Home » Years » 2019 » On the Basis of Sex •••••

On the Basis of Sex •••••

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux
Director: Mimi Leder
Screenplay: Daniel Stiepleman
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: January 11, 2019


Scott, are you ready to review the latest biopic on the Notorious RBG?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, by all means, let’s judge the life of a great judge. First, the recap:

We’re introduced to a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones). She’s married to Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and they’re both at Harvard. Ruth is facing discrimination right away as she goes to a dinner with the Dean and he asks all the women attendees why they are there “taking up a space that could be used by a man.” Later, Martin falls ill with testicular cancer. While he recovers, Ruth goes to his classes (as well as her own) and takes notes – basically studying both tax and defense law – and takes care of their infant daughter.

Ruth confronts gender discrimination while trying to find a job after law school, and eventually becomes a professor at Rutgers University. One day Martin casually informs her of a tax case involving a man who is suing to claim a tax deduction for caretaking his mother that, according to the law, is only available to women. Ruth seizes the opportunity to work on this case, knowing intuitively that the best way to overturn laws discriminating against women is to set a legal precedent of overturning a law that hurts men. She and Martin go to work to win this tax case.

Scott, this is a remarkable film for two reasons. First, it exposes gender biases of the 1950s through 1970s and how much has changed – and still needs to. Second, it’s a biopic about a great American hero – while she’s still alive. It’s a very well-crafted movie with great period costumes, great performances, and effective direction and editing. The most remarkable thing of all is, you cannot make this stuff up – it’s all true.

When crafting a biopic, the writers have the difficult task of constructing an entertaining hero’s journey from real life events. The challenge is that real life doesn’t conveniently fall into the 19 phases of the hero’s journey. Also, there are often conversations or events that don’t have a full transcription, so they have to be imagined by the writers and translated into a medium (such as film) that can be easily digested by a modern audience.

On the Basis of Sex accomplishes this with astonishing success. We are witness to Ruth’s growth from a feisty independent woman who feels constrained by a man’s world, into a feisty independent woman focused on changing the world. When her husband Martin finds a tax case that discriminates a man based on his gender, she realizes that the key to changing the law is to show it happening to a man, and then the first domino will fall creating a precedent to raise women to a status equal to men.

Another outstanding element of this story is the inclusion of the older mentor female lawyer Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates). Kenyon has already tried a number of discrimination cases and reminds Ruth that society changes before the law. And until the culture changes, the law will lag behind. I am thrilled to see this “passing of the baton” from one former-hero-become-mentor (a pattern we’ve observed numerous times in the past) to a new hero. It’s often the unsung hero-mentors who are the catalyst for change and to have Kenyon brought to the fore and given credit was a delighter.

Greg, I very much agree with your assessment. First, let’s acknowledge that the title of this film, On the Basis of Sex, is amusing and ironic. We’re told in the movie that the better and more accurate legal phrase should be “on the basis of gender,” because “sex” is misleading and provocative. Yet here we see that exploitative phrase used as the film’s title, presumably to sell more movie tickets. Hollywood is basically admitting to us that it is manipulating us.

The truth is that this movie need not resort to any trickery to sell tickets. On the Basis of Sex Is a quality depiction of a hero to millions of Americans, namely, the iconic Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The story is a celebration of an underdog hero’s unlikely triumph over severe institutional sexism that permeated higher education, the US legal system, and American culture in the late 20th century — and still does so to some degree today. In our last Reel Heroes & Villains book, we discuss the idea of villains appearing in the form of large, oppressive institutions. Ginsburg fights individuals, such as Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) who are the “face” of the villainous institution.

As we’ve noted in many of our previous movie reviews, the underdog archetype packs significant psychological punch. We see this archetype fully explored here. Ginsburg fights for respect and overcomes numerous prejudices and obstacles in finding her voice. In doing so, she re-shapes our legal system and transforms our society. Greg, this is a powerful, moving story of a hero mustering up the courage and resilience to make much-needed societal changes.

Good hero stories include vivid instances of the hero receiving help from various friends, companions, and allies. It’s good to see that On the Basis of Sex is brimming with people helping each other become better people. Ruth’s mother helps Ruth, who in turn helps her daughter. Ruth’s husband helps Ruth, and her daughter also eventually helps Ruth, too. Greg, you also mentioned Kenyon helping Ruth. All of the help Ruth receives assists her to become her best self so that she can in turn make society better.

Joseph Campbell believed that hero mythology’s chief purpose was to advance society. According to Campbell, mythology is designed to teach us that society is not a “perfectly static organization” but represents a “movement of the species forward”. On the Basis of Sex is a textbook example of how the hero’s journey moves society forward.

On the Basis of Sex is one of the few biopic films that extol the virtues of a societal change agent while she still lives. This particular film was crafted with great care and precision – and dare I say love. The scene where Ruth is failing in her oratory to the judges, then regains her confidence and skewers the government’s arguments is classic Hollywood – and exposes the transformation of the ordinary to the hero. The final moment of the film where we see Felicity Jones as young RBG climbing the steps to the Supreme Court building and then transforming into the real-life, modern-day, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg brought a lump to my throat. I only rate films the highest mark when I don’t see how they can be improved – and On the Basis of Sex is fully worthy of 5 Reels out of 5.

When we look at the hero of the film we look for two things: character and transformation. Ruth starts out as a very heroic character. She’s already strong, smart, witty, driven, and compassionate. But when she overcomes her own ideas of where she fits in a man’s world (two moments – when she realizes her daughter is a liberated woman, and when she steps to the lectern to deliver her final arguments) we see a transformation from exceptional to greatness. I give Ruth Bader Ginsburg 5 out of 5 Heroes.

This year we’re looking at the message of the story. Biopics are challenged to deliver a compelling message because they are often tied to real-life events. The message here could be “we’ve come a long way because of RBG, and we have a way to go.” Or “work hard and be true to yourself and you will succeed.” In the end, I’m not sure we need a compelling message because the point of this story is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped both men and women by insisting that we all be treated with equal respect and dignity. I’ll give that 5 out of 5 Message points.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

On the Basis of Sex does a fabulous job of portraying Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an extraordinary hero, a woman who fights all the necessary fights necessary to re-shape American society in the 1960s and 70s. Kudos to Felicity Jones for a powerful performance, and to the remaining cast for stepping so effortlessly into the roles of helpers or hinderers of Ginsburg’s vision. The film’s ending, showing the indomitable Ginsburg herself (rather than Jones) moving across the screen is a perfect postscript. Like you, Greg, I also give this film the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Ginsburg follows the classic hero’s journey by first transforming herself and then using her own personal metamorphosis to transform society. By film’s end, she possesses all of the great eight traits of heroes; she is strong, wise, charismatic, reliable, resilient, caring, selfless, and inspiring. Ginsburg traverses through all the major stages of the classic hero’s journey and is one of the best movie heroes of the year. I award her 5 Hero points out of 5.

The message of the movie is inspired and delivered in an effective manner. Essentially, the message is to persevere, to remain steady with one’s moral convictions even after encountering roadblocks. We’re called to develop the resourcefulness needed to overcome daunting obstacles in achieving once moral objective of improving society. This message is wonderful and is delivered in a remarkably effective way. I also give it 5 Message points out of 5.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

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