Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Ready for Her Close-up

‘People ask me, don’t you feel uncomfortable, being with a name like Notorious B.I.G.’

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Jason Dick
Posted May 3, 2018 at 9:00am

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Notorious Documentary

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 21: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrives for the luncheon in Statuary Hall during President Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony on Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrives for the luncheon in Statuary Hall during President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony on Jan. 21, 2013. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“RBG,” the documentary about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, opens in theaters Friday. 

If the thought of a nonfiction film about a quiet, 5-foot-1-inch constitutional scholar seems like it has the potential to be dry, don’t worry. Even before Ginsburg became only the second woman to serve on the high court, her place in American history was secure as an advocate for striking down gender discrimination, a rich topic filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen explore.

Ginsberg Film Shines Light on Justice’s Pop Culture Status, Workout Routine

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There is also priceless footage of her workout routine, a very meta scene of her watching Kate McKinnon portray her on “Saturday Night Live,” revealing interviews with her family, and explanations of her famous friendship with her late conservative colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, as well as her own reflections, and delight, about becoming a pop culture meme. 

Asked about the “Notorious RBG” iconography that links her to Biggie Smalls, the late hip-hop artist also known as “The Notorious B.I.G.,” Ginsburg replies dryly: “People ask me, don’t you feel uncomfortable, being with a name like Notorious B.I.G.? Why should I feel uncomfortable? We have a lot in common,” she said, noting they are both Brooklyn born and bred.

It’s not the only post-modern moment West and Cohen experienced as they made their movie. They discussed what it was like to put the project together, as well as watch Ginsburg’s reaction to it at the Sundance Film Festival, in the latest Political Theater Podcast.

Force of Nature

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., right, shows a view of the Supreme Court from her Capitol office to Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, left, Sonia Sotomayor, in white, and Elena Kagan before a reception, March 18, 2015. The Justices were in the Capitol to be honored at Pelosi's annual Women’s History Month reception in Statuary Hall. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., right, shows a view of the Supreme Court from her Capitol office to, from left, Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan before a reception on March 18, 2015. The justices were in the Capitol to be honored at Pelosi’s annual Women’s History Month reception in Statuary Hall. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The documentary, and an upcoming biopic by Mimi Leder, “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer as her husband Marty, may help cement the justice’s icon status. 

In Washington, she’s been part of the social fabric for decades, having first argued before the Supreme Court in the 1970s and then been appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. President Bill Clinton in 1993 appointed her to the high court, where she’s been ever since, in between speaking to students, attending the opera, and traveling the world with family and friends.

Her status as show-stopper was put on display during the 2016 State of the Union, as the justices made their way through Statuary Hall. 

It was quiet as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer passed through. That changed when Ginsburg appeared.

“There she is!” someone from the crowd said as she entered the hall, followed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  

This happened to be the year after another head-turning, or head-bobbing, moment at the president’s annual joint address to Congress.

In 2015, she nodded off, admitting later on that she’d had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner. In “RBG,” she expands on that moment, saying the speeches can be a little dull, and the justices, unlike members of Congress, don’t clap and stand up and down during the speech, which can help one stay awake.

What else? For a film just a little over 90 minutes, there’s a lot of history covered, both personal and public, including that kerfuffle between her and President Donald Trump during the campaign

“She is a performer,” longtime Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg of NPR says in the film. Yep. 

The Kicker

Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg answering reporter's questions during courtesy call to Senator Joe Biden's office. She's standing with Sens. Biden and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. June 15, 1993 (Photo by CQ Roll Call)
Ginsburg, flanked by Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., left, and Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., during a courtesy call on June 15, 1993, to Biden’s office after her nomination to the Supreme Court. (CQ Roll Call file photo)