Written by Daniel Stiepleman
I don’t hold myself as a movie critic; indeed my taste is often rather low brow.
What I can do is tell you whether a biopic about the Supreme Court is relatively accurate. I say relatively because everyone understands that my beat is not exactly a laugh riot, and to make it interesting, you have to take a bit of dramatic license.
That said, I have seen a lot of Supreme Court movies and TV shows that are ridiculously, even foolishly, inaccurate. In one that I recall, a Supreme Court law clerk was dating another clerk only to find out that she was trans. Talk about eye-rollingly silly. In another, the petitioner — the person bringing the appeal — was sitting at counsel table in the Supreme Court and was asked questions by the justices.
That brings me to the subject of “On the Basis of Sex,” the movie about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg many decades before she was “The Notorious RBG.”
The movie focuses on her first gender discrimination case, brought on behalf of Charles Moritz, a Colorado salesman who tried to claim a tax deduction for the care for his 89-year-old mother [when he was on the road]. The IRS disallowed it because the Internal Revenue Code said only women could claim such a deduction, or widowed or divorced men. Moritz didn’t qualify because he had never been married, and Ginsburg, along with her tax-lawyer husband, Marty, challenged the law in court.
The script, written by RBG’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, does a pretty good job threading the needle between reality and drama. Indeed, Stiepleman did such a good job that I, who have known and covered RBG for many decades, had to call him to find out if certain things were true.
In our phone conversation, Stiepleman confessed that his heart was in his throat when the justice reviewed the script. She began on page one by objecting to the portrayal of her walking up the steps at Harvard Law School, wearing heels. She never wore heels then, she insisted. They argued; he won.
“If she objects to that,” he thought to himself, “my God, what is she going to say about the dramatic high point of the film, where she argues the Moritz case in the Court of Appeals.”
But Ginsburg had no objection to that scene, where she is portrayed as uncertain, scared, and mentally paralyzed.
I couldn’t find the actual transcript or tape of the argument, so I asked Stiepleman if the portrayal is accurate. “Of course not,” he replied. “Ruth Ginsburg never flubbed an argument in her life.”
So why didn’t the justice object? Her answer: “Oh, everyone knows that you have to make it dramatic.”
What is true, Stiepleman told me, is that when Marty Ginsburg opened the argument to deal with tax questions, the judges didn’t want him to sit down. Incredibly, they kept trying to get him to answer questions that she was meant to deal with, about the constitution.
Nina Totenberg is NPR’s award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR’s critically acclaimed news magazines “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition” and “Weekend Edition.”