We’re reaching the end of a long day of shooting on the Montreal set of the movie On The Basis of Sex, and Theroux’s character, ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf, is leading a moot court discussion in Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and husband Marty Ginsburg’s (Armie Hammer) living room in preparation for their upcoming argument in a 1971 case tackling gender inequality.
It’s not going well. Ruth is nervous, unpracticed in facing the kind of overt sexism that thwarts her legal reasoning on a level beyond rational discourse, and Mel is determined to brace her for it. Between bites of pâté, he grills the young lawyer over and over again, while Marty interjects once in a while, with advice to throw in a joke. As the proceedings wind down, Mel decides it might be nice to give Ruth a compliment. “Your pâté is the best I’ve ever tasted,” he says, assuming that Ruth is the cook. He’s wrong. Marty made the pâté, as well as any of the other snacks they see before them. Ruth is a terrible cook.
It’s a scene that perfectly mirrors the message running through the film, set to hit theaters on December 25: Our society is based on a flawed understanding of gender, a systemic injustice that shows up in fairly harmless ways, like in the wrongful attribution of a stellar pâté, or in more insidious forms, like denying women equal opportunities of employment. And, it’s a message that still resonates over 40 years after the events depicted here.
When I landed in Montreal last November, it had been less than one month since allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Harvey Weinstein had been made public in groundbreaking stories in both the New York Times and the New Yorker. The most recent iteration of #MeToo movement was still in its infancy, and every day brought more heartbreaking and infuriating stories about the abuses of powerful men, and their impact on the lives of countless women.
Sitting in the frigid ersatz cafeteria during a short midday break for lunch, director Mimi Leder was acutely aware of the responsibility of making a film like this at a time like this. “It feels incredible to be directing this movie right now, and it feels so much more important than it already was,” she said over a plate of Craft Services offerings.
It was an inspiring thought then. But now, nearly a year later, on the eve of the film’s release and after celebrating the 25th anniversary of Ginsburg’s first day on the bench, a new battle for women’s rights is roiling at the very heart of the Supreme Court. The confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court — where he will the bench with Ginsburg, once she recovers from her recent injury — despite allegations of sexual assault by three women, have brought renewed urgency to a film that already felt timely and momentous.
Written by Daniel Stiepelman (Ginsburg’s nephew, who earned her permission to pursue the project in 2011) On The Basis Of Sex tracks nearly two decades of Ginsburg’s life, from her days as one of nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School, to her struggle to find a job as a lawyer in New York City despite a stellar resume, to the very first gender-discrimination case she argued jointly with her husband in 1971.
Played by British actress Felicity Jones, the Ruth we see in On The Basis Of Sex isn’t the mythic figure known today as “The Notorious RBG,” the octogenarian legend whose fiery dissents are shared on social media, and whose image is tattooed on body parts and feminist bumper stickers. (Fun fact: my companions on this set visit were Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, who co-authored the eponymous book based on the viral Tumblr.) She’s just Ruth: a Brooklyn native, a wife, a mother, and an ambitious and talented lawyer who, having been the victim of gender discrimination herself, seeks to find a way to dismantle the systemic problem she sees in American society.
In Jones’ dressing room for a 10-minute break before she headed back to set for her close-ups (she likes to get those done towards the end of the day, when she’s internalized the feel of the scene), the actress described her approach to the role. How does a 34-year-old woman who claims to have “terrible British gnarly teeth” become RBG?
”It’s a bit like a detective and working out how she became the person she became,” the Oscar nominee said. Gesturing to her costume, a more laid back outfit than the court suits you can see in the film’s trailer, she points out the ways in which she has been physically transformed to look more like Ginsburg. She had her teeth capped before shooting began.
“She's always got that huge smile, especially when she's looking at Marty,” Jones explained. “And it's only a tiny little detail, but if you do lots of those little details and they add up and you feel like you're them.”
Add some grey contact lenses and a hairpiece to the mix, as well as Ginsburg’s distinct posture and comportment, gleaned from home footage provided by Stiepelman, and you’ve got a pretty passable version of Ginsburg. “She looks like a movie star, the way she holds herself,” Jones said. “I spent the entire movie making sure my shoulders aren’t hunched.”
Still, the real challenge was to nail the accent, her childhood Brooklynese softened by years arguing in front of WASP-dominated courtrooms. Leder recalled that when Justice Ginsburg met Jones during a dinner last August in Washington DC (with the director and Hammer also in attendance), she waited for Jones to head to the bathroom before whispering to Leder: “She's great, but I don't know about that English accent.” (We heard multiple accounts of this story throughout the day. One version has Ginsburg quipping “but can she do the Brooklyn accent?” The one thing everyone agrees on, though, is that she approved of the casting.)
