As the nation mourns the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it is unsurprising that many are looking towards the pop culture depictions of the Jewish icon for consolation. Two films were made about her, both released in 2018: the award-winning documentary RBG, and the sensational biopic On the Basis Sex, which chronicled the justice’s early career.
The films are seeing a burst of increased attention as they have both been re-released in theaters, and On the Basis of Sex is dominating VOD platforms (RBG is available to stream on Hulu, which made the film available for free for 24 hours on September 24 on its YouTube Channel).
While it’s great that the two films are getting so much renewed attention, I have to wonder where all of that hype was when On the Basis of Sex came out two years ago. While RBG immediately broke out, On the Basis of Sex seemed to fly under the radar.
On the one hand, the film was most certainly hurt by the limited release it received (I’ll never forget looking up where to see it, in Manhattan of all places, and finding all of two obscure theaters playing the film). The film was distributed by Focus Features (and I will continue to judge that a more prominent studio didn’t snatch it up), and it got lost in the Christmas Day release deluge.
On the other hand, I do question the perception that seemed to surround this film. Most reviews of the film labeled it as “merely good,” praising the direction and Felicity Jones’ star performance, while criticizing its formulaic structure and high gloss glamour (while most reviews were legitimate, I continue to be horrified by this one from the Washington Post). The film earned itself a 73% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But still, it never seemed to enter the national conversation.
To truly understand why I find some of this bothersome, we have to look at the context. The thing is, Hollywood loves a biopic of a complicated (often white) man, and 2018 was bloated with them. There were three male biopics that made it to the Oscars that year — Vice, First Man, and Bohemian Rhapsody. Now, to be fair, all of these films were far more widely seen since they had major wide releases, but were they well liked? Well, Vice had lower critic and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 66% and 60% respectively, and the reviews were an extremely mixed bag with many calling out the film for being both shallow and messy. Bohemian Rhapsody, meanwhile, was one of those films that critics didn’t care for, but which audiences loved. (First Man was pretty well liked, if less well known, and missed out on a best picture nomination for it, unlike its peers in this group.)
Forbes film critic and self-described “box office pundit” Scott Mendelson pointed out, in an impassioned plea for people to see On the Basis of Sex, that the film did do better at the box office then a bunch of Oscar nominees (Mary Queen of Scots, Cold War, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Wife), and probably would’ve seen a boost in gross if it had gotten some nominations.
In a year when every mediocre male-led biopic managed to snag major Oscar nominations, I found myself wondering where all of the hype was for a highly enjoyable film about one of the greatest women this country has ever seen. The truth is, we tend to think of female-led films as “cute” while male-led biopics get treated with reverence. It seems particularly abhorrent to me that a film about how Ginsburg dedicated her life to abolishing sex-based discrimination got the short end of the stick because it is a film about a woman and not a man (not to mention directed by a woman to boot).
The situation gets worse if we consider director Mimi Leder’s background. Despite a successful television career and films like The Peacemaker and Deep Impact, Leder was confined to what’s commonly known as “director’s jail” for the ill-received film Pay It Forward (2000). “Director’s jail” is when a director makes a film so bad that no one wants to work with them after it, but it disproportionately affects female directors, while male directors are often given a second chance (and a third, and a fourth…). Leder successfully redeemed herself with this extremely well-directed film, and yet, the film didn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserved. (Leder has since found acclaim for directing the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show.)
While critics were right, and the film does have a veneer of glamour, I also have to point out that the script was written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, and had input by both Ginsburg herself and her daughter Jane. Ginsburg, according to this Vanity Fair article, was thrilled with the portrayal and mentions that the only thing the film definitely got wrong was when they had her character stumble at the beginning of the judge’s questioning during the climactic court scene. “I didn’t stumble,” said Ginsburg. This is in stark contrast to Green Book winning best picture that year despite it being completely false about its subject’s life and not seeking input from Dr. Don Shirley’s family.
For those who haven’t seen On the Basis of Sex, it’s, quite simply, excellent. Rather than try to tackle the entirety of the justice’s long and impressive life, it smartly focused on the challenges Ginsburg faced at the outset of her career. It takes us through her start of Harvard Law School, where she was one of nine women in her class, to her being unable to land a job even after graduating top of her class at Columbia (she transferred after her husband got a job in New York), to finally arguing her first case, which would change U.S. gender-based laws forever.
It also focuses on her family — the loving and supportive relationship she had with her husband Martin (an exceedingly charming Armie Hammer), and the close bond with her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), even as the latter two challenge and debate each other. While critics often criticized the film’s formulaic structure, Mendelson points out in his review that the film eschews biopic tropes by not creating “artificial family strife.” I would also like to say that being formulaic is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as a film uses the formula well, and this film certainly does.
The film does the job of making you feel for its characters while building excitement and tension — you’ll be on the edge of your seat during the court scene. Also, while the film is not subtle about its message, it skillfully avoids being too on the nose. (I continue to think it’s hilarious that a horribly simplistic, on-the-nose feature such as The Post made it into awards contention simply because “it’s Spielberg.”) It’s not overly dramatic or boundary breaking, which is why some people might dismiss it, but in fact it’s really hard to make a film that is perfectly paced and feels enjoyable to watch the whole way through.
It saddens me that it took this giant of a woman (metaphorically, Ginsburg physically was actually quite small) dying for people to start to take seriously one of the films about her life, and one that she had so much input in and love for. But, if you are feeling mopey about Ginsburg’s passing, as I will continue to be for quite some while, might I suggest giving this lovely film a watch (or if you’re already a fan, a rewatch), and feel nostalgic about what this amazing Jewish woman achieved and overcame. It is long overdue.
On the Basis of Sex is streaming on Showtime, and is available on most PVOD platforms.