Friday, January 11, 2019

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality heroically portrayed in ‘On the Basis of Sex’

By Steve Crum
On the Basis of Sex adds to the cadre of biographical films based upon U. S. Supreme Court Justices. That relatively short list includes 1950’s The Magnificent Yankee, starring Louis Calhern as Oliver Wendell Holmes. Among those that followed, two focused on Thurgood Marshall: Separate But Equal (1991—Sidney Poitier) and Marshall (2017—Chadwick Boseman). 
That said, On the Basis of Sex is a fascinating, well crafted, accurate bio-drama about the early life—personal and professional—of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg has also been the focus of a fine documentary, RBG, which premiered last year on CNN. At this writing, 85 year-old Justice Ginsburg is recuperating from ill health while maintaining her senior status on the Supreme Court. 
Directed by Mimi Leder (Pay it Forward), and written by Daniel Stiepleman, Basis follows Ginsburg’s early years (as Ruth Bader) with her parents, and then her eventual marriage to fellow law student Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Felicity Jones portrays RBG as a highly driven and aggressive law student. That verve would soon transition into a clever and relentless attorney. 
Basis paints RBG as a highly intelligent idealist possessing great stamina. Case in point: Soon after her marriage, husband Martin gets cancer, and is unable to attend classes. So in addition to taking her own full schedule, Ruth substitutes for Martin in his classes, taking copious notes used to prep him for exams. Describing such as an incredible feat is understatement. 
After transferring from Harvard to Columbia University, the Ginsburgs—now with a baby—complete their law degrees. Martin immediately finds an attorney position, but Ruth does not. Really, she is not permitted to do so. Law firms were male dominated. Period. This was in the late 1960s. 
Ruth is relegated to teaching “The Law and Sex Discrimination” at Rutgers Law School. And she is lucky to get even that.
While On the Basis of Sex is by no means a rags to riches story, it does fit the mold of failure to success—or, to be accurate, obscurity to success and fame. It does not take long for the disappointed RBG to be offered a lawsuit that will propel her upward and onward into law book history. Since she represents no firm, Ginsburg enlists help from friend Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), an ACLU attorney. The case involves a Denver man who hired a nurse to help care for his aging mom. Since he had to continue working, he could not take care of her himself. So he declared the payment to his mother’s nurse on his income tax. Then he butted head to head with the IRS, whose code limited any such tax deduction…for a man. It was justifiable for a woman to declare such, but not a man. 
What occurs for the remainder of the film is reflected in the movie’s title. The beauty of On the Basis of Sex is its portrayal of Ginsburg’s almost single-handed pursuit of justice for men AND women. Gender discrimination becomes the mainstay of Ginsburg’s case, which she argues pro bono. 
Aside from the courtroom scenes, there are welcome castings of Kathy Bates (as women’s rights attorney Dorothy Kenyon) and Sam Waterston as Erwin Griswold, a Harvard Law School administrator who eventually represents the IRS in court vs Ginsburg. 
Look for a surprise cameo near the film’s end. Then again, it will probably not be so surprising. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+

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