FILM REVIEW – ON THE BASIS OF SEX. With Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates. Written by Daniel Stiepleman. Directed by Mimi Leder. Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content. 120 minutes.
It’s been said that the average person is more likely to know the names of the Seven Dwarves than the nine Justices of the Supreme Court. The great modern exception is 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg who has the sort of celebrity – which she hasn’t tried to curry – usually reserved for rock stars. Indeed, she even has a hiphop-inspired nickname, “The Notorious RBG.”
The Justice, currently recovering from cancer surgery, was the subject of not one but two movies in 2018, the documentary “RBG” and the late year release ON THE BASIS OF SEX, opening wide for award season this weekend. The latter is a dramatization of her early years, with Felicity Jones playing her as a Harvard Law student at a time when even the dean (Sam Waterston in a delightfully sneering performance) condescends to these new entrants to what was a primarily male preserve.
The movie is important for several reasons. For one thing, it reminds us just how far we’ve come, even if we have farther to go. Ruth Bader is a brilliant student, but has trouble finding a job because women weren’t taken seriously by major law firms. While her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), himself a successful lawyer, holds her in high esteem, she finds that even an ally like the American Civil Liberties Union – personified by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) – is skeptical she can win a sex discrimination case she wants to pursue. Ironically, it involves a man being discriminated against, involving gender stereotypes where men and women are treated almost as if they were different species.
And that gets to the real reason the film works, which is that it has passion. Jones and director Mimi Leder get us involved in what’s at stake and shows us why it matters. The case that Ginsburg argues would prove to be the first major sex discrimination case upon which a whole body of law would eventually be built. We see that men can be victimized as well as women, and that sympathetic men can be as much of an obstacle as antagonistic ones.
Jones, seeming to realize that she is depicting an American icon, portrays her with dignity but not as a clay idol. She gets frustrated, she argues with her daughter, in short, she’s human. That it is a portrait crafted with respect and admiration is not surprising, given that first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman is the Justice’s nephew. It’s important to remember that this is a dramatization, not a documentary, and so while it’s apparently largely accurate, some dramatic liberties have been taken.
“On the Basis of Sex” is a compelling and engaging drama that reminds us that the issues that Justice Ginsburg has made her career upon are not merely “women’s issues,” but matters that affect men as well. In short, the fight for equal rights is the fight for human rights. The movie dramatizes this well, in a way that proves both entertaining and enlightening.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released this month. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.