On the Basis of Sex is a biopic about the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The supreme court justice has become a liberal icon in recent years. Her popularity has spawned books, a well-received documentary, and my personal favorite, Notorious RBG t-shirts; which liken her to rapper The Notorious BIG, crown and all. The Hollywood treatment is spirited and well-acted, but a bit too folksy. Director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay it Forward) paints Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a heroic brush. She is a legal titan, a diminutive woman who fought vigorously and successfully challenged the status quo for equal rights.
On the Basis of Sex begins with Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) as a student at Harvard Law School in the late 1950s. One of a handful of women in the five hundred member class, RBG was constantly underestimated because of her small stature and sex. Life at Harvard became even more difficult when her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), was diagnosed with testicular cancer. RBG attended both of their classes, did both of their coursework, and was a rock at her ailing husband’s side.
RBG’s fortunes did not fare better after graduation. Her stellar academic accomplishments could not overcome a noticeable problem. She was very pretty. One of the better scenes in the film has a law partner giving her a blunt assessment. You’re a smart gal, but way too good looking to be a lawyer. The wives wouldn’t allow the partners working late nights with such a fetching colleague. RBG turned her focus to education. She thrived as a teacher, until an obscure tax law case in Denver got her attention. The plight of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) would be a benchmark in RBG’s career, and a pivotal moment in US history.
Felicity Jones was an inspired choice to portray Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When we think of RBG, she is a venerated, eighty-five year old associate justice on the nation’s highest court. But in her youth, she was openly discriminated against by an ingrained sexist culture. Even though she did the work of two students at Harvard, no one could see past her height, beauty, and Jewish religion. Jones plays exasperation perfectly in the film. She gives light to RBG’s fierce determination. RBG did not want special treatment. She wanted to be judged equally. It took decades for her to take a stand. On the Basis of Sex shows her cause as moral and virtuous.
The film builds up to the events of the Charles Moritz case. RBG’s life purpose comes into focus at this watershed moment. This is when On the Basis of Sex shifts into a legal drama. The script by Daniel Stiepleman unfortunately loses steam at this point. It plays out predictably, especially the critical closing arguments in court. Mimi Leder needed to flesh out a more striking resolve. On the Basis of Sex is meaningful, but straddles quaint and quirky. There’s a bowtie neatness that feels rote. Leder should have ended on a more combative stance. RBG’s quest for equality certainly continues to this day.
From Focus Features, On the Basis of Sex is an entertaining and insightful biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She overcame tremendous odds. The film exposes her sexist treatment without getting too ugly or gritty. For those who want to delve deep in the life of RBG, I highly recommend the Magnolia Pictures documentary. She speaks for herself, and in candid terms about the fight for equal rights. She’s every bit a bad ass, the Notorious RBG.