On the Basis of Sex stresses that its subject, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is uncompromising and unmatched when it comes to the mastery of her chosen profession. The film is right to do so. In 1956, Ginsburg was one of just a few women admitted to Harvard Law School, and she graduated at the top of her class at Columbia after transferring there so her husband could take a job in New York City.
She later used a unique case – the focus of the film – to challenge the constitutionality of legal gender-based discrimination. She would eventually reach the pinnacle of American jurisprudence when she was confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. It’s disappointing, then, that the cinematic tribute to such a historically significant, dynamic figure like Ginsburg should be as middling as it is. On the Basis of Sex tries to cover too much ground in its first half, and the picture only really hits its stride in the last act. It’s a biopic that covers a vital individual in an unsatisfying, if entertaining, way.
The best thing a biopic can do is avoid cramming every significant detail in its subject’s life into the story. Instead, it should focus all its attention on just one or two of the episodes that make that person’s story worth telling. Basis tries to do both, and it suffers as a result. There is a disjointed, episodic quality to the beginning of the movie. It uses elongated fade-outs to announce the passage of years in Ginsburg’s life. The first segment is set in 1956, when Ginsburg, as a young law student, was greeted with sexism even from the very head of Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold.
At an introductory dinner, Griswold asks each woman admitted to the program to explain why she is taking a spot that could have gone to a man. It’s a humiliating moment, and one that Ginsburg successfully navigates by using wit and sarcasm in her answer. But, considering the crux of Basis focuses on Ginsburg’s fight to overturn sexist legislation nearly two decades later, the Harvard anecdote could have been incorporated into a more tightly structured narrative. It, and most of the movie’s first act, could have been relayed to the audience through Ginsburg’s reminiscences of those events to other characters.
The same is true for the time Basis spends on how Ruth and Marty Ginsburg, Ruth’s husband, deal with Marty’s testicular cancer diagnosis. This was no doubt a trying time for the couple. In fact, the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg released in mid-2018, RBG, covers those events, and how the two handled it. On the Basis of Sex uses Marty’s illness as a way to show, albeit in a fleeting way, Ruth’s determination.
We see one scene showing Ruth frantically running to one of Marty’s tax law classes. When she disrupts the professor’s lecture, he asks what she is doing. She explains that she is taking notes for Marty while he is recovering, in addition to attending her own classes. This one scene is a shorthand way to dramatize her struggles while in law school, but the film would be better served to spend more time on the case that she spearheads later.
It’s the courtroom scenes that revolve around the later case, in the 1970s, that give Basis the opportunity to shine. Marty tips Ruth off about a tax case in which a man was denied a deduction simply for being an aging bachelor. He paid a home-care nurse to take care of his mother, but the government refused his application to deduct the cost from his taxes. The law establishing the deduction was meant to offset the cost of hiring a nurse to care for a family member, but the only people specifically eligible under the law were “a woman, a widower or divorcée, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized.” The law assumed that only a man provides income for a family, while his wife would deal with domestic activities like caring for ill family members. The legislators never considered a man who never married having to provide both care and an income, and their excluding that kind of man from the deduction was discrimination based on his gender.
The movie does a fantastic job of dramatizing Ruth Ginsburg’s realization that challenging a law discriminating against a man because of his gender could lead to challenging hundreds of laws that did the same to women. Her fight to convince Charles Moritz – the man who was denied the tax deduction – to let her represent him as well as getting the backing of the ACLU to help with the case is wonderfully engaging.
Marty helps Ruth throughout the case, and in a rare example of events from early in the film paying off later, we understand their complementary dynamic during these scenes. Marty was, especially for the time, supportive of his wife’s professional goals. Basis takes care to complicate Marty early in the film, though, showing him engage in personal growth when Ruth points out to him that he brushes off sexist assumptions his colleagues make about her.
Felicity Jones does a commendable job of bringing the iconic legal superhero Ruth Bader Ginsburg to life. The British actress embodies the grit and determination her real-life counterpart has displayed her entire life, even if her attempt at Ginsburg’s unique Brooklyn accent fades frustratingly in and out. The dashing, handsome Armie Hammer somehow makes himself slightly nebbish in the role of Marty, while maintaining the strength of his character’s convictions.
The villains in On the Basis of Sex are a bit cartoonish, but only a bit. By the time Ginsburg brings her gender discrimination case to court, she faces the very man who asked why she dared take a man’s spot at Harvard. Erwin Griswold had become the United States Solicitor General, and both he and his team seek to keep the patriarchy intact, at least legally, if not culturally. These men are never twirling their mustaches, but they have a vested interest in keeping women in their place, and the movie overindulges just slightly in portraying them that way.
On the Basis of Sex succumbs to some of the pitfalls of standard biopic tropes, but it transcends others. That ultimately leaves it in a frustrating middle ground. The film’s subject, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, played – and is still playing – a pivotal role in the pursuit of equality under the law for all. She is deserving of having her life turned into a movie. But she is also deserving of that movie being better than this one.
Why it got 3 stars:
- On the Basis of Sex tells a crucial story in the fight for women’s equality. I just wish it had been told better. The movie would have benefited from a more tightly focused structure. While the performances are solid, the screenplay tries to cover too much ground. It falls prey to conventional biopic tropes.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Despite the movie’s flaws, it does succeed in making Ruth Bader Ginsburg a fully formed person. Rach and I laughed a bit during a scene in which RBG and Marty Ginsburg start making out, just because we never expected to see any part of her sex life portrayed on screen. It serves to humanize her, though, which is one of the movie’s real strengths.
- The screenwriter, Daniel Stiepleman, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew.
- The movie references a turn of phrase that I particularly liked describing how the law reacts to the culture. It’s a comment about how interpretation of the law can be shaped not by “the weather of the day, but the climate of the era.” I thought it was particularly poignant considering actual climate change, and how most climate change deniers don’t know the difference between weather and climate.
- Less effective is a moment mid-way through the movie in which Marty is cooking dinner with his daughter. As he’s teaching her about adding spices to a dish, he makes the comment that they aren’t supposed to battle each other, but that they should complement each other: “that’s why it’s called marrying the spices.” He’s clearly talking about more than spices. It is perhaps the least subtle moment in the movie.
- In the courtroom scenes, the government makes the case that the tax law shouldn’t be struck down because men being the breadwinners and women tending to domestic issues is part of the “natural order.” The argument for anything as being part of the natural order, or “that’s they way it’s always been, so that’s the way it should be,” is completely bogus. In the movie, Ginsburg lays the specious claim to waste, and it’s so satisfying.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- My home theater is getting quite the work out. I watched this on another awards consideration screener. Should I just start calling my home theater my sanctuary? Maybe…
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Director Barry Jenkins made my number one film of 2016, Moonlight. A few months after I released my top ten of that year, I saw a documentary that would have also made the list. It’s a film about the life of writer and activist James Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro. Now, Jenkins has adapted one of Baldwin’s books for the screen called If Beale Street Could Talk. I’m in the precarious position of my expectations being too high to be met. Here’s to hoping Jenkins turns in something as beautiful and moving as Moonlight.