(This film review of “On the Basis of Sex” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 14 February 2019.)
Directed by Mimi Leder; written by Daniel Stiepleman; starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates and Cailee Spaeny.
United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg must be one of the most powerful Jewish women in the world. Sitting on the US Supreme Court since 1993 (appointed by President Clinton), Ginsburg is one of three Jews and three women currently serving – and one of the four remaining liberal/progressive judges. The recent controversy surrounding the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanagh (a conservative Catholic) shows how fraught the politics of the US Supreme Court currently is.
As topical as current Court machinations are, the film “On the Basis of Sex” reaches back in history to provide a dramatic re-creation of 15 formative years of Ginsburg’s early life and career, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. The film opens in 1956, when Ruth is commencing Harvard Law School, one of only nine women to enter that year. To the rousing chords of the gridiron football fight song, “10,000 Men of Harvard”, she marches into the Law School building, her blue dress standing out in a field of grey suits. She too stands out as a student, despite the efforts of some professors not to acknowledge her presence.
The young Ginsburg is played by British actress Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”). Ginsburg’s husband, fellow Harvard Law School graduate and taxation expert Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer in his second Jewish role, following “Call Me by Your Name”) must surely be one of the most ideologically sound and “liberated” Jewish males ever to appear on screen: he shares child rearing, he cooks (better than Ruth) and looks out for her career. Despite being first in her class at both Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, Ruth was denied every job she applied for immediately out of school, given excuses of “too Jewish” or “the wives would be jealous”. Instead she commenced lecturing at Rutgers University, Newark, replacing the African-American teacher who had left.
The young Ruth is disappointed at not practicing law, but grabs an opportunity that Marty discovers of a man not allowed to claim a carer tax deduction, one that women can claim. The Ginsburgs see the political opportunity in attacking gender discrimination through a man’s case rather than a woman’s. The second half of the film charts this case, in which they enlist Melvin Wulf (Justin Theroux), the Jewish head of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Powerful female director Mimi Leeder (“Deep Impact”, “ER”) helms the film and ensures that the normally uncinematic idea of equal rights for women is brought to life on screen. There’s no violence, just a great deal of wordplay: “The word woman does not appear in the US Constitution,” a judge tells Ruth. “Neither does freedom,” she responds. The film’s deepest insights come in illustrating how laws change, often readied by political protests: “We are not asking the court to change the law; we are asking you to give our country the right to change,” Ruth also tells the judges.
Screen icons Sam Waterston and Kathy Bates appear respectively as Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law and later US Solicitor General, and Dorothy Kenyon, lawyer, feminist and civil rights activist. Perhaps the most touching performance comes from Cailee Spaeny as the Ginsburgs’ daughter Jane, exhibiting as a teenager the same activist impulses as her parents. (In real life, Jane also attended Harvard Law, and now teaches at Columbia Law. Her daughter Clara, Ruth’s grand-daughter, also attended Harvard Law; they are possibly the only family with three generations of women – and especially Jewish women – to attend that school.) Not coincidentally, scriptwriter Daniel Stiepleman is the nephew of Marty Ginsburg and had direct access to Ruth, who we see in a brief cameo outside the Supreme Court.
Despite its slightly off-putting title (would “on the basis of gender” be any better?), the film is likely to enter the pantheon as one of the best Jewish female “biopics” ever. While the ending is not in doubt (surely all who watch the film know she wins the case), the film provides an inspirational role model to women – and especially Jewish women – considering the law as a career.