On the Basis of Sex – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Marking her 25th year as a Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been the subject of two inspiring films this year, the documentary RBG and the new feature film, On the Basis on Sex. She’s also been the subject of various videos and television programs.

Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer star in On the Basis of Sex. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

This latest entry, On the Basis on Sex, is a moving biopic based on the true story of her life, written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, which gained her full endorsement and even features Justice Ginsburg in a brief cameo at the end. And frankly, why wouldn’t she like this movie? It pays tribute to her well-documented tenacity, sense of justice, fearlessness, outstanding intellect, and youthful beauty. She’s a living legend—a true superhero encased in a tiny 5’1” body.

Unfortunately, an inspiring subject and its related themes (including gender equality, equality rights for all, being true to yourself, changing with the cultural climate, etc.), don’t necessarily translate into inspired cinema.

Only Nine Women Law Students

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg along with Armie Hammer portraying her loving, supportive, and equally gifted husband, Martin (Marty) Ginsburg. The story begins with a visually dramatic orientation scene: Ruth is one of only nine women among 500 new students entering Harvard Law School in 1956. Then our emotions are engaged when she faces ongoing discrimination from school officials for being a woman, a wife, a mother, and a Jew. Encouraged by Marty’s unflinching support and her own steadfast determination for personal success in her field and the desire to help others overcome inequality, she struggles through the ill treatment to the top of her class.

Another memorable moment arrives when the vibrant and charismatic Marty collapses in pain during a round of charades and is hospitalized. (When Hammer’s young, athletic 6’5” frame topples to the floor, it’s a visual oxymoron that increases the drama). Ruth agonizes for days as doctors refuse to inform her of his status. Eventually the diagnosis is revealed—testicular cancer with a 5% survival rate. Even knowing the happy outcome of this crisis, these painful scenes of suffering may kick audience tear ducts into high gear.

Discrimination Based on Gender

After they both graduate, Marty gets hired as a tax attorney at a prestigious law firm and Ruth compromises by teaching law in college because no law firm wants to hire a woman. Frustrated and angry, she latches onto an opportunity that Marty presents to her in which a man is denied a couple of hundred dollars in tax deductions as his mother’s caregiver, simply because he’s a man. The Ginsburgs, who form a team of two for this pro bono effort, recognize this case as a chance to open the door to revising hundreds of laws that discriminate by gender. Their efforts are assisted (grudgingly at times, by legal director of the ACLU Mel Wulf [Justin Theroux] and attorney Dorothy Kenyon [Kathy Bates]).

Here’s where the movie morphs from an artful feature into more of a documentary process film. The process is researching the original case, building a new case, preparing oral arguments, and then delivering these arguments to a panel of Justices of the Supreme Court. With the odds heavily stacked against them, only the Ginsburgs believe they can win.

A Revolutionary Cultural Shift

This process, which becomes the primary focus for the rest of the film, turns formulaic, weighed down by legalese and inattention to other matters of interest (apart from brief obligatory scenes), including the caregiver’s feelings about the ordeal, the Ginsburg children’s coping mechanisms during their parents’ preoccupation with the case, and Marty’s personal and professional preparation for their big day in court.  

The acting, directing, cinematography, and other production values are good, and this film makes a nice companion piece to the RBG documentary (by directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West) to get a fuller picture of the people beyond the paperwork involved in this revolutionary cultural shift.            

On the Basis of Sex

  • Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Cailee Spaeny, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root
  • Director: Mimi Leder
  • Writer: Daniel Stiepleman
  • Genre: Biography/Drama
  • Run Time: 120 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language and suggestive content)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.