Jones (who has performed American accents before, although never a specifically Brooklyn-inflected one) and her dialect coach, Naomi Joy Todd, listened to recordings of the Supreme Court cases that Ginsburg argued as a lawyer from 1972 to 1978in order to capture her vocal tics. “Her accent is really inconsistent,” Todd explained from behind a set of monitors, where she sits listening to Jones’ cadence. “You’d have some really really strongly Brooklyn sounds, and then you’d have some very proper American sounds.”
Words that have a strong association to home — like “mother” — Todd pointed out, were more likely to come out with a Brooklyn inflection. Ginsburg lost her own mother, Celia Bader, with whom she was extremely close, the day before graduating high school, an experience that shaped her life, and her own parenting skills. On The Basis Of Sex turns its eye towards Ruth’s sometimes fraught relationship with her daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who was a teenager in 1971.
“[Jane] is very similar to her mom in a lot of ways but they don’t see eye to eye very often,” 20-year-old Spaeny said. “They’re always bumping heads, and you see that in this film.”
Just as Ruth is a symbol for women to rally around, Marty, her husband of 56 years, is an example of what a good man can and should be. Their marriage is a central component of the film, both in the professional sphere, where they share a case, but also on a more personal level.
“We like to think of [Ruth] as Wonder Woman. She’s a bit of a superhero,” producer Robert W. Cort said as we watched the scene being filmed on a pair of monitors. That would make Marty her Steve Trevor.
Theirs was a love story that subverted traditional gender roles. In a compromise that was particularly unusual for a union rooted in the 1950s, they each took turns sacrificing for the other’s career, supporting their individual and shared ambitions.
At the time of the events shown in the film, Marty is a prominent tax attorney in New York City, while Ruth, having struggled and failed to find a job as a lawyer, is teaching at Rutgers University. In 1980, when she was named as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter, he left his lucrative New York City practice to follow her to Washington, D.C., where they resided together until his death in 2010, and took up a teaching position of his own. And, as we learned from the infamous pâté incident, he did all the cooking.
“‘Party Marty,’ as I would like to refer to him, is my new hero,” Hammer said of his character, whom he channeled by throwing a dinner party based entirely on Marty’s cookbook, which Justice Ginsburg gave to him as a good luck gift when they met. On the menu: eggplant parmesan, shrimp with pasta, carrots Vichy, a Caesar salad named after Jane — and of course, Marty’s chicken-liver pâté.
Dapper in slacks and a knit polo (Marty’s version of casual wear), Hammer explained that taking on this project has given him renewed respect for the Ginsburgs as a couple and family unit, an aspect of the Justice’s life that is less publicized than her legal achievements.
“They really created a perfect team for each other where anytime there was any vacuum space, one or the other filled it effectively,” he said.
Still, no matter how endearing their relationship, in the end, the film’s true selling point at this particular moment in time is its urgent, 2018 relevance.
The film isn’t the first to celebrate Ginsburg’s achievements and legacy. Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary, RBG, opened at Sundance to great acclaim earlier this year. But On The Basis of Sex is the first to give the Supreme Court Justice the Hollywood treatment, delving as much into her personal relationships with her husband and family as it does her work.
It’s a happy accident that On The Basis Of Sex is being released when it is. Several years after his aunt gave him her blessing to write it, Stiepelman’s script was placed on the 2014 Black List, Hollywood’s database of the best scripts that have yet to be produced. When the project was finally announced in 2015, Natalie Portman was attached to play Ruth, and requested that the film be helmed by a female director. Although her casting fizzled out, and the role was then filled by Jones, Portman’s original demand was honored, and Leder was hired.
“Ruth paved the way for all of us, for me sitting right here. We must never take that lightly,” the director said on set. She would know. Like Ginsburg, Leder is a trailblazer in her field, who has faced setbacks because of her gender. In 1973, she became the first woman to graduate from the AFI Conservatory, and went on to direct major studio films like 1997’s The Peacemaker, 1998’s Deep Impact, and 2000’s Pay It Forward.
It’s that last film, starring the since-disgraced Kevin Spacey alongside Haley Joel Osment and Helen Hunt, that landed her in what she calls “movie jail” because of a disappointing box office run, and savage critical reviews. “A woman who makes a movie that doesn't perform goes to movie jail,” she said. “And I went there for years. I flourished in TV, I never stopped working, but a male director who makes a $250 million dollar flop gets three more $250 million dollar movies.”
On the Basis of Sex is Leder’s first feature film with a theatrical release date since then, after nearly two decades of directing prestige TV shows like The West Wing, Shameless and The Leftovers. On The Basis Of Sex appears to be Leder’s get out of jail free card. In July, it was announced that she would direct and executive produce Apple’s much-anticipated untitled drama series starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.
The first trailer for On The Basis of Sex opens with a smartly-suited Ginsburg walking through a sea of businessmen, the only woman in the crowd, as James Brown’s “This Is A Man’s World” plays in the background. And yet she looks determined, resolved in what she wants.
“That's [the message] Ruth has passed on to all women,” Leder said. “Whatever you want to be, be it. Have passion, have heart. Fight."