On the Basis of Sex – Film Review by Frank L.
Director: Mimi Leder
Writer: Daniel Stiepleman
Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux
Director Mimi Leder starts the film with clean shaven, short-cropped, collar-and-tied attired young men, marching forward to the rhythm of some Harvard collegiate aggressive song. Amongst the swell of testosterone is a pair of young women’s legs in seamed stockings. It is 1956 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) owns those legs, as one of only nine women registered in the prestigious law school which as Leder makes clear, was a hostile environment for women. She had already met the love of her life Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and was married to him with a baby daughter. He shortly afterwards contracts cancer, she is deeply involved in his care but attends his lectures as well as her own to take notes to enable him to finish his course. He then obtains a position as a tax attorney in a Manhattan law firm. As a result Ruth switches to Columbia, with no help from Harvard, in order to complete her law degree where she comes top of her class. The masculine privilege and prejudice is personified by Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) of the Harvard Law School with whom Ginsburg battles both at Harvard and subsequently.
As regards her subsequent stellar legal career the film hones in on Moritz v. Ginsburg, a tax case brought to her attention by Martin where the two of them represented the tax payer, the only time they acted in court together. Daniel Stiepelman, Martin’s nephew, who wrote the script was fascinated by this case for that reason and the manner in which Martin and Ruth shared the domestic load throughout their marriage, even if Ruth was a legendary bad cook. In the domestic sphere, she is not that convincing as she struggles as a mother with a not unusually stroppy teenage daughter but she has adorned the US Supreme Court for over twenty five years. Throughout her career her appetite for consistent hard work never deserts her, even though indifferent health at times and increasing age represent challenges to be overcome.
The acting of Jones, Hammer and Griswold is all just fine as is Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon, a battle scarred New York rights lawyer. It all makes for an awareness how much has changed since 1956. However, as a film it tells more or less the story of the documentary recently released entitled “RBG”. Leder’s film does not provide many, if any insights to Ruth’s inner self which RBG failed to do.
Be that as it may “On the basis of sex” is still an enjoyable film. In an interview Stiepelman regrets that he did not begin to write the script until after his uncle Martin’s death. That may be the reason that a certain gentleness pervades the script. The value of the film lies in that it continues to extol the pioneering work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg – a unique human who throughout her life has shown indomitable courage as a woman and as a lawyer while being a happy partner in a successful marriage; no mean achievement.