Seven years ago, a nephew of Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked the U.S. Supreme Court justice to help him with a screenplay that would chronicle one of her early cases seeking equal rights for men and women.
That story, written with extensive input from the justice, debuts in theaters on Christmas in the movie, “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones. The Oscar-nominated actress plays a young Ginsburg as she juggles being a new mother and trying to establish a law career in the 1960s and 1970s.
“For some people, she is a divisive person,” said the nephew and screenwriter, Daniel Stiepleman. “For other people, she’s a superhero. For me, she’s Aunt Ruth. That’s the person I wrote on screen with human foibles and problems and opportunities and a home life.”
As Stiepleman was writing, Ginsburg became a cultural icon nicknamed Notorious R.B.G., inspired by late rapper Notorious B.I.G.. A hero to U.S. liberals, her image is seen on coffee mugs and T-shirts and she even has her own action figure. A documentary, “RBG,” showed the octogenarian in the gym lifting weights, enhancing her status among fans.
“On the Basis of Sex” tells the story of a landmark discrimination case that Ginsburg argued with her tax attorney husband, Martin, in 1972. It involved Charles Moritz, a single man who was denied a $296 tax deduction because he was a male caregiver. Ginsburg and her husband, who died in 2010, successfully argued the denial represented gender-based discrimination.
“This film is part-fact, part-imaginative,” Ginsburg told National Public Radio correspondent Nina Totenberg recently, “but what’s wonderful about it is that the imaginative parts fit in with the story so well.”
Stiepleman said he focused on the Moritz case because it was the only instance when the Ginsburgs argued in court together, and it coincided with a time when they were navigating their marriage. Martin Ginsburg, played by Armie Hammer, is shown as a devoted husband who helps with cleaning and cooking, an unusual partnership for the era.
The writer spent several days digging through his aunt’s files at the Library of Congress. In the evenings, he asked her for insight about her marriage.
Ginsburg told Totenberg that she reviewed the script’s first three drafts.
When her nephew called about the initial version, she told him: “I’m in the middle of reading the Affordable Care Act. Can you call me back in 30 minutes?” according to Stiepleman.
He called back and she said: “‘OK, page one.’ And we went through it like it was a contract, line by line.”
“She wanted the law to be right, she wanted the way the law is practiced to be right, and she wanted Uncle Martin to be right,” Stiepleman said.
The film is being distributed by Comcast Corp’s Focus Features.
Asked if the 85-year-old Ginsburg, who joined the country’s highest court in 1993, would ever retire, Stiepleman said he “dare not speculate.”
But he added: “You cannot underestimate the degree to which she reveres the court. I can’t imagine why she would ever want to stop being a part of that.”
Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney