On the Basis of Sex
|On the Basis of Sex|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Mimi Leder|
|Produced by||Robert W. Cort|
|Written by||Daniel Stiepleman|
|Music by||Mychael Danna|
|Edited by||Michelle Tesoro|
|Box office||$18.2 million|
On the Basis of Sex is a 2018 American biographical legal drama film based on the life and early cases of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Directed by Mimi Leder and written by Daniel Stiepleman, it stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg, with Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, and Kathy Bates in supporting roles.
The film had its world premiere at the AFI Fest on November 8, 2018, and was released in the United States on December 25, 2018, by Focus Features. The film received generally favorable reviews from critics, who acknowledged it as "well-intentioned but flawed", and praised Jones' performance.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a first-year student at Harvard Law School. When her husband Martin, a second-year student, falls ill with cancer, she attends both her classes and his, taking notes and transcribing lectures while caring for Martin and their infant daughter Jane.
Two years later Martin, his cancer in remission, is hired by a firm in New York. Ruth petitions Harvard Law School Dean Griswold to allow her to finish her Harvard law degree with classes at Columbia, but he insists on following Harvard University policies at the time and denies her request, so she transfers to Columbia. In spite of graduating at the top of her class, she is unable to find a position with a law firm because none of the firms she applies to wants to hire a woman. She takes a job as a professor at Rutgers Law School, teaching "The Law And Sex Discrimination".
In 1970, Martin brings a tax law case to Ruth's attention. Charles Moritz is a man from Denver who had to hire a nurse to help him care for his aging mother so he could continue to work. Moritz was denied a tax deduction for the nursing care because at the time Section 214 of the Internal Revenue Code specifically limited the deduction to "a woman, a widower or divorce, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized". The court ruled that Moritz, a man who had never married, did not qualify for the deduction. Ruth sees in this case an opportunity to begin to challenge the many laws enacted over the years that assume that men will work to provide for the family, and women will stay home and take care of the husband and children. She believes that if she can set a precedent ruling that a man was unfairly discriminated against on the basis of sex, that precedent can be cited in cases challenging laws that discriminate against women—and she believes that an appellate court composed entirely of male judges will find it easier to identify with a male appellant.
Ruth meets with Mel Wulf of the ACLU to try to enlist their help, but he turns her down. She also meets with activist and civil rights advocate Dorothy Kenyon, who is cold to the idea at first but later meets with Wulf in his office and convinces him to sign on. Ruth then flies to Denver to meet with Moritz, who agrees to let the Ginsburgs and ACLU represent him pro bono after Ruth convinces him that millions of people could potentially benefit. The Ginsburgs and Wulf file an appeal of Moritz' denial with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Department of Justice Attorney James H. Bozarth asks to be the lead counsel for the defense. He does a computer search to find all of the sections of the US Code that deal with gender identity. His defense will contend that if section 214 is ruled unconstitutional, it will open the door to challenges to all of America's gender-based laws. Ruth, having no courtroom experience, does poorly in a moot court, and Wulf convinces her to let Martin lead off arguing the tax law, with Ruth following up with equal protection arguments.
The government offers Moritz a settlement of one dollar. Ruth makes a counter-proposal: the government will pay Moritz the sum he claimed as a deduction, make a declaration that he did nothing wrong, and enter into the record that the gender-based portion of section 214 is unconstitutional. The government declines this offer, setting the stage for the oral argument at the Court of Appeals.
At the oral argument, Martin takes more of their side's allotted time than he had intended. Ruth is nervous but makes several key points and reserves four minutes of her time for rebuttal. Bozarth frames the argument as defending the American way of life, implying that the Ginsburgs and ACLU want "radical social change" and maybe Moritz "just doesn't want to pay his taxes." In her rebuttal, Ruth states that the world is changing around them, and the law needs to change with it. Societal roles that existed one hundred years ago -- or even twenty years ago -- no longer apply.
Outside the courthouse, Wulf, Moritz and the Ginsburgs celebrate the fact that, win or lose, Ruth has finally found her voice as a lawyer. Titles over the closing scene indicate that the appellate court found unanimously in Moritz's favor. Ruth went on to co-found the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU, which struck down many of the gender-based laws Bozarth identified, and in 1993 became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. The final scene shows the real-life Ginsburg walking up the steps of the Supreme Court building.
- Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg
- Armie Hammer as Martin D. Ginsburg
- Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf
- Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon
- Sam Waterston as Erwin Griswold
- Cailee Spaeny as Jane Ginsburg
- Callum Shoniker as James Steven Ginsburg
- Jack Reynor as James H. Bozarth
- Stephen Root as Professor Brown
- Ronald Guttman as Professor Gerald Gunther
- Chris Mulkey as Charles Moritz
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg as herself
On July 18, 2017, Deadline reported that Jones would play the role of Ginsburg in the film, which would be directed by Mimi Leder. The film's script, written by Daniel Stiepleman, had made the 2014 blacklist for the best unproduced screenplays of the year. Stiepleman is Ginsburg's nephew. Natalie Portman had previously been linked to the role of Ginsburg. On September 7, 2017, Hammer was cast to play Ruth's husband Martin; Robert W. Cort would be producing the film through Participant Media, while Focus Features would release the film domestically in 2018, with production to start in late 2017 in Montreal. The cast was rounded out by Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root and Cailee Spaeny in October as filming commenced. In April 2018, it was announced Ginsburg would appear in a small role.
The film was scheduled to be released by Focus Features on November 9, 2018, but was pushed back to a limited release on December 25, 2018, with a wide release on January 11, 2019. It had its world premiere at AFI Fest on November 8, 2018.
The first trailer for the film debuted on July 16, 2018. The trailer was criticized for a scene in which Ginsburg tells a judge that the word "freedom" does not appear in the United States Constitution; it appears in the First Amendment. Screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, in response to the criticism, stated that the point of the dialogue was to show that the Constitution, like the country as a whole, was always open to improvement.
The film made a "solid" $442,000 from 33 theaters on its first day of release. It went on to gross $690,000 in its first weekend, a total of $1.5 million over its first six days. In its first weekend of wide release January 11–13, the film made $6.2 million from 1,923 theaters, finishing sixth at the box office. In its second weekend of wide release the film fell 35% to $4 million, finishing 10th.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 71% based on 165 reviews, with a weighted average of 6.6/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "On the Basis of Sex is nowhere near as groundbreaking as its real-life subject, but her extraordinary life makes a solid case for itself as an inspirational, well-acted biopic." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 60 out of 100, based on 37 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale, while PostTrak reported filmgoers gave it an overall positive score of 94% and a "definite recommend" of 62%.
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