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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.

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