Arts & Culture

Alum’s ‘RBG’ nominated for Oscar

Film, co-directed by Betsy West ‘73, documents life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Arts and Culture Editor
Thursday, February 21, 2019

The documentary “RBG” recounts the life and legal career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as her political and cultural legacy. Ginsburg has left an indelible mark on women’s rights in America.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s unshakable grit and present-day persona imbue the opening minutes of Oscar-nominated documentary “RBG.”

Donning a navy-blue sweatshirt that reads “Super Diva!” the octogenarian Supreme Court Justice lifts weights, lunges and holds a plank for longer than thirty seconds. The scene begins a montage of clips featuring millennials approaching Ginsburg for autographs and crowds applauding her entrance to various events. Interspersed are scenes of Kate McKinnon playing a feisty, energetic Ginsburg on “Saturday Night Live,” Gloria Steinem calling her “the closest thing to a superhero I know” and both newscasters and childhood friends referencing her now-famed nickname, “the Notorious RBG.” The sequence ends with former Vice President Joe Biden welcoming a younger Ginsburg to her Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1993.

“RBG,” directed by Betsy West ’73 P’17 and Julie Cohen, is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 91st Academy Awards. The first nomination for West and Cohen, both would receive the award if the film wins this Sunday. The film also received a nomination for Best Original Song for 10-time nominee Diane Warren’s “I’ll Fight.”

Both West and Cohen had interviewed Justice Ginsburg previously — West for her PBS series “Makers: Women Who Make America” and Cohen for her documentary “The Sturgeon Queens” — when they hatched the idea to put Ginsburg’s story on the big screen in 2015. The directors intended to follow “the arc of her story as a woman who faced discrimination herself and found a way to tackle that not just on behalf of herself, but on behalf of all of us,” West said. The film also traces the Justice’s rise to “icon” status, West added.

“We had learned then about her extraordinary story — both the challenges she faced as a brilliant young lawyer, and how she took on the centuries of discrimination as a litigator in the Supreme Court and changed the world for American women,” West said. The directors realized that many of Ginsburg’s most fervent fans were unaware of her personal history. “Beyond the memes and the t-shirts and the tattoos, there is one extraordinary person whose story is inspiring,” West continued.

Ginsburg’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing reappears throughout the film, a thread stitching her young life as a law student, professor and lawyer to her present-day seat on the Court. Following Biden’s introduction in the film, she begins: “I am a Brooklynite, born and bred, a first-generation American on my father’s side, barely second generation on my mother’s. What has become of me could happen only in America.”

West emphasized the filmmakers’ intent to tell Ginsburg’s story in its entirety, which required weaving the past and the present in an intricate and detailed narrative. “We’re dealing with a woman who is vitally important to our country right now,” West said. “She is an … 85-year-old jurist on the Supreme Court who is very active and very important, and we didn’t want to save all of that for the end of the film.” Interviews with Ginsburg’s childhood friends, colleagues, admirers and the plaintiffs she represented  punctuate deeper dives into the cases she brought to the Supreme Court, visits to the opera and her famous gym sessions.

In an interview early in the documentary, childhood friend Ann Kittner notes that as a young woman, Ginsburg’s mannerisms produced “this kind of quiet magnetism.” That magnetism persists today — in fact, it’s the national interest in Ginsburg that West and Cohen encapsulate within their telling of her story.

“It is pretty extraordinary to see her now in her 80s, having this … superhero status on the internet,” West said. “She didn’t originate the ‘Notorious RBG’ or contribute to it beyond just the inspiration that her words gave to people who were writing about her. As an educator throughout her life, she sees it as a way of … spreading her message.”

The film expands upon Ginsburg’s relationship with her late husband, New York tax lawyer Marty Ginsburg — what West called Ginsburg’s “amazing, feminist love story.” When Marty was diagnosed with cancer while they both attended Harvard Law School, Ginsburg collected notes from his peers and went to his classes herself to ensure his success. She took care of their two children as he climbed the legal ladder — once the women’s movement gained traction and Ginsburg’s career advanced, Marty became the primary caregiver. In the film, the Ginsburg children note how their father’s humor tempered their mother’s serious nature. At one point, Marty jokes in front of a crowd: “As a general rule, my wife does not give me any advice about cooking and I do not give her any advice about the law. This seems to work quite well on both sides.”

When former President Bill Clinton began his search for a Supreme Court justice, Marty campaigned for his wife. Contacting his connections spanning the legal, academic and business fields, he was adamant that Ginsburg be fairly considered. West noted that the importance of telling the Ginsburgs’ love story was something she and Cohen discovered throughout their interview process. “She found a partner, who in the 1950s and 1960s not only recognized how brilliant she was, but supported her when her work began to take on so much significance,” West said. “That story evolved as we were doing the film.”

West’s husband, Oren Jacoby ’77 P’17, is also an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and founder of Storyville Films, one of the production companies behind “RBG.” Jacoby’s film “Sister Rose’s Passion” was nominated for Best Documentary Short at the 2005 awards.

Although West and Jacoby studied at Brown before the creation of the Modern Culture and Media concentration, neither was deterred from studying filmmaking and creative approaches to narrative. “I think Brown had a huge impact on me that I probably didn’t recognize at the time,” West said, detailing how influences like former professor and inaugural chair of the MCM department, Robert Scholes, still affect her work. West noted that one of her first conversations with Jacoby was about Scholes’ influence. His ideas “had an enormous effect on my later career, and maybe even more now that I’m doing more documentaries.”

West previously worked for ABC, where she produced “Nightline” and co-created and produced “Turning Point.” Later, West served as senior vice president at CBS News, overseeing “60 Minutes” and “48 hours,” and was the executive in charge of “9/11,” which won a Primetime Emmy Award. West has since made the transition to documentary — working on projects such as the “Makers” series and “RBG.”

“As a director of a documentary film you really are writing the film and determining the style and the voice of everything in the film,” Jacoby said. “You have amazing autonomy to sort of make a personal statement.” At the same time, documentary filmmakers are tasked with representing reality while also inserting their vision.

Jacoby emphasized how proud he is of West and Cohen for making a documentary “that can be appreciated by people from so many different backgrounds and ages.”

“Overall, it’s been very gratifying,” West said. “The fact that all generations and all genders have responded to the film has just been very rewarding.”

On the morning that the Oscar nominations were released, Jacoby and Paul Barrett, Cohen’s husband, cooked breakfast for their wives, who gathered in front of the television to watch the announcement. In a video posted on Twitter, West and Cohen react to the Oscar nomination — waiting with palpable tension until “RBG” is announced fifth out of the five nominees. “When they said ‘RBG,’ we kind of went crazy,” West reflected. “I think at that point we weren’t expecting it.”

After the nomination, the New York Times reported that West and Cohen called Ginsburg at her Watergate Apartment to notify her of their nomination. “She was very happy,” West told the Times.

Since working with Ginsburg, West has not only adjusted her own workout routine to emulate Ginsburg’s, but hopes to learn from her patience and her approach to problem solving. “I see Justice Ginsburg as someone who did face extraordinary challenges, and (approached) them in an extremely strategic way,” she said, something she hopes viewers take away from the film. “It’s been heartening that ‘RBG’ has touched a nerve in the country.”

“RBG” is nominated alongside “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” directed by RaMell Ross, assistant professor of visual art, as well as “Free Solo,” “Minding the Gap” and “Of Fathers and Sons.” The Oscars will air Sunday, Feb. 24.

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