On the Basis of Sex (2018), an American legal drama based on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was in a word “fabulous.”
RBG, as she became known, was a champion of gender equality and a cultural and feminist icon to millions of women around the world. She died on September 18, 2020, at the age of 87 surrounded by family. Bader Ginsburg was only the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court.
“Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature,” Chief Justice John Roberts said. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn but with confidence, that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her, a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
On The Basis of Sex was written by Daniel Stiepleman, and directed by Mimi Leder. Starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg along with Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Armie Hammer, Sam Waterson, Kathy Bates, and Cailee Spaeny in supporting roles.
On The Basis Of Sex Plot
On The Basis of Sex begins with Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a first-year student at Harvard Law School when the action begins in 1956.
Her husband Martin – a second-year student – is diagnosed with cancer, so she attends his classes alongside her own, transcribing lectures from her notes while simultaneously caring for her baby daughter Jane and her husband Martin.
In 1958, Martin finds his testicular cancer goes into remission. He’s hired by a New York law firm.
Ruth petitions Dean Griswold at Harvard Law School for permission to finish her Harvard law degree by taking classes at New York’s Columbia Law School, but he sticks doggedly to prevailing Harvard University policies, and her request is denied. She transfers to Columbia anyway. Although she proceeds to top her class at graduation, she can’t find work with a law firm as none of these firms wants to hire a woman.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes a job as a professor at Rutgers Law School. She teaches a class on “Sex Discrimination and the Law“.
The action in On The Basis of Sex starts when Martin brings a tax law case, Moritz v. Commissioner, to the attention of his wife. Charles Moritz, a man from Denver, hired a nurse to help him care for his elderly mother so he could carry on working. Moritz found himself denied a tax deduction. At the time, the specifics of the Internal Revenue Code Section 214, this deduction was limited to “a woman, a widower or divorcée, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized“. A court ruled that Moritz, a man who had never married, was ineligible.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg views this case an opportunity to challenge many laws that assumed men would work while women stayed at home. She wanted to set a precedent ruling that for men who experienced unfair discrimination on the basis of sex. She felt that if this precedent could be cited in cases, it would increase the chances of male judges ruling in their favor.
When Ruth meets Mel Wulf of ACLU, he refuses to help. Ruth then flies to meet Moritz in Denver. He agrees to let ACLU and the Ginsburgs represent him pro bono.
The Ginsburgs and Wulf file a formal appeal of Moritz’s denial at the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. James H. Bozarth, Department of Justice Attorney, steps in as lead counsel for the defense. He searches and locates all sections of the US Code dealing with gender. His defense contends that section 214 is ruled unconstitutional. Ruth, lacking any real courtroom experience, fares poorly during a moot court. Wulf persuades her to allow Martin to lead by arguing the tax law, with Ruth ushering in equal protection arguments.
The US government offers Moritz a settlement of $1. Ruth’s counter-proposal is that the government will pay Moritz the deduction he claimed before making a declaration that he did nothing wrong. She also wants it entered on the record that section 214 is unconstitutional (the gender-based portion, anyway).
The government declines this proposal due to the constitutionality element. During the phase of oral arguments in the Court of Appeals, Martin uses more of his allotted time than intended.
Ruth is nervous but makes all her key points and saves four minutes of her time for the rebuttal.
Bozarth positions his side’s argument by defending the American way of life, and implying that the Ginsburgs and ACLU both want “radical social change” while Moritz quite possibly “just doesn’t want to pay his taxes“.
In Ruth’s rebuttal, her confidence grows. She claims that dated societal roles ago no longer apply. She is not asking the court to change society, but rather for to keep the law up with social change that has already taken place. When the judge objects that the Constitution doesn’t contain the word “woman“, she retorts that it doesn’t contain the word “freedom” either.
Moritz, Wulf, and the Ginsburgs celebrate outside the courthouse. Whether they win or lose, Ruth has found her calling as a lawyer. As the titles roll over the closing scene, we learn that the Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in favor of Moritz. Ruth then proceeded to co-found the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. This demolished many gender-based laws. By 1993, the Senate voted overwhelmingly for her to become a US Supreme Court associate justice. In the final scene, we see the real Ginsburg walking up the steps to the Supreme Court building.
The Cast of On The Basis of Sex
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Felicity Jones
- Martin D. Ginsburg: Armie Hammer
- Melvin “Mel” Wulf: Justin Theroux
- Dorothy Kenyon: Kathy Bates
- Erwin Griswold: Sam Waterston
- Jane C. Ginsburg: Cailee Spaeny
- James Steven Ginsburg: Callum Shoniker
- James H. Bozarth: Jack Reynor
- Professor Ernest Brown: Stephen Root
- Professor Gerald Gunther: Ronald Guttman
- Charles Moritz: Chris Mulkey
- Judge William Edward Doyle: Gary Werntz
- Judge Fred Daugherty: Francis X. McCarthy
- Judge William Judson Holloway Jr: Ben Carlson
- Harriet Griswold: Wendy Crewson
- Tom Miller: John Ralston
- Dr. Wyland Leadbetter: Arthur Holden
- Emily Hicks: Angela Galuppo
- Protest Leader: Arlen Aguayo-Stewart
- Millicent: Holly Gauthier-Frankel
- Greene: Tom Irwin as
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
On The Basis of Sex was produced by Robert W. Cort through Participant Media and directed by Mimi Leder.
Production began in Montreal in late 2017.
The script for On The Basis of Sex was written by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew. The script made the 2014 blacklist for the best-unproduced screenplay of the year.
On The Basis of Sex was initially scheduled for release by Focus Features on November 9, 2018. This date was changed to a limited release on December 25, 2018. A wide release was scheduled for January 11, 2019.
The world premiere of On The Basis of Sex was at the AFI Fest on November 8, 2018
Box Office Reception
On the Basis of Sex managed to gross $24.6 million in the US and Canada. It grossed $14.1 million in other territories, making a worldwide total gross of $38.7 million.