Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Fact-Checks Her Own Biopic, ‘On the Basis of Sex’
‘This film is part-fact, part-imaginative, but what’s wonderful about it is that the imaginative parts fit in with the story so well,’ RBG said.
NEW YORK—At a Sunday night screening of On the Basis of Sex on the Upper West Side, the audience was studded with stars Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer, as well as Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself. The film is a fictionalized look at an earlier period in the Supreme Court justice’s life, spanning from her time at Harvard Law School to her groundbreaking work on Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue in the early 1970s. That tax case, which was the only one Ginsburg ever worked on alongside her husband, was one of many cases in which Ginsburg fought gender discrimination.
On the Basis of Sex is certainly a tribute to Ginsburg’s legal acumen and vision. It features a rousing, albeit highly-dramatized rebuttal in which Justice Ginsburg confidently asserts the need for a new precedent, annihilating the other side’s plea for maintaining gender roles and social order. But while Felicity Jones’ Ginsburg is the hero of the film, On the Basis of Sex puts a particular focus on the Supreme Court justice’s marriage. At the heart of director Mimi Leder’s portrayal of the notorious RBG is the man behind the woman. Armie Hammer’s Martin Ginsburg is a brilliant lawyer who is not made insecure by his even more brilliant partner. He brings Moritz’s appeal to her attention and supports her throughout the case—plus, he cooks.
On Sunday night, Justice Ginsburg participated in a brief interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg following the film screening. She spoke about her high level of personal involvement—the script was written by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman—and the unique experience of watching one of Hollywood’s reigning hunks portray her late husband. “I commented when I first met Armie that he was rather taller than Marty,” Justice Ginsburg joked. “And his answer was, ‘And you are rather shorter than Felicity Jones.’” She added, “The most remarkable thing is to hear Felicity Jones, who speaks the queen’s English, sound very much like she was born and bred in Brooklyn.”
Unlike Ginsburg’s legal briefs, in which she tactically chose to swap in the word gender so as to avoid “distracting associations,” the biopic doesn’t shy away from sex. Asked about an early sex scene in the film, Justice Ginsburg demurred, “Well, my children are in the audience,” before continuing, “but I think they would probably agree with me that their daddy would have loved it.” Justice Ginsburg explained that she personally edited the first three drafts of the script, before delegating that responsibility to her daughter, Jane.
“This film is part-fact, part-imaginative, but what’s wonderful about it is that the imaginative parts fit in with the story so well,” she began, before launching into an incredibly detailed recollection of the courtroom scene that served as fodder for the film. “It was a divided argument and my husband had the first 12 minutes—I had the rest. It’s true that the judges were interested, so it continued beyond the half hour that was allotted.” She conceded that the fictitious rebuttal was “terrific” and “got across the message just as it should be told.”
“But also, I didn’t stumble at the outset,” Justice Ginsburg noted—in the film, her character is shaky at first, before working up to the masterful conclusion.
Ginsburg also took issue with a scene in which Harvard Law students were depicted doing the twist, years before that particular dance craze swept the nation. The Supreme Court justice laughed that it was “hard to change” the error after she caught it the first time she watched the movie. She also confirmed details like her seamed stockings in the first scene of the film, but emphasized, “I don’t think I paid much attention to my stockings.”
In another pivotal scene, Ginsburg meets with the Dean of Harvard Law School and argues that she should be allowed to transfer to Columbia to be with her husband, and still earn a Harvard degree. Her plea is made urgent by the fact that her husband Martin, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer while at Harvard, was in recent remission at the time. Asked about Harvard’s many attempts to subsequently right their wrong, Justice Ginsburg recalled, “Especially when my dear colleague Elena Kagan became Dean, she very much wanted me to have a Harvard degree, but in truth you can’t rewrite history. And my beloved husband said, ‘Hold out for an honorary degree,’ which I did get from Harvard University, sadly the year after Marty died. I have one law degree from Columbia, I have an honorary degree from Harvard, and that’s just fine.”
The film paints a heroic picture of Justice Ginsburg after her husband’s cancer diagnosis, as she somehow managed to juggle both of their coursework while caring for a young child. “In the morning I went to my classes,” Justice Ginsburg explained. “And then I collected notes from the people in Marty’s classes...and then I went to Mass General to stay with him and then I came home and played with Jane and put her to sleep.” She continued, “[Martin] would come home, he’d get sick, he would sleep all afternoon and he’d get up around midnight…he would lie on the couch and dictate his senior paper to me and then I would go back to preparing for my classes the next morning.” She clarified, “I would go back to my own work about two in the morning,” insisting that she can exist on just three hours of sleep a night.
Nina Totenberg pointed out that Martin Ginsburg’s enthusiastic cheerleading for his wife was not exaggerated in the film, and that he even played a role in getting President Clinton to consider her for the Supreme Court position. “He was my campaign manager,” Justice Ginsburg confirmed. “He saw to it that my name didn’t remain perhaps number 25, but got elevated to the top.”
Justice Ginsburg admitted that, given her age and her intense workload, “it doesn’t get easier.” “When people ask me, well, how long are you going to stay [on the Supreme Court], my quick answer was, Brandeis was appointed at age 60, he remained for 23 years, I expect that I will stay at least that long. And now I’m two years past that.” Later, she added, “At my age, one can’t predict. I’ve said, I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam.” Justice Ginsburg did reassure the audience that she was healing well from her rib injury and has returned to her famous fitness regimen, saying, “Now I’m up to everything, even planks.”
Asked about her desire to see a return to the way things were when she was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a lopsided vote, Justice Ginsburg posited, “It will take determination from senators on both sides of the aisle to begin functioning the way the Senate should function.”
“I think there will be a way back. I can’t predict that I’ll see it in my lifetime. But one of the things that Marty often said about our country was that the true symbol of the United States is not the Bald Eagle—it’s the pendulum. And when it goes too far in one direction, it’s going to swing back.”
Justice Ginsburg also spoke at length about her friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. “For one thing, he had an infectious sense of humor,” she began. “He’d sit next to me and he’d whisper something or hand me a note that would crack me up and [I did] all I could do to avoid breaking out into hysterical laughter.” They would give each other stylistic advice on their opinions, even when they disagreed on substance. “Sometimes I would come to him and say, you know, this is so over the top. You would be much more persuasive if you toned it down. It was advice he never took.”
The talk ended with another round of thunderous applause for Justice Ginsburg, as well as a request to stay in our seats while audience members with Secret Service protection left the building.