You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Oscars: RBG Biopic ‘On the Basis of Sex’ Met With Mixed Reaction, but Zeitgeist Gives It a Boost

After seeing Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex,” centered on Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at a screening last week, two things became apparent: the RBG drama is a crowd pleaser, and critical minds will object to its basic presentation.

Judging by reactions to last night’s AFI Fest opening night world premiere, the fissure is starting to show. “Ruth, I’m sorry, you deserve better,” one viewer tweeted. “The quintessential movie for the #MeToo era,” another chimed in. Meanwhile, both sides agree that actress Felicity Jones was the wrong casting decision to play a young Ginsburg, and that she struggles with a New York accent that ebbs and flows throughout.

My take is that the performance perfectly embodies the spirit of the character, regardless of the details, and that the film itself, although aesthetically dialed down, is by no means a cookie-cutter biopic. After all, we don’t go from cradle to cracked ribs here. Screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, a nephew of Ginsburg’s, chose a singular frame of reference for telling this story: Denver resident Charles Moritz’s 1970 petition to the Internal Revenue Service seeking deductions for expenses paid as caretaker of his aging mother. At the time, the law ruled such protections were only afforded to women, conforming to a faux “natural order.” It was a seminal case for Ginsburg, who took it on with her husband Martin alongside the American Civil Liberties Union, and it makes a sound microcosm for the many ideas one would expect to be discussed in a movie centered on her.

Within that, sure, it’s formulaic. It hits familiar beats. Though there are fun inversions, like Armie Hammer in the role of Martin, sending the “supporting spouse” trope in another direction, or in the contradictions inherent in the Moritz case. And there are fair criticisms to offer. “Though Jones and Hammer share a charming on-screen chemistry, the casting of the two stars diminishes at least one dimension of the Ginsburgs’ lifelong struggle for civil rights, presenting them as generic characters straight out of the Sears catalog or a Douglas Sirk movie, rather than members of a religious minority who would have had to contend with anti-Semitism at work and school in the 1950s and ’60s,” wrote Variety chief film critic Peter Debruge in his review.

But on the whole, the film works, and it certainly suffers no less than something like “Green Book” —which has been critically acclaimed — for navigating so safely through socio-political terrain. (Both films were financed by Participant Media.) It also obviously arrives at an interesting historical moment, when the rule of law feels threatened on a daily basis and the vital importance of the United States Supreme Court is more apparent than ever. And of course, Ginsburg herself was hospitalized early yesterday morning with three fractured ribs, sending a collective gasp throughout liberal America as the fear of a third SCOTUS appointment by the current presidential administration remains a shared nightmare.

All of that could help push the film through the awards season despite critical knocks. Jones is a contender in a lead actress race that feels particularly fluid outside the top two or three spots (more on that in next week’s column), and Hammer is a supporting actor possibility as well. Pop star Kesha’s original song from the film, “Here Comes the Change,” will also be in the mix.

Anything beyond that might be a bit of a stretch for Focus Features, which is closing AFI Fest with another female director’s film, Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots.” But the distributor landed two unlikely best picture bids last year, and at the end of the day, “On the Basis of Sex” is a film that dovetails nicely with the zeitgeist. After all, Oscar nominations don’t happen in a vacuum. How will the nation’s temperature affect the Academy’s response to this and other films? Stay tuned.

More Film

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'Alien' at 40: Ridley Scott Explains Why 'You Don't Show the Monster Too Many Times'

    It’s difficult to imagine Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror classic “Alien” without the clear-minded, strong presence of Tom Skerritt as Dallas, the captain of the ill-fated Nostromo. But originally, the actor turned down “Alien,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary on May 25, though he thought Dan O’Bannon’s script read well. “There was nobody involved at the time [...]

  • The Poison Rose

    Film Review: 'The Poison Rose'

    It is 1978 in the City of Angels and the hard-drinking washed-up sleuth Carson Phillips is having another boozy day through its atmospheric streets. There is a hint of innate coolness and self-deprecation in his elongated voiceover intro — you might even briefly mistake Carson, played by a one-note John Travolta, for a Philip Marlowe [...]

  • 'Chambre 212' Review: A Comedy More

    Cannes Film Review: 'Chambre 212'

    Most of us, in our romantic lives, meditate here and there on the other roads we might have traveled, and movies are uniquely equipped to channel those alternate-universe-of-love possibilities. That’s the idea at the (broken) heart of “Casablanca.” And the fantasy of getting to see the turns your life didn’t take play out right in [...]

  • Zach Galifianakis Jerry Seinfeld Netflix

    Film News Roundup: Zach Galifianakis' 'Between Two Ferns: The Movie' Coming to Netflix

    In today’s film news roundup, “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” is unveiled, “Friedkin Uncut” gets a fall release and Sony Classics buys “The Traitor” at Cannes. MOVIE RELEASES Netflix has set a Sept. 20 release date for Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns: The Movie,” based on his 11-year-old talk show. Galifianakis made the announcement during [...]

  • Romanian Crime-Thriller 'The Whistlers' Bought for

    Romanian Crime-Thriller 'The Whistlers' Bought for North America

    Magnolia Pictures has bought North American rights to the Romanian crime thriller “The Whistlers” following its premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, the film stars Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar, Antonio Buil, Agustí Villaronga, Sabin Tambrea, Julieta Szonyi and George Pisterneanu. Magnolia is eyeing a theatrical [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content