On the Basis of Sex: Mimi Leder’s Earnest Biopic of Early Years of Judge Ruth Bader, Starring Felicity Jones

On the Basis of Sex, the biopic of the early years of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg is too earnest and too conforming to the conventions (and clichés) of a mainstream Hollywood biopic.

Our grade: B- (** out of *****)

It’s important to remember that the real Ginsburg has been on the nine-member Supreme Court since 1993; the Senate vote for her was almost unanimous., 96-3.  Lately, she has been in the news due to a series of illnesses, getting in and out of the hospital.

Set in the mid-1950s, it begins with Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), a first-year Harvard law student, on of nine select women in her class.  In a parade of mostly males in Cambridge, accompanied by the song “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,” is the attractive Ruth, who’s too short (as he husband jokes about it when thy make out). 

At a dinner party, when asked by Erwin Griswold, the law school dean (Sam Waterston), whether they have right to be there, the range of answers is varied (but lame), underlining the point that Harvard Law School may not be a place for a woman.

The family must have been involved indirectly in making Mimi Leder’s biopic, since it is based on a script by Daniel Stiepleman, who is Ginsburg’s nephew.

Instead of an attempt of a more comprehensive portrait of Ginsburg’s career, the movie focuses on her first sex-discrimination in federal court in the early 1970s, and on her legal strategy to challenge injustices.

On the Basis of Sex tries to understand Ginsburg’s achievements, which are considerable when it comes to feminist legal activism, though the feature never contextualized her individual efforts vis-à-vis the rising modern women lib movement at that time.
“You are angry, good, use it,” she is told t one point, when she mentions how her mother urged her to be more intellectualized disciplines than listen to or be influenced by her emotions.
Alternating scenes of her early professional and personal life, On the Basis of Sex portrays a happy egalitarian marriage.  It does help that husband Marty is played by the tall, handsome and likable Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Names).  The couple had met as undergraduates at Cornell University, and he negan Harvard a year before here.  Here is a loving husband, who respects his wife’s career, cooks, and cleans, and a supportive father to a bright teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who takes interest in her education and development.  They are equal partners in the best sense of the term.
Her first major case, which occupies the narrative’s second half, is to represent Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a Colorado guy denied tax benefits  given to women caring for family members, and here that the movie loses its energy and gets “more dry” by depicting arguments about gender, society and the law.
The debates are familial and generational–Ginsburg’s style of feminism Vs. that of her own daughter Jane–as well as between Ginsburg and Mel Wulf of the A.C.L.U. (Justin Theroux), who backs the litigation and ultimately becomes an ally.

I wish the movie went deeper into the complex issue of progress–its differing definitions and meanings, even for men (and women) who proclaim to be modern, liberal, and progressive.  Ginsburg is contrasted with Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), a civil rights lawyer whose efforts to challenge and change discrimination failed.

End Note:

Justice Ginsburg has reportedly liked the film, except the factually wrong scene in which she is caught off-guard due to loss of words as she speaks at court for the first time.