ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Director: Mimi Leder
Screenwriter: Daniel Stiepleman
Runtime: 120 mins.
Australian release date: 7 February 2019
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 22 January 2019.
Last year Australian film-goers had the opportunity to see Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG, a revealing documentary about the life of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the formidable Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film covered her career and her home life and was a revelation for an audience who knew little about this extraordinary woman. She was appointed to the S.C. in 1993 by President Clinton and is today a sprightly 85-year-old, still working on the bench. Now, hot on the heels of that fine depiction comes Mimi Leder’s dramatic feature On The Basis Of Sex, which covers the early days of Ginsburg’s rise to prominence.
One of only nine women studying law at Harvard in the mid-1950s, Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) became an impassioned and committed lawyer who claimed that the law discriminated on the basis of gender. This was met with much opposition from a profession that was dominated by men. The Dean of Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), in his opening address to his students put forward his conviction that the law was, and should remain, a male domain. At a subsequent dinner welcoming the incoming law faculty he asks Ginsburg, “Why are you occupying a place that could’ve been taken by a man?” Her response is a gem, making it clear where her thoughts lie and subtly putting the Dean in his place. Throughout her career her chief ally and confidante, both personally and professionally, was her husband Marty (Armie Hammer). He, too, was studying law at Harvard and Ginsberg covered for him when he was recovering from testicular cancer, attending his lectures, taking notes and relating the course information to him on his sick bed when he was recuperating. The film makes clear that her family was her rock and, later in life, when Marty and Ruth had a daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), Ginsburg was able to keep abreast of the changes in social attitudes brought about by the women’s movement when the fight for equal rights was paramount. Family may be the heart but the head of On The Basis Of Sex is the courtroom drama surrounding the landmark case Moritz v. the Internal Revenue Code, in which a man had been refused a tax deduction for the nursing care of his mother because the deduction was limited to "a woman, a widower or divorcée, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized" and the claimant had never married. In other words, the law discriminated against him on the basis of his gender; it assumed that women stay at home and take care of husband and children while men go out to work. Ginsburg convinced Moritz to appeal and, while both she and Marty fought the case, it was her lengthy rebuttal of the defence’s argument that was so ground-breaking.
Felicity Jones delivers an impressive performance as a woman who was, and still is, one of the most courageous public figures fighting for equal rights at a high judicial level and whose fascinating career carries on to this day. Regrettably, the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been wrestling with cancer in recent years but this petite, formidable woman works on. Her early scholastic, personal and legal life are beautifully encapsulated by the fine lensing of Michael Grady and refined costume design by Isis Mussenden. The script is written by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew, and he drew on his aunt’s memories to help him with the work, so it’s nothing if not authentic. However, showing people hard at research can be difficult to convey in an exciting, visual manner and the screenplay is flat at times, before building to the dramatic speech with which it concludes.
On The Basis Of Sex is a straightforward film that deserves to reach a wide audience. There are no bells and whistles in Mimi Leder’s approach to the story - it focuses on one particular case to illustrate the dedication behind Ginsburg’s career in the law. If, after seeing the film, you want to know more about this incredible woman, seek out the Oscar-nominated documentary RBG.