Screen » Film

May It Please the Court: An Argument in Defense of On the Basis of Sex

Now playing at The Flicks


There is Municipal Court, State Supreme Court, U.S. District Court; but most daunting of all is the court of public opinion. And that's where, for this one time only, your humble servant will argue in defense of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, facing off with some of the film's harshest critics—Mark Jenkins of The Washington Post, Bob Mondello of NPR, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor and Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Bailiff: All rise. The Court of Public Opinion is now in session.

Judge: Mr. Prentice, I hope you realize who you're debating today. Not only are these five critics some of the finest practitioners of your profession, you're about to... well, quite frankly, you're about to bite the very hand that feeds you. You're criticizing critics.

Prentice: I fully recognize that, your honor. But when I noticed that On the Basis of Sex was hovering around the paltry 70 percent "fresh" score on the Rotten Tomatoes online compendium of film reviews, I couldn't ignore where some of the film's critical pushback was coming from. Your honor, I don't pretend to be the be-all arbiter of film taste, but I've been deconstructing and writing about popular film for more than four decades now; and I think I know a pretty decent, albeit populist, movie when I see it.

Jenkins: "The movie's central role was once intended for Natalie Portman, who probably would have been more believable," (Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2018).

Prentice: Mr. Jenkins, I take a back seat to no one in my admiration for the Oscar-winning Portman. But Felicity Jones' portrayal of the young Ruth Bader Ginsberg in On the Basis of Sex is something to champion. She's marvelous, and not once did I believe that Jones was doing an impression.

Morgenstern: "The matter of accents raises the question of why the role of a quintessentially American heroine was given to an English actress," (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 27, 2018).

Prentice: Mr. Morgenstern, we would be here all afternoon if I began naming American actors who portrayed "quintessentially" British characters. Where shall I start? Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady? Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary? Even the aforementioned Natalie Portman played a Brit in V for Vendetta.

Roeper: "If only this chapter of Ginsburg's life had been told with a little more spark, a little more originality, a little more insight into what made Ruth RUTH," (Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 24, 2018).

Prentice: I would argue that director Mimi Leder chose a very particular moment in Ruth Ginsburg's early career—the Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue case, which had major repercussions for gender equality—to identify the wellspring of what would become the "notorious" RBG, lioness of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Morgenstern: "The fateful flaw isn't hard to locate. It's the script, which was written by Daniel Stiepleman. For one thing, Mr. Stiepleman has no experience writing feature films. For another, he's Justice Ginsburg's nephew," (WSJ Dec. 27, 2018).

Prentice: For the record, Stiepleman taught screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago; and long before anyone in Hollywood knew that he was the nephew of Justice Ginsburg, his script was high on the so-called "Black List," Hollywood's much-coveted list of top unproduced screenplays. And please, let's not chastise Stiepleman by denigrating his resume. It's an elitist cheap shot.

Roeper: "[Armie] Hammer [who plays Ruth's husband Marty] is such an imposing physical presence, even when he's concealing his muscles beneath the tweeds of academia, he always looks as if he's going to loosen the tie, whip off the sunglasses and spring into action," (CST, Dec. 24, 2018).

Prentice: Excuse me? You're criticizing him for being handsome? Martin Ginsburg was an athlete and officer in the U.S. Army. And if you glance at some photos of the young Marty and Ruth Ginsburg, you might think a tad differently about two very good-looking actors stepping into the shoes of two very good-looking lawyers.

Mondello: "Director Mimi Leder's approach to the story of a genuinely remarkable woman is genuinely, remarkably... conventional," (NPR, Dec. 25, 2018).

Prentice: If by "conventional," you mean boring, ordinary or slight, I couldn't disagree more. RBG, last summer's extraordinary documentary, was indeed inspiring but a very different film. The same subject? Sure. But who's to say that we can't have each as a bookend? I'd love to see a series of Ginsburg-inspired films.

May it please the court, my closing argument is this: On the Basis of Sex is a rarity in that it confirms that many of America's greatest achievements are nearly always traced to the singular heroics of one person. I humbly ask that the jury go see On the Basis of Sex and deliver its own verdict.


Related Film

On the Basis of Sex

Official Site:

Director: Mimi Leder

Producer: Robert Cort, Jonathan King, Jeff Skoll, Daniel Stiepleman, Betsy Danbury and Karen Loop

Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen Root, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Chris Mulkey, Francis McCarthy and Wendy Crewson