This story contains minor spoilers about the ending of Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic “On the Basis of Sex” (in theaters now).
“On the Basis of Sex” ends much like it begins.
At the start of the period drama (now in theaters), a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg(Felicity Jones) – eye-catching in a cornflower-blue blazer and skirt and eager to take on the patriarchy – wades through a sea of gray-suited men on her first day at Harvard Law School in 1956.
It’s a striking image that underscores Ginsburg’s singularity as a woman in a male-dominated field and one which director Mimi Leder returns to in the film’s final moments. After winning her first gender-discrimination case in federal court, Ginsburg confidently ascends the steps of the Supreme Court in the mid-1970s: alone this time and dressed in a dazzling sapphire-blue coat and dress, as audio of the real-life justice plays over the scene.
The camera then pans from behind a pillar to reveal the real Ginsburg, now 85, slowly walking up those same steps in a similarly colored ensemble, before the screen fades to black.
The original ending of “Basis” was far more bittersweet, as Ginsburg (Jones) listened to lawyer Allen Derr (Joe Cobden) read a persuasive brief she wrote, but never got to argue in court. Sensing her disappointment, Ginsburg’s husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), assured her, “Those are your words.”
“I felt it was a real downer of a scene, after we just saw her triumph and win this landmark case against all odds,” Leder says.
So while scouting locations at Washington landmarks, she came up with the idea for a more hopeful ending, having the character “ascend the steps toward her future and morph into the real RBG,” Leder says.
The filmmaker wrote Ginsburg a letter asking if she’d be interested, and given the justice’s close involvement with the movie (her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, wrote it), the answer was an immediate “yes.”
Ginsburg took a rare couple of hours off from work to shoot the scene on the last day of production, which was “very emotional,” Jones says. “Mimi and I were clasping each other and slightly tearful, just watching this woman and understanding intimately what it had taken for her to get in the position she’s in. Seeing her take those steps with such determination was kind of a (testament to) how extraordinary she is.”
For costume designer Isis Mussenden, “it was one of those moments where you’re like, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this,’ ” she says. Ginsburg “loved her scarf and her mother’s pin, which we had replicated. I got to go to her house (to fit her), and on the day, I got to be in the (Supreme Court) chambers with her to change her into her costume, just the two of us. All I wanted to do was say, ‘Thank you.’ “