Film & Television

‘On the Basis of Sex’ — The Origin Story of the Supreme Court’s Wonder Woman

On the Basis of Sex is an old-fashioned drama that benefits from both a solid cast and meticulous direction. The screenplay is by Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be Ginsburg’s nephew. So, we have to assume that the incidents that are dramatized track accurately to his illustrious aunt’s memory. And that’s where my — albeit minor — disappointment comes in.

From her first day at Harvard Law, Ginsburg puts on a show of confidence. She assumes the position that she should have an equal right to a legal education and career as matter-of-fact. Her goals are thwarted early on but she does what she can by enlightening students until she gets the chance to argue a case in court. That chance is a gift from Marty. He’s a tax attorney, introduced, in fact, as “the best tax attorney in New York.” When he finds Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, he brings it to his wife, setting her up to attack sex discrimination through a backdoor — in this case, it’s a man who faces discrimination.

Marty remains her coach and cheerleader. (In fact, the entire movie is a loving tribute to Ginsburg’s late husband.) Mel urges her to avoid sounding “shrewish” and to “smile more,” and insists that she split her time in court with her more pleasant and persuasive husband. She stumbles when it’s her turn to speak and the judges are quick to belittle her when her inexperience shows. The scene is uncomfortable and doesn’t jibe with what we know about Ginsburg today. When she rises to the occasion at last in the hearing’s final minutes, the audience practically cheers (a few people actually did so in my theatre), but it’s an almost unbelievable “Hail Mary pass.” Dramatically, it works, but shakes our perception of the real woman. Glimpses of her strength and less dependence on her husband would have been welcome earlier.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is celebrating her 25th year on the Supreme Court and has become a pop culture icon. In fact, my husband and daughter surprised me with an RBG action figure for Christmas this year. She is currently on display in a shadow box I keep above my desk, next to my Hillary Clinton action figure, and in front of the very first issue of Ms. magazine, signed by Gloria Steinem.

On the Basis of Sex has big shoes to fill (although we have to assume that five-foot, one-inch Ginsburg’s Ferragamos are fairly small). I wish it were a better movie, that I could give it an unadulterated rave review. But the heroine onscreen doesn’t quite live up to the heroine in the Supreme Court. However, the film is entertaining, an engaging history lesson, and certainly drives home the fact that under the law, men and women deserve equal rights and protection. Ginsburg has dedicated her life’s work to ensuring that those rights are not taken for granted.


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