Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has so many fervent admirers, she’s practically become a cottage industry in America. Aside from the comprehensive exhibition about her still running at Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center through March 10, there was the documentary film Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which helped stoke the flames of the cult surrounding her name and reputation.
Now, to a screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman (who happens to be RBG’s nephew), we get to know her more intimately in the early part of her career, from her Cornell undergraduate meeting with fellow student Martin Ginsburg, who would become her husband and father to their two children, to their admittance to Harvard Law School (he was a year ahead of her), to her first courtroom case in Denver’s 10th District Court. The film playing in theaters now is On the Basis of Sex.
Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) could not in her day, the 1950s and ’60s, gain employment in a law firm that would actually allow her to practice law, which was her passion
Mrs. Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) could not in her day, the 1950s and ’60s, gain employment in a law firm that would actually allow her to practice law, which was her passion—evidenced by the fact that she graduated at the top of her classes at Harvard and at Columbia, where she took her third year of law and from which she earned her degree.
As a fallback, for several years she taught at Rutgers Law School in Newark, fearing she would be one of those professionals who for any number of reasons—in her case, rampant sexism and a little anti-Semitism thrown in for good measure—never got to work in their chosen field.
Yet her Rutgers experience turned out to be a valuable period for Ginsburg. There she met a multicultural group of students, including numerous young women who likely could not have gained admission to, nor could have afforded, schools like Harvard and Columbia. And there she was able to teach courses in gender and the law, which no establishment school would have allowed at the time. In the course of her years at Rutgers she not only honed her own expertise in gender inequality, but educated scores of future lawyers as well.
A central part of the film has her struggling with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to take on gender discrimination, when chances for success in the courts were slim at best. In her first case that she personally argued in court, Denver’s 10th District, she defended Charles E. Moritz (Chris Mulkey) in 1972 against the Internal Revenue Service for not allowing him, as a male, to deduct homecare expenses for his mother, whereas a wife or daughter would have been able to do so. The law, as written, just presumed that only women would be caretakers. Contrary to expectation, she won, and went on to argue a number of pathbreaking cases before the U.S. Supreme Court which fundamentally changed the law and public opinion. One of the themes she emphasized in both that and later cases was the extent to which sex discrimination prejudices both women and men in the pursuit of their lives and careers.
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Another key part of the film is the long, supportive relationship she shared with her husband Martin (the yummy Armie Hammer), who was fully her partner in the Moritz case (he was a tax lawyer), and a somewhat behind-the-scenes chief promoter of her growing career.
Other significant characters in the story include her supercilious Harvard Law School dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), the head of the ACLU, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the older pioneering feminist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), the Ginsburgs’ daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), and the activist turned lawyer, later turned theologian and priest Pauli Murray (Sharon Washington), whose contributions to the field of women and the law RBG never stinted at acknowledging.
Director Mimi Leder told the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 8, 2019), “I like to call this movie an origins story about a superhero, but really, it’s a story about a woman who made change happen. Ruth was smarter than anybody, she didn’t let anything stand in her way, and her husband Marty was incredible. Their marriage was an equal partnership and in that sense a metaphor for the film.”
It bears restating that this is not a documentary but a feature film with any number of obvious Hollywood characteristics—snappy dialogue, pivotal plot points, the studied buildup of suspense, strong opposing characters, swelling music, stunning period dress. As such it is as entertaining as a populist Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and heroic as Loving, an interracial love story that also challenged the law and similarly set in mid-20th century America.
As I was sitting waiting for the previews to start, a woman passed by me on the way to her seat, saying to her companion, “I say a prayer for her every day, and I’m not even religious.” Millions of other Americans are wishing RBG many more years of good health and service on the highest court in the land, especially as we have seen the sycophantic ilk of the current president’s judicial appointees.
On the Basis of Sex is highly watchable, a joy to the heart, and a magnificent tribute to the evolving role and rule of law in a changing society. Felicity Jones is superbly inspiring. I feel grateful that this film exists, for now and forever. A precedent has been established.
The trailer can be viewed here.
Eric A. Gordon