This review is part of our Sundance 2020 coverage.
The Pitch: Before she became one of the most prominent leaders of the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem had a long, hard road to becoming the figure we all recognize. First, she was a child (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) in 1940s Ohio, idolizing her moon-eyed huckster of a father (Timothy Hutton). Then she was a teenager (Lulu Wilson), seeing how the patriarchal limits on women’s ambition drove her own mother (Enid Graham) into a spiral of anxiety and depression. From there, she went to work: first, as a young adult (Alicia Vikander) navigating the male-dominated world of 1960s New York journalism, and then pivoting into her now-famous role as a firebrand activist (Julianne Moore), fighting for women’s rights within the intersection of race, class, and nationality.
Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History: Adapting Steinem’s 2015 memoir My Life on the Road, Julie Taymor and co-writer (and acclaimed playwright) Sarah Ruhl take an all-encompassing, yet disappointingly shallow and conventional approach to the figure’s life. Taymor’s no stranger to artful biopics about famous feminist figures — look no further than Frida for one of the best examples of the form — but for its unconventional structure and occasional flights of fancy, The Glorias all too often reads as a bog-standard biopic more interested in recounting history than telling a story.
At nearly two and a half hours, Taymor and Ruhl have plenty of time to fit the broad strokes of Steinem’s life into the confines of a biopic, especially one that shifts between four different versions of Steinem who often exist in conversation with one another. In classic Taymor fashion, that conversation is often literal, the film transporting all four Glorias in a Greyhound bus through the narrative as they ask each other about things they’ve done, regrets they’ll have in the future, etc. But the acts charting Steinem’s childhood don’t make us understand her life and motivations with the same oomph as its latter half; one wonders what details they could have unearthed had they just switched between Vikander and Moore.
Turn Off the Dark: But apart from these moments, there’s a lot to The Glorias that feels like it could have been directed by any journeyman. Every so often, the director will remember that she’s Julie Goddamn Taymor, and toss in some visual flights of fancy to anthropomorphize certain emotional moments. A patronizing male talk show host is swept up in a tornado Wizard of Oz-style, and the eight-armed goddess Kali juggling household tasks brings Ms. Magazine’s inaugural cover to life. But by the time these moments arrive, it feels like too little, too late — as if Taymor recognized that the proceedings, however handsomely performed, felt anemic, and needed to sprinkle in some of her signature presentationalism to compensate.
It doesn’t help, too, that the overstuffed nature of the film leaves characters little room to be people, existing mostly to be mouthpieces for their politics or cardboard cut-out villains. Characters will pop up, practically turn to the camera, and spout statistics about the lack of representation in the Civil Rights Movement, or pinpoint exactly how they’ll help Gloria on her journey for equality. There are exceptions, of course: Lorraine Toussaint’s grippingly charismatic turn as activist lawyer Flo Kennedy, for instance, or Bette Midler’s sparkling verve as New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug. Most everyone else just feels like a mouthpiece, even one or two of the Glorias themselves.
Mad Men: Since Steinem’s life is so inextricably tied to the feminist movement, it stands to reason that The Glorias would end up becoming more of a biopic of the movement itself than a deep dive into what moves her. And to its credit, it’s when Vikander and Moore take over in the second half, and we see her begin the long, grinding work to spearhead the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, that The Glorias starts to find its rhythm.
Whether Steinem’s learning how to speak publicly with the help of Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe) or working on fostering intersectionality between various minority women’s groups, Taymor and editor Sabine Hoffman infuse these scenes with a rousing momentum that’s enough to get you picking up a sign and marching right alongside them.
And all of this culminates in the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment at the 1977 National Women’s Conference, a soul-stirring culmination of Steinem’s work (alongside an array of female leaders from virtually every race and nationality) made melancholy by the realization that, even today, the ERA still isn’t adopted across all 50 states.
The Verdict: As a well-acted, middlebrow history lesson of the feminist movement, there’s a lot to admire in the energy and passion of The Glorias. But it bogs itself down in trying to cover every single aspect of Steinem’s life; when your protagonist has lived 80 years of history-making events, it’s hard to give all of that justice, even in two and a half hours. And it’s frustrating to see such a singular talent in Taymor stifle her sense of presentationalism, such that her few moments of theatrical dazzle jar rather than delight. Cut out the two younger Glorias, flesh out the people around her, and let Taymor off the leash, and you’d have something a lot more admirable on your hands.