“On The Basis Of Sex”

There is so much I love about first time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman’s ode to his aunt, Ruth Bader Ginsberg that this will be an easy review. “On The Basis Of Sex” has a great title, the tempo of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky”, beautiful metaphors sustained, and snippets of male chauvinism that are documented both humorously and rationally.

In his bio-pic, Stiepleman centers on the middle period of the Supreme Court Justice’s life. Ruth’s husband Marty (Armie Hammer) has been diagnosed with testicular cancer; they have a toddler;and Ruth ( Felicity Jones) is attending her own classes and Marty’s while he recoups his strength. Professor Freund’s, (Martin’s Harvard Contract Law professor) dictum that “ a court ought not to be affected by the weather of the day, but by the climate of the era” becomes the overarching theme.

The beginning of the film brilliantly puts the viewers in the era, 1956. Sam Waterston is giving a welcoming speech to 500 Harvard Law initiates. Only nine are women. Waterston, playing the dean of Harvard Law School at the time, Erwin Griswold, begins with “ Esteemed colleagues and ladies”. It rankles. Griswold then asks each of the nine why they are occupying a place at Harvard that could have been given to a man. He accepts a young woman’s reasoning that she wishes to share her father’s law firm’s nameplate while he cuts other responses off. Ruth understanding his prejudices coyly responses that by attending law school with her husband, she can be a more patient and understanding wife. The women suppress their laughter. It is a great scene, and there are many more.

The documentary “RBG”, reviewed here, May 31, 2018,
made much of the supportive role Ruth’s husband played in her career. This film shows Martin Ginsberg as even more of a factor in her success and in her happiness. I loved the scenes where Hammer cooks “marrying herbal flavors’ and the scene where he cooly talks down his mouthy daughter. Loving and self-deprecating, humorous and emotionally and intellectually brilliant, Martin we come to love , too.

Jane, their daughter is played by Camille Spaeny. Spaeny was the young Lynne Cheney in “Vice”, she is only eleven years younger than Hammer,but her acting nails the thirteen-year-old, push-pull dynamic. The cast is perfection: Kathy Bates as the feminist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, Justin Theroux as Anerican Civil Liberties attorney Mel Wulf, and Sam Waterston all make their mark.

The French title of this film is “Une Femme d’Exception”, and Director Mimi Leder keeps the focus on the exceptional woman that RBG is. As we see Ginsburg triumph in court, we have tears in our eyes and want to toast her with champagne.

The 178 laws that deferentiate between genders, the right of the country to change, and the triumph of reason being the soul of law exhalts the law profession. Felicity Jones’ march up the Supreme Court steps and her morphing into RBK says it all. Oscar worthy for sure.

Enjoy the script for its liberal truisms like “How a country taxes its people directly deals with its values.” For anyone who wants to change the world, this is your inspirational film of the year.

“RBG”

What does a perfectly paced bio-homage look like? See “RBG” and enjoy. Using a partial interview format, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen give us a review of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s landmark court cases and a love story so sweet that Martin Ginsberg becomes an icon, too.

One can never tire of hearing an 84 year-old woman forcefully say, “ I ask no favor for my sex~only that our brethren take their feet off our necks.” From here we get all the details of background and schooling. Ruth’s father was from Odessa~ a Russian Jew who worked as a haberdasher. Ginsberg’s stylistic flair and her penchant for wearing lace and beaded jabots and collars may have their roots here.

A Brooklynite, Joan Ruth Bader’s mother suggested to Joan’s  kindergarten teacher that her daughter be called “Ruth” since there were so many “ Joans” in her class. Her mother Celia died from cervical cancer while Ruth was in high school. Nina Totenberg, friend and award-winning NPR Legal Affairs correspondent, relays how Ruth could not attend her own graduation because of her mother’s untimely death. Ruth’s only sister, Marilyn, died  at six  from meningitis when Kiki ( nicknamed by her because of her active kicking ) was just 14 mos. old.

We learn from Ruth that her mother was strict and that she  instilled two rules in her: be a lady and learn to fend for yourself. Ginsberg’s humor shines in her retelling of her father sending her to Cornell University. “There were four men to every woman~ an ideal place to send a daughter. I never did a repeat date, until Marty.” She was 17 and he was 18.

The Martin love story is a romantic one. Seeing him on camera, self-deprecating and masterly funny, one gets an idea of why Ruth says that he was the “ most fortunate thing that ever happened to me.” Opposites in temperament, she shy and he the life of the party, they were married and had two children, Jane and James. Both are interviewed on-screen, as is a granddaughter. Directors Cohen and West do a brilliant job of meshing the personal with the professional.

Ruth tells us that “Marty cared that I had a brain.” Ruth graduated from Columbia Law School and they studied at Harvard together while raising toddlers and dealing with Marty’s testicular cancer. She taught at Rutgers and Columbia, and in 1970 was the Director of the Women’s Rights Project. In 1980, Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. It was on Carter’s endorsement that Bill Clinton designated Ginsberg as the second female justice of the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Conner being the first.

We see snippets of her inauguration. We are reminded that she loved opera, and gave the eulogy for her friend Justice Antonin Scalia.

While experiencing many indignities as a woman herself,  she strategized and put her legal mind to work in order to   make equitable law. We forget that in 1970, a woman could be fired if she were pregnant, and that a woman soldier did not get a military housing allowance. Male homemakers could not collect social security benefits. Her arguments were all-encompassing. Ginsberg was not going to be happy with a little code change here and there. Gender-based discrimination does exist,  and it hurts everyone.

The Notorious RBG made sure that enduring change happened one dissent and one opinion at a time. She created a legal landscape in the 70’s and the 80’s where equal protection under law meant that “ one did not throw away one’s umbrella in a rainstorm because you did not get wet”. This documentary holds Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in esteem for working so ardently for liberty~ a liberty where the “least is heard with the greatest.” This film is a paean to how change can happen to the benefit of all when a mind like Ginsberg’s  decides to serve us all.