Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew firsthand what it was like to be discriminated against on the basis of her sex. As a young Jewish mother studying at Harvard and later struggling to get a job at a number of law firms, she actually had to overcome three major hurdles to gain acceptance: her gender, her religion, and her parental status.
This is why she felt compelled to take on the otherwise insignificant Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue case — involving Charles Moritz, a single man who had been denied a $296 tax deduction for being a male caregiver — that lies at the heart of the movie On the Basis of Sex.
Following hard on the heels of the award-winning documentary about the 85-year-old judge, RBG, and timed with Justice Ginsburg’s 25th anniversary on the Supreme Court, the new biopic, from an original screenplay by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, tackles this pivotal moment in the now feminist icon’s career.
Then an unknown young lawyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones) and her husband, successful tax attorney, Martin (Armie Hammer), are about to jointly try what would become a landmark sex-based discrimination case before the U.S. Court of Appeals. If they win, Moritz his rightful tax deduction, they’re also winning women around the country greater equality in the workplace.
SF Weekly spoke to Hammer (Call Me by Your Name, The Social Network) and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman about Justice Ginsburg’s legacy, the ongoing struggle for equality, and how On the Basis of Sex is a good complement to RBG.
Daniel, at what point did you realize what a big deal your aunt was?
Daniel Stiepleman: Oh, I was always shocked as a kid. All the events in the movie happened before I was born and she was put on the Supreme Court when I was 12. So, for me, sitting on Thanksgiving and seeing my quiet aunt in the corner, I had an image in my head of what a feminist looks like, and it’s Gloria Steinem. It’s someone who’s in front of the crowd rallying everybody, and that is so not my aunt. People would tell me my aunt had done all these big important things and I was like, “Really, her?”
But that’s what intrigued me about her story. As the movie says, “Sustainable change requires two things. You have to change the culture, but you also have to change the law.” You need a Gloria Steinem and a Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You need someone who’s going to put their head down and get to work.
Armie, you played the role of Marty Ginsburg in the movie so naturally that it didn’t even come across as acting. What preparation did that take?
Armie Hammer: My preparation for every film looks the same. It’s largely research-driven. I have a professional researcher that I work with on every project, and I give her the script and any pertinent information I have. She then goes and digs up every single thing she can find. I find that the more preparation I do and the harder I work beforehand, the easier it seems on set.
I was also lucky enough to speak to Ruth and have access to Daniel, who is more intimately involved. And Felicity and I are playing a very well-known and publicly available couple, so we had a lot to draw on.
DF: Luckily, you had a very well-written script, too. [Laughs]
AH: Probably the best script I’ve ever read, and I’d say that in front of [Social Network screenwriter] Aaron Sorkin. [Laughs]
The movie’s director Mimi Leder was quoted as saying that this role gave you an opportunity to show more of your fun and smart sides. Now, I personally feel like you’ve done that in other roles.
AH: Honestly, I didn’t even think of this in terms of myself. I thought about it in terms of I’ve been married for almost nine years now, and I wish that I had read this before I got married.
DS: So does your wife. [Laughs]
AH: That’s where I’m getting to, 100 percent. Martin Ginsburg set an example as a husband, father, partner, and confidante, and he is the kind of man that we should all aspire to be. So more than anything else, this was a chance for me to dig into that and really to learn from it. Also, he was an incredibly shocking reminder of how far short I have fallen of that bar.
Armie, I know it’s not a perfect comparison, but I was thinking as I was watching the movie about Justice Ginsburg’s courage in pursuing her dreams of becoming a lawyer against all odds that you, too, had to fight pretty hard to become an actor, even getting disowned by your parents in the process.
AH: There is a societal norm or a status quo that if everyone continues along with, then we make these small, incremental changes, maybe over long periods of time but nothing drastic really occurs. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the example of something drastic and courageous, of someone saying, “I’m not willing to accept the path that seems to be laid for me. I think that it will not only behoove me but other people to blaze a new path.”
Thankfully she did, because she changed the political and legal landscape that we all live in, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who says it wasn’t for the better. As the father of a young daughter, I’m thrilled she did what she did, because now my young daughter had countless more opportunities than she would have, had Justice Ginsburg not done what she did.
On a much smaller scale, I decided to do what I wanted to do, too. It was way more self-important and selfish, but I’m also happy that I did what I did. Is that self-deprecating enough?
Both of you have Jewish backgrounds, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on why a movie about a trailblazing Jewish woman is so important right now amid the latest wave of anti-Semitism in the U.S.?
AH: This film, for me personally, is incredibly pertinent, because I think it would be very easy for anyone of any religious creed or gender to say, “Well, look how far we’ve come. It’s great. We did the work.” But seeing where things were when Ruth started not only her legal career but this crusade that she’s continued to seek throughout her life, you might think differently.
There’s a scene in this movie, where somebody says, “And you’re a Jew to boot, so I don’t know how you’re going to get hired.” That, plus all of the gender inequality that she was up against at the time, going to Harvard and all that stuff — it gives us a sense of perspective of how far we have come, but also how far we still have to go.
What would you say to audiences who already saw Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s comprehensive and seemingly definitive Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, RBG, earlier this year and question whether they’d need to see your movie, too?
DS: Have you seen the documentary?
Yes, I took my very conservative mother to see it, and she loved it.
DS: Great. Will you take her to see this movie and let us know how she reacts?
AH: Will you take my mom, too, who’s also very conservative? [Laughs]
DS: I think the documentary does a great job of taking Ruth’s legal career, life, stature, and the impact she’s made on the culture and the law and synthesizing it in a way that’s approachable and enjoyable.
When I saw the doc, I thought, “Oh good, they skipped our case.” I was so relieved, because this film is really about one case, and it’s a pivotal case. Even Ruth said, “Why this case? I argued bigger cases and more important ones in front of the Supreme Court. Why is this the one you want to make?” And I said, “It’s the only one you argued with uncle Marty. It’s the two of you fighting in court, but you’re also trying to figure out how to live at home — that real equality.” And she said, “Oh, that’s nice. OK.”
On the Basis of Sex opens on Tuesday, Dec. 25, at the Kabuki 8 and Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema.