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Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Life As Played Out On the Big and Small Screens
September 20, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

Two movies captured opposite ends of Ruth Ginsburg's wonderful life.

There was the early Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex (2018) – struggling to get a job, to get a foothold, then to change the world. At 39, she started the Women's Rights Project.

And there's the later Ginsburg of the documentary, RBG (also 2018). At 85, she was a Supreme Court justice with a string of triumphs.

Ginsburg died Friday (Sept. 18) at 87, but her story lingers in those films. Both are available via Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube. RBG is also on Hulu and on CNN, Sunday, at 10 p.m. ET; On the Basis of Sex is on the Showtime streaming service and the Showtime add-on for Amazon Prime; it's also scheduled at various times on Showtime2.

Both show us someone audiences will quickly love. "She has a great sense of humor," Betsy West, who made the documentary with Julie Cohen, said in a 2018 interview. "Julie and I love to see her laugh."

And Ginsburg liked men who made her laugh. One was her opposite on the court, but her friend elsewhere: "Justice (Antonin) Scalia was a very funny guy," West said. He and Ginsburg "both loved opera; she is very knowledgeable about opera. They had great respect for each other as equals."

The other was her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, upbeat and outgoing. West said she was impressed by "the depth of her romance with Marty. And the role he played as the supportive spouse."

They met when she was a 17-year-old Cornell freshman; they married when she graduated. She got into Harvard Law School and transferred to Columbia when he got a job with a New York law firm.

In On the Basis of Sex, they're played by Felicity Jones and Arnie Hammer. We see a remarkable stretch when he had cancer; she took care of him and their daughter and tied for No. 1 in her class.

Still, she couldn't get a job with a New York firm, so Ginsburg took alternate routes – co-authoring a book on Swedish law, teaching at Rutgers, then starting her rights project. On the Basis of Sex ends with her winning a breakthrough case.

There would be many more. "She modeled her approach after Thurgood Marshall" in civil rights, West said. "It was a step-by-step approach."

As her career soared, Martin stepped to the background. In the documentary, one person recalls their daughter saying that "her father did the cooking and her mother did the thinking."

Ginsburg argued six cases before the Supreme Court and won five. In the documentary, Gloria Steinem calls her "the closest thing to a superhero I know."

West agreed. "My life was transformed by Judge Ginsburg," she said. "Opportunities were opened up that weren't available to our mothers."

And yes, the world changed. When Ginsburg started Harvard Law School, she was one of nine women in a class of more than 500. When her granddaughter started, the class was 50 percent female.

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