2019-01-10 / Around Town

'On the Basis of Sex' Reveals Ginsburg Before She was 'Notorious'

By Loren King


Armie Hammer co-stars as lawyer and husband Martin Ginsburg with Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "On the Basis of Sex" is playing at the Jane Pickens Theater. Armie Hammer co-stars as lawyer and husband Martin Ginsburg with Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "On the Basis of Sex" is playing at the Jane Pickens Theater. Long before she was christened “Notorious RBG,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was making waves.

Director Mimi Leder’s confident crowd-pleaser “On the Basis of Sex,” from a script by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, is the biopic counterpart to this year’s acclaimed documentary “RBG,” directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. “RBG” detailed Ginsburg’s history of hard work, dogged litigation on behalf of women’s equality, and fierce determination against numerous obstacles, from sex discrimination to cancer (her husband’s and her own). It also revealed through photos and footage what a beauty Ginsburg was in her youth, so it’s not Hollywood dream casting that brings Felicity Jones to the role.


Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. British actress Jones earned high praise as the dedicated wife behind genius Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (2014). This time, it’s the brave and brainy woman, Brooklyn accent and all, who gets the spotlight in this origin story.

Jones nails Ginsburg’s quiet tenacity and steely resolve as “On the Basis of Sex” charts her rising career from Harvard Law School in 1956. She’s one of just nine women flooding the hallowed halls in a sea of more than 500 gray-suited men. At a dinner to welcome the women, a scene that is also recounted in the documentary, dean Elwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) asks each female student to explain why she feels qualified to take a spot from a deserving man. The diminutive Ginsburg delivers her lacerating response with a smile; a disarming tactic imparted to her by her influential late mother and one that clearly continues to serve her.

Besides an origin story, “On the Basis of Sex” is a love story. When her charming husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), also a Harvard Law student, is diagnosed with cancer, she attends his classes, takes notes and helps him at home, all while tending to her own studies and caring for their first child. This is a portrait of a marriage rarely seen in mainstream movies; an equal partnership well ahead of its time. Martin later assumes domestic chores when his wife is teaching law at Rutgers University and preparing the seemingly innocuous tax evasion case that will set a legal precedent for gender equality.

The centerpiece of the movie is Ginsburg’s fight to get that case, “Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue,” heard on appeal and to win it. Moritz (Chris Mulkey) is being penalized by the IRS because he’s the caregiver for his elderly mother. That’s the twist: it’s a man who is being discriminated against on the basis of sex.

But in 1972 this was no slam dunk. The film depicts, in a straightforward and engaging if formulaic way, Ginsburg’s highs and lows in getting the case to court. She convinces old friend Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the ACLU to sign onto her fight, but even this maverick who calls her by her childhood nickname “Kiki” doubts her abilities and condescendingly advises her to play nice before the all-male judges. She also seeks out pioneering women’s rights lawyer Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), who tried unsuccessfully to topple gender discrimination laws years before.

Kenyon brusquely advises Ginsburg that she should follow the example of younger feminists like Ginsburg’s own teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who are committed to changing the culture rather than the law. It’s amusing and reassuring that feisty Jane Ginsburg thinks her mom’s tenacious approach to change is square.

The idea that the law must catch up to the culture is an idea that finds its way into Ginsburg’s riveting closing argument.

Bates, as usual, makes the most of the role and a convincing case that Kenyon deserves a movie of her own. Introducing younger audiences to pioneers like Kenyon and the not-so-long-ago era when sex discrimination was coded into the law are good reasons for a wide audience to see “On the Basis of Sex.” The main reason, of course, is Ginsburg, who makes a brief but memorable appearance at the end, the hero of a mainstream movie about a real-life warrior.

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