Supreme icon ‘Notorius RBG’ holds court in documentary: A look at the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I ask no favors for my sex. … All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.
—Sarah Moore Grimké, activist for women’s suffrage, 1837
There is this ever-so-intimate scene during “RBG,” the CNN Documentaries-produced Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic screening in the Documentary Premieres category at the Sundance Film Festival later this month that so perfectly and preciously captures the U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice in an unguarded moment.
The “Notorious RBG,” as the Supreme Court Justice and emerging rock star has come to be known in recent pop-culture vernacular, is seen viewing a clip of an over-the-top Saturday Night Live skit (Is there any other kind?). And wouldn’t you know it? The SNL writers have positioned her smack dab in the center of their crosshairs and are totally having their way.
On screen, there is a quite intriguing war going on inside the cranial lobes of the jurist in question. Will the Justice be able to maintain self-control or will decorum succumb to the spontaneous emergence of a Notorious RBG’s uncontrollable howling fit of laughter.?
RBG is fighting it, no doubt about that. She would hope to maintain a sense of decorum but not unlike a series of geologic tremors building one-upon-the-other deep underground, the earthquake-like pressures from her barely-silent giggles also gain in magnitude. Oh, if only she didn’t “get it” or appreciated the ironies a bit less, she could keep it together.
This inner joy, this exuberance if you will, is contagious by the way. And it’s not just airborne, no media escapes its reach. All you would need is to have listened-in to a recent telephone conversation between filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West and The Park Record on the making of their most excellent documentary film.
Holding-it-together became optional. Their voices tumbled one upon the other. It was all about specific “film appreciation” and kept veering from the anecdotal to the ecstatic.
Those same voices, most often non-attributable, had not shed the original excitement of their quite extraordinary cinematic mission: to film a sitting Supreme court Justice the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in real time during “her moment” as they put it. In so many ways, RBG had “arrived.”
Pitching Ms. Ginsburg on doing the film in general, with archival footage from both her early private life, which led from her studies at Colgate, Harvard and Columbia to her pre-Supreme Court professional life which would completely change the legal landscape upon which the females of the species journeyed was one thing.
But actually having a camera intrude into her non-professional space during current times was something else entirely. “The process proved complicated. A documentary on a sitting justice was quite unique.” In the end they received a go-ahead couched in caution. “Let’s just say we received if not a green light, a yellow light.” RBG had proved willing to give it a try.
With both filmmakers having interviewed her previously for their own projects, familiarity at least had somewhat of a seat at the table and, if nothing else, that gave them entrée. The process began by conducting on-camera interviews with family and friends.
Then came trying to keep up with her as she waltzed through the whirlwind courtship she had going with her ‘80s. The “Lindy Hop” probably would be more apt.
Following an itinerary as idiosyncratic as hers with a film crew in tow is mind-boggling. Just the set-ups for her gym workouts must have been a sight to see.
Personal fitness is in evidence almost throughout. She has hired law clerks through 2020. Plus those safari elephant rides with her dear and close friend, the late conservative Justice Anthony Scalia. They never could keep a straight face when in each other’s company.
There is an overriding vibe to “RBG” that speaks to the times, not the least of which is the all-female entourage that assembled the film, top to bottom.
See this film at the Festival. It’s always the way to go and the Q&A should be spectacular. No matter how much you think you know about this iconic woman, you’ll leave the theater much more illuminated.
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