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.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Betty White: Myth, Mirth, and Merch

By Leslie C. Halpern

Although she has detractors, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has evolved into the Betty White of the legal system. Most people – even young people – lovingly embrace this living legend. Now 85 years old, the diminutive Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States is the subject of the documentary RBG, a full-length feature directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Tickets for the one-time screening at the 2018 Florida Film Festival on Saturday, April 14th sold out quickly after going on sale a couple of weeks before the show.

Myth

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a life-long crusader for women’s equality and basic human rights for all, and has a reputation around Washington D.C. as an outspoken liberal queen who, though reviled by many conservatives, is adored by nearly everyone else. It’s often assumed that she has an opinion on everything and sits on the edge of her chair eager to give the dissenting vote. In reality, her children and late husband, Marty, (interviewed in RBG) describe her as quiet, reserved, ladylike, and serious, not prone to emotional outbursts. In the documentary, she comments on her often-quoted observations about politics, “Never respond in anger because it’s self-defeating.”

Likewise, Betty White (now well into her nineties) has myths surrounding her. Although Ms. White gives the appearance of being the same adorable eccentric off-screen that we see onscreen, she’s actually an intelligent actress, comedian, and businesswoman who has proven herself willing to take on vastly different roles during a television and film career spanning more than 60 years. She’s also adaptable enough to change with the times in order to remain relevant with her loyal fans and younger generations just discovering her.

Mirth

RBG meme

According to the documentary RBG, Justice Ginsburg rarely cracks a smile or makes a joke. That was her late husband’s job – in addition to the cooking. Though she’s known for being erudite and articulate, there’s also something inherently amusing about the feisty 5’ 0½ ” octogenarian in her over-sized glasses and drab black Justice robes adorned with frilly collars.

Kate McKinnon’s impression of her is a popular character who shows up frequently on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live. McKinnon’s over-the-top version depicts the same philosophies of Justice Ginsburg, but the opposite personality, expressing sexual innuendo and biting barbs, often punctuated with an energetic dance and the taglines: “And that’s a Ginsburg” or “He just got Ginsburged.”

Betty White meme

Betty White also has a strong connection to Saturday Night Live. Older audiences grew up watching her on television, but younger audiences became aware of her after she starred in recent television series, such as Hot in Cleveland and Boston Legal, and films (The Proposal and You Again), and perhaps most notably in a Super Bowl commercial for Snickers.

Her newfound popularity with the younger generations of fans included a successful Facebook campaign launched to have her host Saturday Night Live. She claims to have been asked several times to host the show, but feared performing in front of a live audience. She eventually hosted the show in 2010 after the Facebook campaign.

Merch

Another similarity between the two women is the merchandise – the mugs, the tee shirts, the socks, the DVDs, and other items. Amazon.com even offers a “Dissent Collar Necklace” for sale in Justice Ginsburg’s honor. And books, there are lots of published books. There’s Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley, The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong…and You Can Too by Bryant Johnson, The Ruth Bader Ginsburg Coloring Book by Tom F. O’Leary, and others, including her best-selling memoir My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mary Hartnett. Try Googling Ruth Bader Ginsburg and you’ll get more than 467,000 results.

The Golden Girls

Ms. White is no literary slouch either with several published books to her credit including her New York Times bestselling memoir If You Ask Me: (And Of Course You Won’t) and dozens of other books written about her by others, including the comic book, Female Force: Betty White by Patrick McCray and illustrated by Todd Tennant. Her image also is represented in a Funko POP TV action figure, mini cutout standee, celebrity mask, and posters, plus many more items where she’s joined by fellow cast members from The Golden Girls, Hot in Cleveland, You Again, and other productions.

Youth-Oriented Culture

With our youth-oriented disposable culture that promptly dismisses obsolete celebrities after their 15 minutes of fame, it’s amazing how these two significantly older women have captured the imaginations of so many and maintained this public interest over the long term. Perhaps even more curious is how the two women have overcome the initial surprise of their late-in-life popularity and accepted their status with grace and humor. In the documentary RBG, Justice Ginsburg (who recently celebrated another birthday) notes in disbelief: “I am 84 years old and everyone wants to take a picture with me.”

It’s anybody’s guess who’ll become the next non-traditional, over-age American icon who serendipitously captures the fluctuating zeitgeist.

For More Information

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg on IMDB
  • Betty White on IMDB