Following the well-received documentary “RBG” about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we now have a superb dramatization of the formative stages of her life and extraordinary career. “On the Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder and written by Daniel Stiepleman, Justice Ginsburg’s nephew, bristles with authenticity as it covers a landmark case that Ginsburg won and also the sexist issues that she was up against in her quest to establish herself as a woman lawyer. (Both “RBG” and “On the Basis of Sex” are on my list of The Best Ten Films of 2018. See Search.)
The quality of Leder’s film depended largely on finding the right actress to play Justice Ginsburg, and Felicity Jones fits the bill brilliantly. Although British, she speaks convincingly as an American, and she embodies Ginsburg’s fighting spirit most effectively. This is achieved not only through dialogue but through Jones’s skill in communicating observances of all that goes on around her. Her visual reactions are nearly as penetrating as her words.
The film also solves the tricky problem of making Ginsburg's personal life credible, as in the relationship with her husband and legal partner Martin, a consistently excellent Armie Hammer, and her being a mother and inspiration to her feisty daughter Jane, played colorfully by Cailee Spaeny. The love between Ginsburg and Martin is depicted with warm affection, including a sexual encounter that goes just far enough to remain in good taste.
The screenplay places emphasis on showing how Ginsburg in the 1950s had to face prevalent sexism. Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold, sharply depicted by Sam Waterston, is shown in a scene in which he asks of a group of women, Ginsburg included, who had just been accepted into Harvard, to each justify taking a place that could have gone to a man. He is also shown as being on the wrong side of the landmark court tax case that Ginsburg won on the principle of equality for men and women.
Suspense is injected into the court battle via the writing and direction, and the issues are well-clarified for viewers, as, for example, with a practice session in which Ginsburg is grilled as to tactics. There is also a key portrayal by Melvin Wulf of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who is shown reluctant to get involved in the case that Ginsburg wants to pursue, but finally coming around to take part. Kathy Bates delivers an appealing performance as civil rights lawyer and feminist Dorothy Kenyon, who overcomes initial reluctance to be a supporter of the position taken by Ruth and Martin Ginsburg.
Chris Mulkey is earnestly convincing as Charles Moritz, the client around whom the case is built on the issue of his having been denied a tax deduction for caring for his ill mother because he is a single man, as only women have been considered to be home care-givers. By winning his right to the deduction, Ginsburg established equal rights for men and women not only in that tax case, but also in a host of unequal laws that could no longer stand as a result.
The film has scenes that register emotionally, and there is a solid ending as we see the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the present. Those who wish her being able to continue on the Supreme Court at least until a Democratic president, not Donald Trump, can get to name a replacement will get a particular charge and feeling of uplift from this profound, exciting and moving screen biography. A Focus Features release. Reviewed December 24, 2018.