In 1956 when Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School she was one of just nine women in her class. A new film, “On the Basis of Sex” starring Felicity Jones as the second female justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, details her formative years from law school through to her ground breaking cases in the area of women’s rights.
We first see Ginsburg in a bright blue overcoat, sensible pumps and stockings with a perfectly straight line up the calf walking to class on her first day. She stands out in the mostly button down male pupils walking in Harvard’s hallowed halls. In class the keen student is met with stares of disbelief and asked to consider what it means to be a “Harvard man.” Worse, her dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), bluntly asks, “Why are you occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man?”
Cut to 1959. Her tax lawyer husband Marty (Armie Hammer) and daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) are living in New York. Despite graduating top of her class Ginsburg can’t find a job in the biggest city in the world’s most litigious country simply because she is a woman. “We’re a tight knit firm,” one prospective employer tells her. “Almost like family. The wives would get jealous.”
Shut out of practicing law she accepts a position as a professor at Columbia Law School. The story jumps ahead a decade to 1970. Her class in women’s rights is ninety percent female but attitudes haven’t changed much since she graduated. “Some colleagues say I should be teaching the rights of gnomes and fairies,” she says.
The brilliant law professor feels stymied because while she is teaching the next group of lawyers to change the world she would rather be changing it herself.
When her husband presents her with the case of Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), a man denied a caregiver tax deduction because of his gender, she sees a way to make change. She leaps at the chance to take on a sex discrimination case that could have far reaching implications not only for Moritz but for women as well.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an exceptional person. So exceptional in fact that her life has been documented several times on film, including the recent documentary “RBG.” That movie presents her as a multifaceted person. An opera loving law prodigy with a wicked sense of humour and a sense of justice that has influenced every aspect of her life. Gloria Steinem calls her “the closest thing to a superhero I know.”
“On the Basis of Sex,” written by Ginsburg’s late husband’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, takes this pioneering woman’s spirit and shapes it around a formulaic narrative. It’s efficient, playing like a greatest hits collection of the heads she butted and the doors she kicked in. Gone is the quirky, layered personality displayed in “RBG,” replaced with Jones’s earnest portrayal. If, as Steinem says, she is a superhero, “RBG” portrays her as Wonder Woman. In “On the Basis of Sex” she’s more like Elektra, still remarkable but not quite as interesting.
“On the Basis of Sex” is a feel good history lesson, a movie that provides a look at Ginsburg’s determination, intelligence and humanity but one that goes too heavy on the hagiography.