May 21, 2019

‘RBG’ Scores Nods for Documentary and Original Song

Julie Cohen (from left), Diane Warren and Betsy West. Photo courtesy of Betsy West

When directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West watched the Academy Awards nomination announcements on Jan. 22, they were surprised and thrilled to hear that their Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, “RBG,” was nominated for best documentary feature.

“I was very nervous going into the nominations and when we heard that we were nominated, it felt joyful,” Cohen told the Journal. “Now we can relax and begin to enjoy this amazing experience. It’s a very exciting thing when you’re in the great position to have a film that a lot of people connect with.”

Shortly thereafter, the filmmakers had the “great honor” of sharing the news with the Supreme Court justice herself, as Ginsburg was at home recovering from her recent lung surgery. “The biggest thrill of that conversation was just hearing how good she sounded. She sounded really peppy,” Cohen said. “She was really enthusiastic about the film being nominated. She said she felt that it was eminently well-deserved.”

Now streaming on Hulu, “RBG” was both a critical and box-office success. 

“I think there’s a lot in Justice Ginsburg’s story to connect with,” Cohen said. “First of all, she’s become a pop culture icon to a lot of young people. But also, there’s this successful, long-waged battle that she fought starting in the 1970s to secure equal rights for
women under the law and it’s very, very resonant today.”

The director believes Ginsburg’s multigenerational popular appeal and the film’s lighthearted humor have a lot to do with the success of “RBG.” “We didn’t want it to
feel like a history lesson,” Cohen said. “I’m a big fan of comedy in all movies, including serious movies and documentaries.”

Win or lose on Oscar night, “being nominated will have a very big impact and really help us get more attention for the kind of projects we want to do,” Cohen said. “It just increases the visibility of a film that was actually quite visible for a documentary, so that’s great. I feel like the success, the attention and acclaim for ‘RBG,’ both the woman and our film, certainly gives a boost to projects that Betsy [West] and I want to make together, particularly projects that focus on women. We’re working on two, but we’re not disclosing who they are right now.”

Cohen has seen “On the Basis of Sex,” the scripted feature about Ginburg’s early career, and said she thought it was “terrific. It told a slice of Justice Ginsburg’s story that people aren’t familiar with. It happened to be a case that we didn’t include in our film because there isn’t footage of it. Not only is it the beginning of her work on gender discrimination, but it also shows the deep connection between her life’s work and her husband, Marty.”

While she believes that Ginsburg “doesn’t need films to make her more famous,” Cohen thinks that both movies benefited from widespread public interest in Ginbsurg and may benefit each other. “We heard from a number of people that had seen the documentary and then felt very eager to see the feature film,” Cohen said. “Conversely, people who had seen the film in theaters are now saying they wanted to watch the documentary because they wanted to see her in the flesh, telling her own story.”

“RBG” also is nominated in the best original song category for “I’ll Fight,” written by Diane Warren and sung by Jennifer Hudson. “RBG” score composer Miriam Cutler and executive music producer Bonnie Greenberg brought Warren on board. 

“Diane captured the spirit and the essence of the film and Justice Ginsburg without making [the song] super specific,” Cohen said. “In fact, Jennifer Hudson said that when she recorded it, she was thinking about all kinds of fights and battles in her own life. Because it’s in the first person, while it applies very neatly to Justice Ginsburg’s story, it’s universal.”

Warren, who is nominated for her 10th Oscar this year, considers “I’ll Fight” to be the third song in a defiant trilogy, after “Til It Happens to You,” sung by Lady Gaga and nominated in 2016 for the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” and “Stand Up for Something,” sung by Andra Day and nominated last year for the film “Marshall.” “Justice Ginsburg has fought for all of us. What better lyric to write than ‘I’ll fight’?” she said, calling Hudson “the perfect vocal avatar.”

Warren told the Journal she’s glad the academy dropped its proposal to limit the best song performances to two. “I figured it would work itself out, and it did,” she said.

Currently, Warren is working on music projects with singers Elle King and Fifth Harmony’s Ally Brooke. And she’s already thinking about possibilities for next year’s Oscar nominations. “This Is Us” actress Chrissy Metz recorded one of Warren’s songs for an upcoming movie called “Breakthrough,” and another song, “Call the Shots,” is on the soundtrack of the new release “Miss Bala.” 

Warren, who once again had friends over for a “sleepless sleepover” party to wait for the nomination announcements, said “it doesn’t get less exciting” to hear her name. 

“I don’t ever take it for granted,” she said. “The nomination is a win. When you think that there were over 90 songs from movies this year, five songs get chosen and mine was one of them — that was a win in itself. It’s always fun to be in the game.”