THE GLORIAS Ĺ
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 FeigenDirected by Julie Taymor / Written by Steinem and Sarah Ruhl, based on the book by Gloria Steinem
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
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.
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?