A film review by Craig J. Koban October 14, 2020

THE GLORIAS jjj
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2020, R, 139 mins.

Julianne Moore as Gloria Steinem  /  Lulu Wilson as Young Gloria Steinem  /  Alicia Vikander as Young Gloria Steinem  /  Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Young Gloria Steinem  /  Bette Midler as Bella Abzug  /  Janelle MonŠe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes  /  Timothy Hutton as Leo Steinem  /  Lorraine Toussaint as Flo Kennedy  /  Allie McCulloch as Brenda Feigen

Directed by Julie Taymor  /  Written by Steinem and Sarah Ruhl, based on the book by Gloria Steinem

ORIGINAL FILM

Director Julie Taymor's THE GLORIAS - now playing on Amazon Prime - is a thoroughly involving and superbly acted biopic that utilizes an appropriately unconventional and avant garde stylistic approach to cover multiple decades in the life of iconic feminist leader Gloria Steinem.  

Based upon her own book MY LIFE ON THE ROAD, the film honors Steinem's tireless work in her field as an highly influential American activist, but it also wisely understands that such a seismic historical figure that championed equal rights and audaciously shunned conservative status quos requires an equally bold creative approach.  In due turn, THE GLORIAS uses multiple Oscar winning actress to portray this trend setting figure at various stages of her life (and sometimes, Taymor even has multiple Glorias from multiple time periods interacting with each other at the same time on screen).  This is anything but an obligatory and linear minded biopic, which is why it works so resoundingly well.  Steinem was not a conformist at all, so it's fitting that this film about her shouldn't be either. 

The best manner to describe THE GLORIAS is that it's more of a collage of Steinem's eight decades on the planet as  opposed to a formulaic dramatization of it that goes predictably from a beginning to a middle and then to an end.  Taymor and her co-screenwriter Sarah Ruhl opt for a fractured approach to the narrative and freely jump back and forth in time, all of which covers Steinem's childhood in Toledo, Ohio that then traverses into her globe trekking journeys while in her 20s that, in turn, gives way to her writing and journalistic career that allowed her to become an integral figure in the women's lib movement of the 60s and 70s.  We meet Gloria as a child early on in the film (portrayed by Ryan Kira Armstrong), who experienced the multiple sides of America while constantly traveling around at her father's (Timothy Hutton) insistence.  These early sequences are crucial in framing Steinem as an inquisitive soul that had her interest spark in the cultures of the world, which would frame the woman she would eventually become. 

From here, the film flashes forward a bit to Steinem as a young adult (Lulu Wilson), who's now fatherless and must fend for herself while trying to look after her mentally ailing mother (Ruth Enid Graham).  As adolescence gives way to adulthood, we then hook up with the twentysomething activist-to-be (Alicia Vikander) as she travels through India, studying the teachings of Gandhi, and exposing herself to the hellishly inequitable treatment of women in that country, which would act as a strong catalyst for her becoming a writer that cultivated her as an empowered voice for women everywhere that feel marginalized.  When she returns home she desperately tries to get her foot in the journalistic door, but is constantly stymied by the rampant sexism of the profession (which unfortunately was an all-boys club back then).  Beyond having editors making sexual advances on her or other male colleagues that simply write off her worthy inclusion in the office, Steinem does manage to break through on pure talent and gumption, and early article successes leads to an infamous 1963 article for Show Magazine entitled "A Bunny's Tale" that detailed her involvement her going undercover while working for Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club.   

 

 

That article went out of its way to point out the loathsome working conditions that Playboy bunnies experienced, which put Steinem within the crosshairs of many under Hugh Hefner's watch that wanted to end her career after such a damning expose.  She still managed to get gigs at various publications, but her desire to cover woman's rights issues was met with great resistance, which built towards her starting her own liberal minded magazine in MS., and during these stages of the older and wiser woman's life (now played by Julianne Moore) we grow to see her rapid ascent as a significantly powerful voice and force in feminists rights.  She's given an even larger platform for her reform efforts with her multiple TV and protest rally appearances.  These would enshrined the fully self actualized Steinem that we're all familiar with today.  As the film migrates to the present and shows us Steinem in her 80s we gain an immediate sense of the rich and varied canvas that was this woman's existence and career, and covering such a vast period in any film (theatrically released of not) is a daunting challenge, but Taymor is not one to shy away from such an intimidating artistic prospect. 

