On the Basis of Sex
Courtroom drama lauds its subject for her role in the fight for equality
On the Basis of Sex (2019)
Directed by Mimi Leder
Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Notorious RBG, as been bouncing around news headlines for months now as one of the last remaining progressives on the US Supreme Court, holding on to her judicial position with an iron grip despite a number of recent health scares. So right now seems like a most timely opportunity to release a Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic. As you might expect—given the subject matter—it’s a classy, well-spoken and nobly intentioned effort. Though it isn’t convincing enough to change the hearts and minds of today’s rabid MAGA crowd, it will certainly give progressive audiences an opportunity to feel good and maybe even a tad hopeful.
Director Mimi Leder, who delivered a bit of action back in the day (The Peacemaker, Deep Impact), settles into professional biopic mode for this efficient and reverential outing. Our RBG stand-in here is Felicity Jones, the up-and-coming English award-winner who has made notable appearances in Like Crazy, The Theory of Everything and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. At first, Jones seems too glam and too, well, British for the assignment. But she inhabits Ginsburg’s tiny frame with a steely gaze and a sense of unstoppable momentum.
As a young Harvard student in the mid-’50s (one of the first women to be admitted to the university’s prestigious law school), Ginsburg faces opposition and derision from various teachers and deans. When her husband Martin (Armie Hammer, acting as stalwart and supportive as possible) falls ill with cancer, Ruth does double duty—attending both her classes and his and transcribing the lectures. She does this while caring for her sick hubby and raising an infant daughter. Clearly, we are dealing with a super woman here.
In mid-century America, however, few people seem willing to hire women—impressive Harvard degrees or not. As a result, Ruth is unable to find work outside of academia. Eventually, she settles on a job at Rutgers Law School, teaching “The Law and Sex Discrimination.” It’s in these ’70s-set segments that Jones really settles into the character—
Frustrated by the lack of progress on the Equal Rights Amendment (which we should probably point out is still unratified), Ruth is directed to a particularly interesting tax case that her husband is embroiled in. Admittedly, the words “interesting” and “tax case” rarely go together. But in this instance, it’s what helped propel our country toward equality among the sexes.
The case centers around a Denver man named Charles Moritz (longtime character actor Chris Mulkey). Charles, an unmarried middle-aged man, is taking care of his elderly mother. To help out, he hires a nurse. Under federal tax code “a woman, a widower or divorcée, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized” can receive a tax deduction for hiring a caregiver. The tax code makes no provisions for unmarried men. It was basically inconceivable, at the time, that a man would be unmarried or accept responsibility for taking care of his aging parents. This is basically a cut-and-dried case for rewriting the tax code. But in doing so, a judge would have to rule that the law was sexually discriminatory—
Ruth and her husband both recognize the importance of this little case and try to bring it to the attention of various legal experts, including Mel Wulf (a wonderfully loose Justin Theroux) at the ACLU and pioneering feminist, political activist and civil liberties lawyer Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates, offering another fine cameo). Nobody wants to touch this case. So Ruth and her husband proceed, mostly on their own. This leads to your basic, buttoned-up courtroom drama.
Courtroom dramas are like road movies: formulaic and familiar, with a preordained ending (arrive at your destination/receive a judgment). And On the Basis of Sex is no exception. But it does a very admirable job of pointing out the minutia over which legal precedent often turns. And it gives the perfect setting for poor brainy wallflower Ruth Bader Ginsburg to find her purpose and blossom into the fiery orator she was born to be.
Yes, On the Basis of Sex is a schmaltzy, prepackaged, borderline hagiographic origin story for blue state America’s favorite judicial figure. Its narrative is episodic and somewhat slackly paced. But its optimism is infectious. Anyone inclined to go see a biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the first place is going to be perfectly happy with Jones’ passionate portrayal and with the film’s unwavering, reform-minded efforts.