On the Basis of Sex




This year’s second take on a remarkable woman.

On the Basis of Sex

Felicity Jones


The title of Mimi Leder’s film is indicative not of a provocative drama with hot sex at its centre but a reference to laws which differentiate often unfairly between the rights of men and women. That is a central theme here because this is the second film to reach us this year centred on the life of the American Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We have already had the feature film RBG but, just because that piece is a documentary, there will be many who will prefer to see On the Basis of Sex instead. RBG is the better film but, provided one approaches Leder’s movie as an example of mainstream work with a deliberately populist approach, its appeal can be recognised, and not least to feminists who, if unfamiliar with Ginsburg’s life and works, will discover here somebody to be celebrated.


In point of fact, it is not only their genres that distinguish these two films from each other. RBG which features Ginsburg herself, now an octogenarian, surveys her life as a whole but On the Basis of Sex concentrates on her earlier years. Consequently, it covers her legal training (initially at Harvard Law School), her home life centred on her marriage to fellow lawyer Martin Ginsburg and her relationship with their daughter Jane. Ruth would quickly become aware of how much easier it was for Martin being a man to find a legal post than it was for her to do so despite the fact that she had been a prime student. The conditions of the time come over clearly but the film’s popular tone is something of a distraction in the domestic scenes. Here Daniel Stiepleman’s screenplay combined with Mychael Danna’s music score comes too close for comfort to being banal. Nevertheless, Felicity Jones is a very confident presence in the central role and she receives real but unshowy support from the unselfish portrayal of Martin Ginsburg by Armie Hammer. Another fine acting contribution comes from Kathy Bates in a cameo role as an older lawyer noted for her role in seeking justice for women and questioning the law when it involved gender discrimination.


A further distinction between the two films lies in the fact that the second half of On the Basis of Sex is very much built around a court case decided in 1972 that helped to make Ginsburg’s name when she and Martin acted on behalf of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey). Moritz was unjustly expected to pay tax on his earnings for being a carer for his mother solely on the grounds that he had never married (married sons were exempt from such payment). This particular case is not featured in RBG but becomes central here and is portrayed as creating a precedent against inequalities enshrined in the law whatever they might be. Here too the film’s popular approach raises a few doubts as we see Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the key hearing hemmed in and faltering until she rallies with a big speech. This scene smacks of fact being reshaped in order to create the kind of dramatic climax favoured in fiction - I felt that at the screening and later learnt that my suspicions were justified. Nevertheless, the film will give pleasure and, however brief, a glimpse of the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg at its close counts as an endorsement of it by her.




Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen Root, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Chris Mulkey, Wendy Crewson, Ronald Guttman, Gary Werntz, Francis X. McCarthy, Ben Carlson.


Dir Mimi Leder, Pro Robert W. Cort and Jonathan King, Screenplay Daniel Stiepleman, Ph Michael Grady, Pro Des Nelson Coates, Ed Michelle Tesoro, Music Mychael Danna, Costumes Isis Mussenden.


Amblin Pictures/Participant Media/Robert Cort Productions-Entertainment One.
120 mins. USA/People's Republic of China. 2018. Rel: 22 February 2019. Cert. 12A.