It’s impossible to encapsulate the entirety of journalist, activist, and feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s life thus far in a single feature film, but director Julie Taymor tries her darndest with The Glorias. This true epic covers Steinem’s life from small child to the 2017 Women’s March, and while the film’s structure can feel unwieldy at times, Taymor taps into key insights that make this biopic worthwhile, literally allowing younger versions of Steinem to be in conversation with her older self as her evolution and education as a feminist progresses. The result is an uneven yet ultimately inspiring biopic that essentially chronicles a feminist origin story.
The Glorias is so-named because there’s a framing device in which the various versions of Steinem portrayed onscreen—small child, teen, twentysomething, and adult—are all riding a Greyhound bus together, and frequently engage in conversation. Where is the bus going? That’s unclear, but the device is surely a metaphor for the long road of Steinem’s life, as she broke down various barriers, only to find new, different barriers on the other side. It’s the journey, not the destination, you see? The younger sections of the film find Gloria bonding strongly with her father (Timothy Hutton), who’s something between a con artist and a carnival barker. He’s always upbeat and positive, but his unending thirst for travel and adventure strains his marriage, as he’s consistently trying to scrounge up enough gas money to get to the next stop. Again, the long-road-traveled metaphor is potently drawn.
While Steinem’s childhood no doubt had great importance on her life, in the film that connection is a bit less clear, and with a running time of nearly two and a half hours it’s this section that feels in need of the most trimming. The film really comes alive in its middle section, in which Alicia Vikander plays Steinem as a college graduate who’s earned a fellowship to study in India, and charts her course as a burgeoning journalist in New York City. The film covers her famous Playboy bunny expose and various profiles that make her a household name, but it’s a joy to watch as Steinem begins pushing for more personal assignments, like the Civil Rights marches and abortion.
Vikander shines here, and this is where Taymour’s framing device is truly brilliant. We watch as Vikander’s Steinem is interviewed on television, and after a sexist comment, Julianne Moore (who plays Steinem as an adult) takes her place with a strongly worded retort. Of course Steinem didn’t actually say this in response, and so the framing device allows us to examine Steinem’s growth as a feminist, and how toxic the male-driven environment truly was a she was simply a young up-and-comer. She’s able to see what her older, more confident self would have said in the moment while acknowledging her evolution of a feminist didn’t happen fully formed overnight.
When Moore takes over the film it zeroes in on Steinem’s public speaking and activist efforts, specifically her work to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. This is a significant story point in the movie, and it’s fascinating to watch how Steinem’s contact with various women from very different backgrounds continues to inform and shape her views on women’s rights. Specifically how not all women are on equal footing, and minority groups in particular have their own specific goals, hopes, and barriers to confront. Moore is solid as Steinem, really bringing to the surface how her confidence was a work-in-progress. Steinem never aspired to be a prominent public speaker, and is clearly uncomfortable with becoming the face of a movement.
The film’s biggest misstep comes during the ERA sequence, however. A significant chunk of the movie is devoted to the process of fighting for this legislation, but the fact that it didn’t pass is given a very brief mention and the film moves on. As someone inspired by Steinem’s activism, I would have liked to have seen how she personally dealt with this setback. Progress doesn’t happen overnight, and the fact that Steinem kept pushing after the ERA is a testament to her perseverance. Insight into her lifelong quest for equality could no doubt have been gleaned by more time focused on this particular roadblock of her life.
But despite the unwieldy running time and a bit too much of a sheen on Steinem’s life, The Glorias is ultimately a triumphant and insightful story about how a young girl became a feminist. Taymor wisely ties this biopic into the idea of feminism as a whole, drilling down how Steinem’s life was shaped by the various women she met on her journey. If you stick with it, it’s an ultimately hopeful and inspiring trip.
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