In the era of Trump, a biopic about a woman, if not the woman, at the forefront of the women’s movement seems timely. If we are to learn from our history, what better way than through the lens of those who experienced its beginnings and could articulate its reason for being? While Julie Taymor seeks to apply this logic to the life of Gloria Steinem and the women’s movement, it fails for the same reasons none of us can quote from the 1977’s National Women’s Conference official report “The Spirit of Houston:” a lack of clarity and a busy narrative.
Taking on the monumental task of bringing Steinem’s life to the screen was never going to be an easy feat. Her globe-trotting, decade-spanning influence on society could fill an entire season or more with visits to important moments in both the civil rights and women’s movement. As it stands, Taymor’s film is at best a highlight reel that never spends long enough in one moment or with one person to get a true feel for who Steinem was during these momentous periods in American history. It is this lack of emotional connection to its subject that makes the nearly two and a half hour long biopic feel like a creative exercise that never quite finds its legs for all its smarts.
The saving grace of the film is its cast of actresses playing Gloria through various stages in life, and supporting appearances from faces we know bringing names we’ve heard to life. Seeing Alicia Vikander’s younger Steinem interact with Janelle Monae’s Dorothy Pitman Hughes(co-founder of “Ms.” and the prominent child-welfare advocate) or Julianne Moore’s older Steinem supporting Bette Midler’s Bella Abzug(colorful NY Congresswoman on gay rights, government secrecy, and opposition to the Vietnam War) provides us with more narrative detail than any of the detours into Steinem’s personal life with her parents. These colorful figures fill the screen, and even the gritted, flat impersonation of Steinem’s Ohio accent doesn’t detract from the powerful portrayal of these figures, matched only by the intensity of the accompanying archival footage.
Taymor, coming from a theatre background, chooses to employ some of the more creative elements of stage-craft here to muddying success. The framing device of the Glorias traveling on a bus together, sharing advice and commiserating, serves well enough on its own to drive us through Gloria’s life. It is the creative interludes, such as the one taking clear inspiration from the Wizard of Oz and Macbeth, that pull the viewer from interesting places in Steinem’s personal development to a cartoonish rendering of her internal conflict. Had these been left on the cutting room floor, the film would have had injected space to breathe into the films runtime and perhaps given us more of an opportunity to see Steinem making the active decisions she needed to make to grow into the leader we now know.
“The Glorias” provides a busy glimpse into the life of an American icon that doesn’t provide a real and true bridge to its subject for the viewer. What the film has in acting strengths and a riveting subject to explore, it sacrifices to creative decisions and a rush to the greatest hits that never quite fleshes out the spirit of Gloria Steinem. No doubt, even with these issues, it will find its place in the library of must-see feminist cinema and provide some insight for future viewers about the need for the kind of intersectional activism Steinem championed.
“The Glorias” is available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.