The Notorious RBG Gets Her Moment in ON THE BASIS OF SEX
In recent years, there has been a growing cultural awareness of the extent to which the film industry is by and large dominated by men both in front of and behind the camera. To put a spotlight on women working in film, I am participating in the 52 Films By Women challenge. The requirements: watch at least one (1) new-to-you film per week that has been directed by a woman. As I make my way through the year, I will be reviewing each film I see as part of the challenge here.
52 Films By Women Entry #: 5
In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the United States Supreme Court - the second woman to have ever achieved that position. In the years since, she has been a steadfast voice for progressive values on the court, with particular respect to gender equality and women’s rights. Her impassioned dissenting opinions have led her to internet memedom as the nation moved further into the 21st Century, casting Ginsburg as a pop culture icon.
On the Basis of Sex isn’t about any of that though, acknowledging that her advocacy has been a career- and life-long battle borne of her own experiences and observations. The film opens in 1956 on a lone dress and pair of heels amidst a sea of pressed suits. Ginsburg, here portrayed by a resolute Felicity Jones, has been accepted into Harvard School of Law, one of only nine women in her class. The dean of the school (Sam Waterston) pointedly asks the nine to explain to him, “why are you here, taking the place of a man?”
It’s the first of many instances of discrimination and assumptions made about her capabilities as a woman. Ginsburg nevertheless goes about attempting to defy them. While raising a young infant, she excels in her courses, eventually adding her husband Martin’s (Armie Hammer) classes to her courseload when he is diagnosed with cancer. When he lands a job in New York, she asks the dean permission to finish her last year of classes elsewhere and still receive a degree from Harvard - an arrangement afforded most male students prior. Her request is refused.
She finishes her schooling at Columbia, and then expends considerable effort searching for work, but to no avail. She returns to academia, this time as a teacher, with a reticent fire for fighting sex-based discrimination quietly kindling. By now the tumultuous ‘70s have arrived, and her students are more diverse in appearance and radical in politics than ever. They’re aiming to change the world, and Ginsburg wishes to be doing it right beside them.
Her moment arrives when Martin finds a unique case for her. An unmarried man has returned home to care for his elderly mother. However, the tax code will not allow him to deduct his expenses as a caregiver, as that role is assumed to be solely female. The case presents an opportunity to challenge the way in which the law would disadvantage certain sexes, but from the other direction. With the help of the ACLU, her and Martin challenge it. The Department of Justice, stubbornly, decide to fight it.
Ginsburg is even more stubborn though, her seriousness and drive brought to life by Jones’ performance with a strength belied by her diminutive stature. Her determination is exhibited as both a blessing and a curse, the film gently prodding at the humorlessness that leaves her challengers less receptive to her arguments. The script acknowledges the unfairness of that reality, however it must be navigated carefully nevertheless. Hammer, himself a walking specimen of a straight-laced ‘50s man, plays the supportive husband well, his humored chemistry with Jones charming, playful, and authentic.
The film doesn’t necessarily deviate from biopic formula structurally, but carries a deft touch in handling its big moments. The serious thematic statements don’t land as heavily as most films of the kind would throw them down, supposing that the action and drama of the scenes speak well enough for themselves. Director Mimi Leder moves the story along briskly, capturing what needs to be shown and dwelling instead on keen personal details, like Ginsburg’s horrid cooking - and how Martin steps up to the role as family chef. The pace is to the film’s detriment, inevitably; the narrative rarely seems to be building to anything, screeching to a halt after the anticlimax of the big court case. Perhaps its conclusion is more an inevitability. After all, we’ve spent the last two hours watching the world change and grow past the limitations that hindered Ginsburg in her early career. It’s more a relief, then, that the obvious finally be recognized, even if the recognition has to be fought for. And if Ginsburg has achieved anything, it is to have inspired more of the fighters.
On the Basis of Sex is available on DVD & Blu-ray, and can be rented on most digital video platforms