Fact check: What Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic ‘On the Basis of Sex’ gets right (and wrong)

For her starry new Hollywood biopic, Ruth Bader Ginsburg kept it in the family.

“On the Basis of Sex” (in theaters now) is written by Daniel Stiepleman, a first-time screenwriter and nephew of the Supreme Court justice. The film is part love story, part legal drama, showing how a young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), won their first case together in court in the early 1970s.

The seemingly minor case, “Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue,” involved an unmarried man who was denied a $600 tax deduction for payment for his aging mother’s caretaker. But it ignited a spark in Ginsburg, now 85, who has continued to rail against gender discrimination throughout her storied career, serving in the highest federal court in the United States since 1993.

Stiepleman consulted with his aunt as he wrote “Basis,” sticking to many of the facts while taking some liberties with the new movie. Among the most notable similarities and differences:

Ginsburg attended classes for her sick husband

The impenetrable bond between Ruth and Marty is at the heart of “Basis,” which begins in 1956 with them married and both studying at Harvard Law School. While there, Marty is diagnosed with a rare form of testicular cancer and undergoes surgery, during which time Ruth attends his classes in addition to her own.

In real life, “there were classmates who took notes for them, but she attended classes on occasion, too,” Stiepleman says. As seen in the film, Marty was worn down and exhausted following radiation treatments, so Ginsburg would help complete his assignments whenever he had a burst of energy (typically between midnight and 2 a.m.). “He would dictate his papers to her, she’d type them up and he’d go back to sleep,” Stiepleman says. “That’s when she started a lifetime of working through the night, which she still does to this day.”

 Marty gave her the ‘Moritz v. Commissioner’ case

After failing to secure a law firm job following scores of infuriatingly sexist interviews, Ginsburg accepts a position at Rutgers Law School, where she teaches for years as Marty rises through the ranks at New York firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Disheartened and eager to get her feet wet as a lawyer, Ruth eventually finds an opportunity when Marty tosses the “Moritz v. Commissioner” case on her desk one night and implores her to take it on.

Although that’s how it played out in real life, Stiepleman was initially hesitant to write the scene as is, for fear of seemingly diminishing Ginsburg’s accomplishments. “I was writing a movie about a leading feminist and was scared it could feel like the man is driving the story forward,” Stiepleman says. “So in the first draft, I had her finding the case on her own. But Ruth read (the script) and said, ‘Your uncle handed me that case and he deserves credit for it.’ “

Ruth’s daughter, Jane, worked alongside her growing up

The teenage Jane (Cailee Spaeny) is depicted throughout “Basis” as an outspoken activist: skipping school to attend a Gloria Steinem-led rally, poring through legal documents to find discriminatory laws, and ultimately convincing her mom to stay on the “Moritz” case when others advise her to settle.

But while the real-life Jane went on to study law at Harvard and become a professor at Columbia, where she still teaches, she wasn’t an active participant in Ginsburg’s early legal career.

“They had a relationship similar to the one in the film, in terms of butting heads and being women with strong opinions,” Stiepleman says. “But in the first draft of the screenplay, there was a law student who helped Ruth put together the case.” She was later combined with the character of Jane, who “represented to Ruth … the next generation of a feminist. So Jane takes on some of the plot duties one of her law students might’ve had.”

 Dorothy Kenyon helped Ginsburg secure backing from the ACLU

After drafting a brief for “Moritz,” Ginsburg seeks out women’s rights advocate and lawyer Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates) for advice on how to argue it. Although skeptical at first that Ruth has a winnable case, Dorothy eventually comes around and goes to legal director Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) at the American Civil Liberties Union, urging the nonprofit to finance its litigation.

Dorothy’s involvement was fictionalized: “Ruth said, ‘I don’t want people to think I invented this area of the law, as if it never occurred to anyone that women should be considered equal under the equal protection principle,’ ” Stiepleman says.


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