution. The chauvinist Crimson jerks are expectedly hissable, which makes Leder’s more subtle and complex take on the ACLU’s Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux, doing a little Alan Alda) one of the film’s strengths.

In a bit of movie magic that would have delighted RBG’s husband, Martin D. Ginsburg is played by Armie Hammer. Hammer’s recent and somewhat unexpected turns in Call Me by Your Name and Sorry to Bother You suggest fairly gutsy instincts by the usually safe matinee idol standards of big-budget players. Hammer’s On the Basis of Sex part is far from risky, but as A. O. Scott has pointed out, the actor “has never looked happier,” taking on a supporting role in every sense of the word. Viewed as a portrait of the progressive and, for its era, unorthodox marriage enjoyed by the Ginsburgs — which was delightfully highlighted in RBGOn the Basis of Sex is catnip. One of the best moments in the film is a touching scene in which Martin comforts daughter Jane after a mother-daughter disagreement.

While Jones and Hammer remain impossibly gorgeous throughout the years covered in the narrative, Leder maintains an awareness of time not only through the costumes and cars, but by commenting directly on both opportunities and obstacles experienced by women of different ages. In one sequence, Bader Ginsburg and Jane pay a visit to the office of the legendary judge/activist/feminist Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), whose thoughts are as eye-opening to RBG as Jane’s assertive handling of an unwelcome street harassment. Later, in the movie’s closing arguments, RBG will speak to the “radical social change” marked so noticeably by the passing of time.

The biopic-wary should applaud On the Basis of Sex for its avoidance of the temptation to cover a longer chronology of Bader Ginsburg’s life and career. In comments to The Hollywood Reporter following the film’s New York premiere, Stiepleman stated that he selected the Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue appeal because it “was the only one” that had husband and wife “fighting in court for what [the Ginsburgs] also created at home, which was real equality.” That parallelism works nicely, and it is just as nice to have Mimi Leder back in the director’s chair. Hopefully we will not have to wait as long for her next feature.

Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.