On The Basis of Sex is a perfectly good, if somewhat predictable, film about the remarkable Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her early life up to around the early ’70s. It’s actually a better overview of her importance than the incredibly vacuous documentary RBG, which also came out during Awards season—that film seemed more concerned about memes about her than her actual life’s work. The English actress Felicity Jones plays RBG, while Armie Hammer plays her husband, Martin D. Ginsberg.
The film is a relatively straightforward chronicle from her time as one of only a couple of female students at Harvard Law School, where she faced discrimination, and on and on through her career. She very much wore the pants in the relationship, especially after Martin got sick with testicular cancer, but it has to be that she attended both his and her classes at Harvard while also caring for her sick husband and infant daughter, Jane. For much of the ’60s, Ginsburg worked as a professor, after being discriminated against by big law firms because of her gender. Fittingly, she taught “Sex Discrimination and the Law” at Rutgers Law School. The burgeoning woman’s movement is in the background, with Jane becoming more and more involved with the movement, including attending marches and talks by Gloria Steinham. RBG sympathises with the movement, but she lived it very much through her daughter, as for career reasons she couldn’t be seen at those marches, etc.
The big centrepiece of the film is when she takes on the Moritz v. Commissioner case, which was a case of sex discrimination against a man. It was an utter stroke of genius to use the case of a man who was a carer for his mother, and who was refused a tax deduction because carers could only be “women” under the law. The court would be all male, so it was a way for them to see the hypocrisy and sexism within the law, while playing on their sympathy with their own gender. And it did help as part of the bigger picture to move towards some kind of equality between the sexes, although there is still plenty to do, especially with some of the most regressive laws in decades being passed in the US with regards to woman’s rights as we speak.
It’s not some great film by any stretch, but you do find out her work really did change US law, unlike in the aforementioned doc, including actually going into some detail into the specifics of the various laws. The strong cast elevates the predictable script, from Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer in the lead roles to a great bunch of character actors, like Sam Waterstone as her sexist professor, Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf, the legal director of the ACLU, and Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon, who was a feminist lawyer who paved the way for RBG. Jack Reynor also appears as one of the defense team of the Moritz v. Commissioner case.
The film ends with a cringe-inducing sequence where Felicity Jones walks up the steps to the Supreme Court, and at the end the real-life RBG appears with this big sweeping music playing in the background. It’s just so incredibly cheesy, although it is what happened, and thankfully she is still on the Supreme Court today. There is also a scene where she gets permission from the man of the house to pursue her ambitions, which may rub the audience the wrong way.
The UK release sadly isn’t completely devoid of sexism, because as usual with recent films released on home video that have a “female-centric audience,” it’s been relegated to a DVD-only release and not Blu-Ray… because you know women never buy Blu-Rays. The special features are a trio of short featurettes, which are fine but just promotional fluff, really.