I haven't spoke much about the aggressively non-traditional and frankly ambitious handling of this material.  Obviously, there have been countless biopics of historical figures that have featured many actors of different age groups playing the person in question, and that's certainly the case with THE GLORIAS.  However, Taymor manages to find a way to joyously transcend our very expectations of this well worn genre by having the various Glorias here intersect with one another, oftentimes with one reflecting to the other about aspects of her life that she either revered or regretted.  The visual motif of the picture is that of a road tripping bus, which not only reiterates Steinem's large personal history with travel, but it also allows for Taymor to use it as a spiritual location for all of the Glorias at different ages to actually sit down and talk about the past, present, and future.  It's a deceptively simple and economical, but undeniably brilliant way of homogenizing Steinem's story, not to mention that it shows how her perception of the times that she lived in throughout the decades changed and evolved.  One quietly powerful moment has young Vikander played Steinem lamenting to her older Moore played Steinem that she didn't do or say enough early on in her career to make a difference in women's rights.  Of course, older people have the freedom of experience and hindsight, which leads to Moore's Steinem telling her younger greenhorn self that, no worries, she'll have many opportunities later on to make a sizeable dent. 

Taymor also fills her film with great, playful visual flourishes as well, as is the case in one telling sequence that has the elder Steinem fending off the lecherous advances of a TV interviewer, which then culminates in glorious fantasy montage of swirling images that echoes THE WIZARD OF OZ and has all of the Glorias angrily shaking their finger wags of shame at this male stooge.  Moments like this are broad, yes, but they help to frame the damning hardships that Steinem (and women in general) have had to face in a male dominated media world.  The overall production design is stellar as well, with Rodrigo Prieto's stunningly textured cinematography giving all of the aforementioned time periods their own aura (complimenting all of this is the stunning period costume design by Sandy Powell, which highlights what a fashion standout Steinem was as well).  It's also a wise move to frame the bus sequences in black and white and with sprinkles of color added in here and there.  It gives THE GLORIAS a dreamlike quality of having past and present magically coalesce with one another. 

The actresses front and center here have to carry much of the film's heavy lifting as well, and I don't think THE GLORIAS could have been better cast than it was, with the always luminous and versatile Vikander in particular standing out as the younger Steinem, who's filled with so much passionate drive that frequently collides with the subjugating norms of her era.  I also liked Ryan Kiera Armstrong's work as the even young Steinem that hero worshipped her dear old dad and his zest for trekking through the heartland of America.  Lulu Wilson is also equally strong playing the teenage Steinem that's task with essentially raising herself while dealing with the arduous demands of a mentally ill and unstable mother at home.  Then there's Moore's aging Steinem, just as important as the others before her, who has to evoke a woman that has had decades of experience under her belt and uses that to build up her very public image as a confident and cunning spokesperson and leader that has so many looking up to her for inspiration.  THE GLORIAS simply represents an embarrassment of performance riches. 

Even I'll concede, though, that the long running time sometimes works for and against Taymor's best efforts.  Clearly, it would be impossible and inappropriate for a short film to do proper justice to Steinem's life and work, but even at two and a half hours I was somewhat disappointed that more time wasn't spent on other behind-the-scenes aspects of her times, like, for example, her marriage to entrepreneur David Bale (father to, yes, Christian Bale himself), and how that further moulded her.  We get a lot of backstory about Steinem's childhood and teenage years as well as a good chunk focusing on her early professional success, but we don't get much else about her outside of her tireless activist work in the latter stages of her life.  Minor critical gripes aside, I was greatly taken in with THE GLORIAS as an enriching and intoxicating multi-decade portal into the forces that gave way to one of the 20th Century's most potently unstoppable feminist voices, and it's acted and directed with unwavering flair and passion.  And its delectably offbeat shared road trip into the past framing device just works.  Nothing Steinem did in life followed a simple and easily navigated straight lined path to recognition and achievement in her field, so THE GLORIAS' eccentric handling of her journey is most definitely a fitting one.  And how wonderful is it to see a film about a legendary woman that's written and directed by a woman and starring women that are all at the top of their respective games?

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