Jamie Jiang ’22
Perhaps going into “On the Basis of Sex,” you, a member of a liberal arts college with your antennas deeply sunk in the political sphere, have already watched RBG, a recent documentary of the same subject. Or perhaps you are independently knowledgeable of the small, 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice tearing it up in Washington D.C. Knowing this, the new legal biopic exulting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a young lawyer will only be a superficial jaunt through accomplishments you already hold in high regard.
“On the Basis of Sex” nuzzles at the heels of RBG fans in search of admiration and attention —which it may only get for the extraordinary, true story that it tells, and not the inventiveness with which it tells it. The film begins with a sublime, fresh-faced Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg parting a sea of WASP-y, well-suited men while “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,” a Harvard fight song, winkingly plays in the background. The scene is stirring and visually beautiful in a way the film keeps up throughout. RBG then mounts a set of stairs (this will come back in a big way) to take her intellectual throne at Harvard Law School, where for the next act of the film she displays variously that she is the smartest person in the room.
She faces and conquers challenges to her gender such as professors refusing to call on her, the Dean of the law school (Sam Waterston) asking the nine women who have been admitted why they deserve a spot reserved for men, and a refusal to allow her transfer to Columbia. RBG applies and is denied to multiple firms (on the basis of her sex) as her husband soars ever higher in the tax litigation realm. She takes a position teaching at Rutgers, until frustration at her stunted potential overtakes her.
And at this very moment, fate and her husband present her with her breakthrough case. She takes it, representing a single man denied tax benefits (on the basis of his sex) afforded female caretakers of family members. RBG then embarks on a quest to win over the ACLU, a civil rights activist once revered by RBG, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals for her client. She faces — in a moment the screenwriter Stiepleman described as “a gift from the screenplay gods”— her former Harvard Law dean, assisting the opposing counsel.
When screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, RBG’s own nephew, wrote Marty Ginsburg into the script as the humble, reassuring spouse to Ruth’s legal breakthroughs, executives threatened to withdraw funding from the film. Believing that no man could exist who didn’t place himself as the head of the family, or who willingly allowed his wife to succeed before him, many opposed Stiepleman in his subversiveness. But the movie has been made, and the time has come for the blockbuster machine to enter into its books a new Archetype, readily re-generateable for other female-leading movies (think Austin Stowell in Battle of the Sexes).
Here we have the sweet dreamboat husband, with no mission but hers, equal now to that other classic Archetype: hot, devoted wife. While we may rejoice at first at this strange equality, considering that we also may encourage the slow settlement of uncomplicated characters in the place where personality, complexity, and actual subversiveness of established character arcs ought to be. For a movie that so sweepingly portrays exceptional lives, a nervous retreat into profitable cliché has wrung out their exceptional characters.
RBG protested, speaking at a screening of the film, the accuracy of the final courtroom scene. “I didn’t stumble at the outset”, she says, referring to her character buckling under the first round of questioning.
While accuracy has never been required of biopics, one must ask why it is that the screenwriter makes the departure. Perhaps all the better to fit the formula of a good courtroom scene, if only to omit Ruth’s intellectual confidence. Yet, in other parts, RBG is written to sound awkward and thoroughly modern, somewhat undermining the fire of her spirit that shows in the documentary RBG. Could this be an inherently unfeminist move, relegating a great woman in history to so many moments of awkwardness?
Oh, but that courtroom scene! It has all the thrill, the intense activity, and the feeling of recognition (the film has decided you are intellectually capable of legal language) that a good courtroom scene should deliver. As RBG stands and delivers her final and, per RBG trademark, perfectly worded speech, you are reminded that RBG’s own eloquence upholds the film.
Her works are theater of their own. In this scene, I take my hat off to Mimi Leder (a female director! Huzzah!) for a masterful presentation of a dramatic legal breakthrough.
Verdict: The film’s legacy probably extends only as far as it obediently creeps in the shadow of its subject. It will likely not have an independent life. Watch “On the Basis of Sex” for lovely visuals. Watch to weep openly in a theater of other weeping people as the movie ends. But in between the beauty of the first scene and the stirring authenticity of RBG in the last scene, perhaps you, like me, will be somewhat bored and uncomfortable watching a great political epic crammed into a few watered down roles.