“On the Basis of Sex” began eight years ago at the funeral of screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman’s uncle, Marty Ginsburg. Stiepleman learned that Marty, a tax lawyer and professor, and his wife of 56 years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, once argued a case together back in 1972. Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue was Ruth’s first, a landmark case on behalf of gender equality.
Stiepleman thought: “This would make a great movie.” When he approached his aunt for her cooperation, he said he wanted the film to show Marty and Ruth as a marriage of equals. She said: “Well, if that’s how you think you want to spend your time.”
Ginsburg became deeply involved in “On the Basis of Sex” (December 25, Focus Features), ensuring that Stiepleman and director Mimi Leder nailed the legal details, giving them books and files along with detailed script notes. She also had cast approval over stars Armie Hammer (“Call Me By Your Name”) and Oscar-nominee Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”).
Even after “Star Wars: Rogue One,” Jones said she wasn’t finding a role that made her feel passionate. “I had to find somebody who had the Force in them,” she told me. “It was finding something that really gripped me that I felt I could get behind. This story felt like a continuation of the “Star Wars” universe, because RBG has the force in her. She is a Jedi.”
For his part, Hammer thought Marty Ginsburg was too good to be true: “I got in touch with people who knew Marty. ‘There’s no way he was that good.’ They said, ‘He was better!'”
Hammer realized you don’t see many “men, husbands, and fathers like this in film,” he said. “It’s an underrepresented minority. In the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s he was able to subvert the gender norms, cook, clean, do whatever was required. That’s how he exercised his strength. He loved what he was doing, he relished it. Usually a strong man is domineering, but he was willing to be symbiotic and do what was necessary to sustain and foster his family. There would be no Ruth without Marty. He knew his wife was capable of changing the world, and he would do whatever it took.”
What Marty and Ruth accomplished, said Jones, “is how society will get better. Gender equality will get better the more men take responsibility for children.”
It was a revelation to Hammer what women couldn’t do back in the ’50s: “The fact referenced in the film is women couldn’t open a bank account, rent a car unless their husband was present. Women were not allowed to represent people in court unless they have a husband there. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the point on the graph where you see the line where she started, to the point where we are, and the trajectory where we need to go.”
Hammer was also struck by the fact that Leder was not only just the second woman director he had ever worked with, but also by her gender-inclusive set. “It didn’t feel any different,” he said.
Before filming, Ginsburg met with the filmmakers and stars Hammer and Jones in her private chambers at the Supreme Court. “It was surreal when we walked in,” said Hammer, who towered over her. Ginsburg thought carefully before answering every question. “Everything she says can be interpreted as law. She lays down a public record; there are ramifications to what she says. We took her out for dinner, gave her a glass of wine, and had a great time. She’s funny; a wry, dry sense of humor came out.”
“She was immediately captivated by Armie Hammer,” said Jones. ‘You could see the joy in her face and the love she had for Marty. It was about getting to know her on a personal level. She was involved in every phase, gave meticulous notes on every draft.”
Ginsburg gave Hammer a copy of Marty’s recipe book, complete with how to cook wild boar ribs, a special recipe from the Ginsburgs’ close chum, the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Hammer invited people to his house on location in Montreal to sample his cooking from Marty’s recipes.
Jones listened to plenty of Supreme Court recordings to find the right combination of Brooklyn and TransAtlantic vowels for Ruth: “She wasn’t just fighting her gender and age but where she was from. There was snobbery about being from Brooklyn. She had to disguise the Brooklyn vowel sounds, which come out stronger when she’s angry or frustrated. Actually, RBG wasn’t from a privileged background — and yet she managed to change the system.”
For Jones, it was “fascinating playing a real person navigating the public and private, the patriarchal expectations of a woman in ’50s. She had to be a perfect lady, and dress prescriptions were coming from society. When you see Ruth in private, she has to let go and express anger and frustration in the situation she was in. She channeled that anger and used it carefully in a way that made her powerful, because it gave her this enormous drive: ‘I don’t care what you think, I’m going to fight for what I believe in!’ This anger was like rocket fuel that drove her.”
Jones and Hammer said they were moved by a relationship where the two partners weren’t threatened by each other, but supplement and support each other. When the writer had Ginsburg finding the case they argued together, Ginsburg made sure he changed the script to show that Marty brought the case to her. “That tells you everything,” said Jones. “There were two people in that relationship. Look how strong you can be when you work together and effect change! You can’t do it alone; you do it with each other.”
Finally, Ginsburg used the truth as her greatest weapon. “That’s why she’s the woman she is today,” said Jones, “because she’s got integrity. This is someone who has lived by her principles from the beginning. It was not about fame or money, it was being true to her beliefs. We don’t have many people like that in the public eye.”
As Ginsburg recovers from lung surgery over the holidays, she’s expected to return to work soon. She’s never missed a day since 1993 on Supreme Court.