The passing of legendary Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18 inspired tributes from all sides of the legal and political spectrum. Aside from dozens of celebrities sharing their thoughts on the Notorious RBG via Twitter and other social media, Hollywood has provided the opportunity to pay tribute to her by re-releasing two films about her- the 2018 documentary “RBG” and the 2019 biopic “On the Basis of Sex”- into 1000 theatres this weekend and giving an extra push to them on VOD platforms.
“RBG” was produced by CNN Films, using the cable news giant’s ample journalistic resources to craft a documentary that covers several of her cases and the cumulative impact they had on society. It also serves up some fun and surprisingly romantic looks at the usually super-serious – or in her own words, “sober” – jurist that can make viewers of any political stripe smile and appreciate her humanity.
The doc opens with an audio montage of President Trump and several right-wing media figures’ disparaging comments about Ginsburg before cutting quickly to footage of then-Senator Joe Biden opening her Supreme Court confirmation hearing as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1993. While the film was released two years ago, this opening salvo makes the film feel torn from today’s headlines as the country steels itself for what should be a bruising confirmation battle for her successor.
Quickly moving through her childhood as the daughter of Russian immigrants, it finds its footing by recounting how she managed to shine as one of the first women in Harvard’s law school while also juggling motherhood and marriage to her husband of 56 years, Marty, as he battled cancer. That incredible strain gave her a drive she carried throughout her life and career as a Supreme Court justice, when she was known to work all the way to 4 a.m. to prepare for cases.
Effectively showing how she shook America from its extensive array of laws that allowed sex discrimination in nearly all aspects of society by taking the laws down step by step, “RBG” helps viewers see that sweeping changes often come through small increments. Her most brilliant move came in taking a case, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, in which she defended a man’s right to take a caregiver tax deduction at a time when only women were allowed to consider themselves caregivers under tax law.
By making an appeals court rule that a man couldn’t be discriminated against on the basis of sex, it opened the doors to provide the same opportunities for women in other cases. But where “RBG” truly shines is in its final third, as it shows how RBG earned her rock-star status in popular culture by becoming the strongest dissenting voice in the Supreme Court as it shifted sharply rightward in the 2000s.
While “RBG” entertainingly covers the broad scope of Ginsburg’s life and career, “On the Basis of Sex” focuses more specifically on her days as a law student, wife and mother before leaping into an in-depth exploration of the Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld case. The biopic has the advantage of dramatically underscoring the emotional side of what Ginsburg endured at a time when judges seemed to give zero credibility to female lawyers, much less the ability of women to do any kind of meaningful work outside the home.
The movie is anchored by a terrific performance by British actress Felicity Jones, who bears a perfect resemblance to the young Ginsburg and nails her blend of steely resolve and caring heart as well as her Brooklyn accent. Armie Hammer as her husband Marty provides a great portrait of a man who was fully masculine yet open-minded enough to support his wife’s ambitions and be a fully equal partner to her in the home and the courtroom.
Director Mimi Leder brings it all together with dynamic art and costume design that brings both the 1950s and 1970s to life, and a rousing score by Mychael Danna drives it all home.
Both “Basis” and “RBG” are well worth seeing, and couldn’t be more timely viewing. While some of her stands, particularly on abortion and same-sex marriage, were contrary to Catholic teachings, she nonetheless had enough personal qualities to become extremely close friends with the devoutly Catholic conservative Antonin Scalia, so those interested in history or the law are highly recommended to watch either or both of these films.