‘On The Basis of Sex’ Review: Felicity Jones as the Incredible Ruth Bader Ginsberg

While the Harvard school song is being sung, we see young men in coat and ties walking across the campus. We see Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) in a sea of men heading towards an auditorium. Ruth looks happily around her inside the hall as she takes in her surroundings. As Ruth takes her seat, the young man next to her looks at Ruth like she doesn’t belong there. The Dean of the Law School (Sam Waterston) addresses the students from a podium on stage. As the Dean talks about ‘what it means to be a Harvard man.’ Ruth looks around and sees that there are two other women in the crowd. As the dean goes on and on about what it means to be a ‘Harvard man.’ Ruth gets a determined look on her face.

We cut to the Ginsburg home, where Ruth brings in two outfits to show her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer) who is reading a law book to their baby who is on his lap. Ruth asks Martin which outfit is better to appear at the Dean’s dinner. Martin assures her that it’s not the dress that will make the impression but the person in the dress.

We cut to the Dean’s dinner party, where Ruth walks into the room alone. Ruth is escorted into the dining room by a professor who has volunteered to escort her. As small talk is going on around her, Ruth quietly eats her dinner. The Dean bangs his knife on his glass to get everybody’s attention and begins his greeting by telling the students and faculty that this is the sixth year that women have been allowed to get a law degree at Harvard. He welcomes all nine women who will be students that year. The Dean wants all the women to tell the diners who they are, where they are from and ‘why you are occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man.’ One young woman gets up tells how she used to get old contracts from her father for drawing paper, but at some point, she got more interested in what was in the contract than drawing on them. The next young woman at the table gets up and starts to explain why she wants to be a lawyer, that she didn’t want to be a nurse or a teacher. The Dean interrupts her and tells her ‘that’s not a good reason. Next.’ The young woman sits down dejected. We come to Ruth’s turn, and as she stands up, she knocks a plate to the floor. She sheepishly picks it up and introduces herself. She explains that her husband is also going to Harvard, and is in his second year. She tells the Dean that she is going to Law School to learn about his work ‘so I can be a more patient and understanding wife.’ Several of the other woman students snicker as the Dean looks at her disapprovingly.

We cut back to the Ginsburg home, where Ruth is complaining to Martin how the Dean will never take her seriously. Martin tells her that she just must be the most prepared and ready to speak out. Martin kids with her as he takes her dress off and they embrace. Ruth has begun a career that will take her all the way to a seat on the Supreme Court.

On The Basis of Sex is the early life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as we see her in law school, struggling to raise a baby, take care of her husband and the household, and go to one of the hardest law schools in the world. The center of the first few years was how hard Ruth worked, for at one point her husband, her beloved Martin got sick with cancer, and Ruth not only attended her classes but his as well. When her husband graduates from law school and gets a job in New York, Ruth is forced to transfer to Columbia and get her degree there instead of Harvard. We see the challenges Ruth had just to find a job. Most law firms would only consider her for a secretary position, something she would not do. Because of all the gender inequality that Ruth suffered, she made it her mission to chip away at the laws that made women second-class citizens, where they couldn’t take out a credit card without their husband signing on. It’s ironic that the first case Ruth was successful with dealt with the discrimination of a man regarding taxes when he quit his job to take full-time care of an elderly parent. Ruth took that case, along with Martin’s help (he was a tax attorney) and was able to get the law overturned eventually.

The film does a good job giving us insight on how Ruth thinks and seeing how she and the lawyers at the ACJU, along with a tough as nails civil rights lawyer (played by the incredible Kathy Bates) built their case. It is fascinating to watch it all come together. The screenplay was written by Ginsburg’s real-life nephew, Daniel Stiepleman and Ginsburg herself reviewed the screenplay to make sure of its authenticity on the legal matters.

Felicity Jones makes a perfect Ruth Bader Ginsberg, giving us a performance that is full of grit and spunk. She makes us like Ruth right from that first scene at Harvard, seeing how determined she was to make it in a world that was so stacked against her. I loved how Jones lets Ruth evolve before our eyes, becoming a tough and fearless lawyer that won’t take guff from anyone. Armie Hammer is fine as the supportive husband Martin, I just wish his character was a little more flawed. The film suffers a bit because Martin is just too perfect, coming to Ruth’s rescue too many times to count.

Director Mimi Leder with On The Basis of Sex, gives us a conventional biopic that sometimes takes it a little too safe and contains villains (all men) who are way too one-sided, but that doesn’t overshadow the fact that Jones performance and the person she portrays make this a film that is worth seeing, just to see how far women and Ruth Bader Ginsberg have come.  

On The Basis of Sex Review

My Rating: Full Price

Note: If you want to know more about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who just celebrated her twenty-fifth year on the Supreme Court, check out the award-winning documentary from Julie Cohen and Betsy West, RBG. It’s one of my favorite films of the year.

Mike’s Rating System from Best to Worst:
1). I Would Pay to See it Again
2). Full Price
3). Bargain Matinee
4). Cable
5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again