By Susan Kandell Wilkofsky
“On the Basis of Sex” opens with a sea of men, all dressed in interchangeable gray suits, with briefcases swinging at their sides, ascending the steps of Harvard Law School for the first time. Our eye goes to a refreshing splash of teal, and you know Ruth Bader Ginsburg has arrived (pun intended). She smiles. And so did I. The year was 1956, and there are but nine women law students among 500 men and a question is put to them: “How do you justify taking the place of a competent man?”
Thus begins the story of this diminutive woman who stands head and shoulders above everyone else as she takes on the establishment and (spoiler alert) wins big-time. For women. For men. For equality.
“On the Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder (“The Leftovers”), was written by Daniel Stiepleman, who grew up calling Ruth Bader Ginsburg “Aunt Ruth.” At his Uncle Marty’s funeral (Ginsburg’s husband), he heard about the case which they fought together in court, and Stiepleman knew that this story would be his first professional screenplay.
A legal drama that is fairly classic in structure, “On the Basis of Sex” mirrors her personal struggle for equality with the fight for all men and women to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. The film covers the groundbreaking case heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, which overturned a century of gender discrimination.
Intertwined between courtroom scenes, we visit Ruth’s family life — her relationship with husband Marty and children surrounded by the strains of opera and Puccini posters on the wall. Marty Ginsburg, played by a dreamy Armie Hammer, is a supportive husband — attentive and smart — who also loves to cook. Together they make quite a formidable team. Superheroes indeed. Felicity Jones plays Ginsburg (rightly) with a hint of gravitas, but what she exhibits in demeanor contrasts with her lack of any trace of a Brooklyn accent.
One lesson learned here is that words matter, which is why I might have suggested a different title for the film. Although her husband plays a large role, Ginsburg is clearly the focus. In some foreign markets, it bears the title “Exceptional Woman,” which puts the spotlight squarely on her. Where it belongs.
There are no fireworks in this film, just solid storytelling framed by a legal courtroom drama. And to quote The Chambers Brothers’ ageless tune “Time Has Come Today” — which is featured in the film along with a bevy of her favorite operatic music.
We pay homage to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who unequivocally proves that one person can make a difference.