'On the Basis of Sex': the movie to unite Democrats and Republicans?

The second biopic of the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is now in movie theatres in the UAE, here the director Mimi Leder speaks about doing justice to RBG's legacy

(l to r.) Armie Hammer as Marty Ginsburg and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg star in Mimi Leder's ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a Focus Features release. Courtesy Focus Features
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Mimi Leder ­remembers the ­moment she ­realised the full reach of her new film, On The Basis of Sex. A ­biopic of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the film was given a preview ­screening and, afterwards, viewers were asked to identify the primary audience.

"And this woman raised her hand and said, 'Liberals! ­Liberals will see this movie.' Then this other woman said: 'That's not true. I'm a ­Republican and I'm going to tell all of my friends to see this movie. I love this movie.'"

If anything, that showed the wide cultural appeal of ­Ginsburg, the ­85-year-old Brooklyn-born liberal who ­became famous after ­publishing her 2016 book My Own Words. The ­152cm-tall Ginsburg, nicknamed 'The ­Notorious RBG' after the ­moniker taken by rapper ­Biggie Smalls, has seen her prominence inspire everything from tattoos to T-shirts to Tumblr accounts. It's something made patently clear in the documentary, RBG, that became a huge hit in the US last year, grossing $14.3 million (Dh525.3m), putting it in the top 25 documentaries of all time.

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder's ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a Focus Features release. Courtesy Focus Features

Leder's film has grossed slightly more than RBG in the US – $17.5m – since it was released on December 25. ­Starring Oscar-nominated British actress Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) as her loyal husband Marty, the US distributor Focus Features rolled the film out slowly in what was a packed few weeks of cinema, with everything from Aquaman to The Upside vying for audience attention.

Some criticism has ­rounded on the casting of Jones, who hails from ­Birmingham in England – far from ­Ginsburg's New York Jewish background – unlike Natalie Portman, who was lined up to play the role originally. "It is crucial that Ginsburg's full ­identity be explored in the movie ­documenting her life and ­career," read an article in ­Tablet published before the film came out. Her ­Jewish roots are given scant ­consideration in Leder's film.

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ON THE BASIS. Courtesy Focus Features

Yet there can be no ­doubting On The Basis of Sex's ­credibility, with the script written by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg's own nephew. He spent hours with her, talking through the events of her life, as did Leder.

"Meeting her is very ­intimidating," the director says. "She's this little thing, very tiny, very powerful. I was so intimidated! And it takes a lot to intimidate me!" Leder describes their first ­encounter as akin to a first date, as she plied Ginsburg with questions "so the script can have a more authentic ­understanding and feel for her".

Dubbed "RGB: The Early Years" by Rolling Stone, Leder's film begins in 1956, long ­before Ginsburg  was ­appointed as a Supreme Court ­Justice in 1993 (when she received a remarkable 96 votes, with just three against). The film chronicles her rise from Harvard law student to her first landmark case in 1972, when she took up the cause of Charles E Moritz, who had quit his job to care for his ailing mother. At the time, the Colorado bachelor was being denied a tax exemption under a ruling intended for women only.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg is greeted by her husband Martin as she introduced her family during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, July 20, 1993 in Washington. Ginsburg's son James and wife Lisa Brauston are at left. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

Ginsburg's ultimate victory was a watershed moment. "What she's achieved is quite extraordinary," says Leder. "This first case in the movie was a case that ­overturned 178 different laws that ­discriminated on the basis of sex and found these laws unconstitutional. So what she created for us in America was moving towards equal rights and gave us equality."

Even the right to apply for credit was denied to women in the US until the Equal ­Credit ­Opportunity Act of 1974. "There were so many laws that discriminated against women."

Like Leder's film, RBG ­sets out to explore Ginsburg's impact on ­women's rights, a personal crusade that was ­inspired by her time at ­Harvard, when she was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500 men, and ­crystallised after not a ­single New York law firm would ­employ her despite her ­aptitude. Yet, while a biopic can only cover so much ground, a ­documentary can embrace far more.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Ruth Bader Ginsburg in mid workout routine in RBG. Magnolia Pictures / CNN Films

A bigger difference between the two films is that in On The Basis of Sexapart from a clip at the end of the real Ginsburg – we never see her as she is now. As Betsy West and Julie Cohen's documentary shows, she is utterly priceless in her senior years. In RBG, she can be glimpsed in a sweatshirt branded with "Super Diva", as she works out in the gym. Her waspish wit also extends to herself; she's highly amused by Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon, who has ­impersonated her on the show.

Leder's film, by comparison, is an earnest, straight-arrow work that, as The ­Hollywood Reporter noted in its ­review, somewhat overlooks ­Ginsburg's "lovely sense of ­humour and … sly offbeat manner that suggests she ­always has something up her judicial sleeves". Perhaps that is ­understandable; Leder's film focuses primarily on ­Ginsburg having her day in court. There wasn't time for much humour when faced with widespread sexual discrimination.

Both the documentary and feature film work as love stories – Ginsburg's love affair with the law and the ­possibilities of what you can achieve in the legal sphere, as well as her 63-year marriage with her husband, who died in 2010. When Marty had ­testicular cancer – something Leder's film covers – she attended all his classes, as well as her own, to help him pass his exams. "They were so ­connected," says Leder. "They had a truly equal partnership."

If Leder’s film does anything well, aside from bringing this legal eagle to a wider ­audience, it’s simply to show the hard work and determination of a woman such as Ginsburg.

Facing rampant sexism in the legal system, she overcame insurmountable odds when others may have wilted. "It's a movie about a human being, a woman who changed things for the better," says Leder. "She wasn't a superhero. She's just a brilliant woman who fought all her life for equality."

Watch the full On The Basis of Sex trailer here: 

On The Basis of Sex is in UAE cinemas now