Be a lady.
Celebrate America as “the only country in the world” where you, child of a first-generation immigrant, could rise up on hard work and talent to a position of power and influence.
And celebrate marriage as the rock on which you built your successful career.
These are all hallmarks of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as we learn in the documentary RBG — one that may surprise viewers with the way it shows how these “conservative” attributes contributed to the liberal icon’s success. Not that it’s won her wide support on the right. The movie opens with hysterical salvos from talk-show hosts describing her as a threat to the nation’s well-being.
You have to laugh, when you see them contrasted with images of the diminutive, amiable Ginsburg, now 85, on view in RBG. The brisk and informative Betsy West and Julie Cohen documentary shows the life and career of a woman who grew up as a free-range kid in Brooklyn, jumping roof to roof, landing eventually on the United States Supreme Court, on the strength of a keen legal mind that applied itself to successful arguments that have advanced equal rights for women.
And talk-show hosts notwithstanding, her prodigious legal talent has won her the admiration of leading conservatives (Sen. Orrin Hatch is featured), particularly the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom Ginsburg had a close friendship.
Watching them on screen together, in moments alive with respect and affection, is to get a rare and happy glimpse of a potential future for a political discourse that might yet evolve if we all follow the advice of Ginsburg’s mother.
The advice was “be a lady,” but it might easily be rephrased as “be a gentleman.” It meant, Ginsburg says, do not let yourself be guided by “useless emotions” like anger. And she followed it assiduously — as one of nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard, she was denied access to the library on the basis of gender. She didn’t get angry — she made the Law Review.
That fact that she remained composed is astonishing given her personal biography. While at Harvard Law, she tended to her newborn, and to her husband Marty, stricken with cancer that required frequent radiation therapy.
Their mutual devotion became a half-century love affair (“By far the most important thing that ever happened to me,” she says) that forms the emotional core of the film, which includes ample footage of the outgoing Mr. Ginsburg, a charming, joke-telling toastmaster and perfect counterpoint to his phlegmatic wife. (It actually suggests why she became close with the wisecracking, outgoing Scalia after her husband died).
Marty was a successful tax attorney in New York who interrupted his career to follow his wife to Washington, after it became clear she was a rising legal star, probably ticketed for the high court, where she was nominated by Bill Clinton and confirmed in 1993.
Her stature in legal circles derived from the groundbreaking arguments she made on behalf of women — decrying wage and benefit discrimination in the corporate world and the military, or cleverly advocating for widowers denied spousal benefits by Social Security administrators.
The courts responded to the core of her argument. As she says here, “gender-based discrimination harms everyone.”
Her arguments as an ACLU Women’s Rights Project attorney before the Supreme Court (where she went five-for-six) form the film’s most legally substantial passages. Later, it detours into Ginsburg’s adoption as a pop-culture fixture, and the film displays some of the wide-eyed adoration of RBG’s ardent fans.
At one point, for instance, a journalist notes that when she interviewed with Clinton, “he fell for her.”
First of all, ooh.
Second of all, judging by the movie’s breathless final section, he’s not the only one.
- Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen. Featuring Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem. Distributed by Magnolia.
- Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.
- Parents guide: PG
- Playing at: Ritz Five, Bryn Mawr Film Institute