If you watched the excellent Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, RBG, you already know that the Supreme Court justice’s late husband, Marty Ginsburg, was the true love of her life and a man of uncommon kindness and decency. You also know that he was an acclaimed tax lawyer who somewhat put his own career on the back burner to support his wife’s rapidly rising star. He’s a big part of that film’s heart, but ultimately a minor figure, as the doc focuses primarily—and rightly—on its subject. With On the Basis of Sex, the fictionalized account of Ginsburg’s early life and career, director Mimi Leder and writer Daniel Stiepleman chose to go a different route: They put the relationship between Ruth (Felicity Jones) and Marty (Armie Hammer) front and center. The film is arguably as much about the love story between Ruth and Marty as it is about Ruth’s groundbreaking gender discrimination arguments before the Court of Appeals.
Think I’m exaggerating?
Here’s the final exchange of the film:
Marty: You did it!
Ruth: We did it.
Needless to say, I’m not exactly thrilled with this approach to the material, even if I get it. Marty was a pivotal part of Ruth’s early career and deeply supportive of his wife. And it was, indeed, Marty who brought to Ruth’s attention the particular tax case—a bachelor who was denied the caregiver’s exemption normally afforded to women after he hired a nurse to tend to his ailing mother—that she would ultimately argue in front of the Court of Appeals. (Cleverly, Ginsburg chose a case where the man was the one being discriminated against on the basis of sex.) But still. I’ve seen so many biopics about a towering male figure and his supportive wife (usually played by a highly overqualified actress) where she is relegated to a glorified cheerleading role. Not the case here.
So how’s the rest of the film? Pretty solid as such things go. Jones is good, if a tad bland, as Ginsburg. She chooses to play young Ginsburg as tight-lipped, super studious, and preternaturally determined. She’s not supposed to be charming, that’s the point—“You come across as a bitter, unlikable shrew,” says the ACLU’s Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) (and he was ostensibly her friend!). Still, the real Bader Ginsburg has an undeniable magnetism that Jones doesn’t quite convey. Hammer, playing the perfect man, basically, is well cast. (At this point, he is cinema’s premier Dreamy Jew ™). And I enjoyed the hell out of Theroux, chewing the scenery, Stanley Tucci-style, as the brash, cocky ACLU director who is progressive but still needs to be convinced that a woman can do a man’s job. There’s also a small, but pivotal role for Kathy Bates, as Ruth’s hero, the pioneering gender equality lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, and she’s as salty, earthy, and welcome a presence as ever.
The script is mostly of the Wikipedia sort, with a few on-the-nose clunkers, especially involving scenes between Ruth and her feminist teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny). In one such scene, Jane talks back to a couple of cat-callers on the street and Ruth marvels at her: “Look at you, Jane! You’re a liberated young woman!” A few scenes later, Jane gives her mother a pep talk, after Ruth apologizes for being so preoccupied with her case. “Who is [the case] for, if not for me?” Jane says, prophetically.
The best thing about this dramatization of Ginsburg’s life is how many cathartic moments it provides, as Ruth faces astonishing institutional sexism and again and again proves her doubters wrong. That’s why you watch On the Basis of Sex. To see all the obstacles she overcame, all of the men she outwitted and humiliated on her way to the top. Honestly, for that alone, it’s worth the price of admission.