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‘On the Basis of Sex’ brings Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early years to life

| Thursday, January 17, 2019

Lina Domenella | The Observer

Following closely behind the release of the documentary “RBG” in May, “On the Basis of Sex” is the latest installment filmmakers have provided to satisfy society’s unusual enthusiasm for the 5-foot-1 Supreme Court justice. The two-hour film’s opening image is a flood of Harvard men marching through the streets of Cambridge when among them appears the bright blue skirt of a 23-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, played by British actress Felicity Jones. It’s 1956, Harvard’s sixth year allowing women through its doors, and the future Supreme Court justice is one of only nine female students in a class of 500 men.

The disparity between how men and women are treated in academics, the job market and society as a whole is at the forefront of the movie from the moment it begins. In one of the film’s most memorable, and simultaneously uncomfortable scenes, Dean Erwin Griswold holds a dinner party for Ginsburg and the eight other women enrolled as first-year law students. He asks each one of them to explain why she is taking a spot at Harvard that could have gone to a man. Ginsburg, reading the situation and giving the Dean what he wants, answers with the painfully acceptable response: “to be a more patient and understanding wife” to her husband, a second-year law student. Her words are not entirely true — her marriage to Martin Ginsburg is an extraordinary one — but what she’s really there for is to be a lawyer, as she tells her husband later that night.

As viewers see more and more of Ruth and Marty’s relationship unfold, it seems as if he could be the one telling Dean Griswold he’s at Harvard to become a more “patient and loving” husband. Marty cooks meals, mediates between Ruth and their headstrong teenage daughter Jane and never puts himself in the way of his wife’s ambitions. The movie as a whole, in fact, is at its best when the relationships between characters are allowed to take over and drive the plot forward. The film’s depiction of the people in Ginsburg’s life — her daughter, her husband and even her former camp counselor turned legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mel Wulf — are where the movie finds a perfect balance between moving biopic and serious courtroom drama that refuses to trivialize ideas and debates for its audience.

The revolutionary case that “On the Basis of Sex” centers around is found by Ginsburg’s husband Marty, an accomplished tax lawyer, and the two of them take it on as a team. The case is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence: A man has been discriminated against on the basis of sex. The man in question, Colorado native Charles Mortiz, was denied a tax deduction routinely given to women and once-married men in the position of caring for elderly or ailing family members. The writers of the tax code couldn’t fathom the idea of a lifelong bachelor caring for an aging parent and this oversight allows Ruth and Marty to challenge legalized gender discrimination in a winnable case, a case in which they were defending a man.

Director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, Justice Ginsburg’s nephew, are smart in focusing the film on this one pivotal case in Ginsburg’s long legal career. “On the Basis of Sex” does an efficient yet thorough job of articulating what Ruth Bader Ginsburg accomplished and why it mattered. It doesn’t trace the full arc of her career — that would be impossible to do in a two-hour film — but it does tell the story of how she found her voice. Audiences have the opportunity to learn about the early years of a woman who is so much more than her power workout on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” or her “Saturday Night Live” — famous ‘Ginsburns.’ In “On the Basis of Sex,” Ginsburg is rightfully portrayed as a woman of formidable intelligence and unrivaled ambition who was, and still is, a groundbreaking figure in the fight for gender equality.

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