Gloria Steinem lived a big, unconventional life, in an era that’s not so far in the past, yet in many ways is light ages distant from today. Presenting both Steinem’s life and times in a single film thus presents particular challenges, but Julie Taymor and Sarah Ruhl are more than up to the challenge in The Glorias, an unconventional film that is part traditional biopic and part wild experiment, ticking off key events of Steinem’s life (even the adoption of her famous aviator glasses) while engaging in flights of fancy and mixing time periods so that the Glorias of different ages are able to interact with each other.
The road is a consistent and apt metaphor in this film. First of all, Steinem grew up on the road, accompanying her antiques dealer father (Timothy Hutton) on buying trips and other adventures on the border between wishful thinking and outright scam. Following graduation from Smith College, she spent two years in India, funded by a fellowship; during that time, besides working for the Chief Justice of India, she spent a great deal of time traveling by train and staying in villages, where she learned first-hand about local political and social issues as well as the power of women coming together to share their experiences.
Back in the U.S., Steinem pursued a writing career, despite an overtly sexist environment where her gender meant she only got trivial assignments, had to endure insulting comments (one male colleague described her to her face as the latest pretty girl pretending to be a writer before getting married), and was expected to make coffee and mail letters for the male writers. Then she found a way to make sexism work for her, working as a Playboy Bunny and writing about it for Show magazine, a piece of reporting that brought her widespread attention. Unfortunately, that choice also left her stereotyped as a Bunny rather than a serious writer, so soon she was seeking new worlds to conquer, resulting in her becoming a political leader, co-founder of Ms. Magazine, and an early champion of intersectional feminism.
The greatest strength of The Glorias is the quality of the performances Taymor elicits from the four actresses who play Steinem at different ages: Ryan Kira Armstrong as a child, Lulu Wilson as a teenager, Alicia Vikander in young adulthood, and Julianne Moore in maturity. A strong cast of supporting players further enhance the story, including Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Lorraine Toussaint as Florynce Kennedy, Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, Kimberly Guerrero as Wilma Mankiller, Monica Sanchez as Dolores Huerta, and Margo Moorer as Barbara Jordan. There’s a pageant-like aspect to The Glorias, and it helps that each of these actresses can provide an instantly-recognizable rendition of their famous character while also delivering strong dramatic performances.
Taymor and Ruhl also excel in communicating the reality of those times for women who chose to be, as Rebecca West memorably put it, something other than a doormat. As an adult, Steinem came to realize how much her mother suffered from her husband’s neglectful and self-centered behavior, as well as her own inability to earn a decent living (because women were not supposed to hold well-paying jobs, which were the automatic property of men). Another key point—Steinem’s years in India, which were pivotal to launching her career, would not have happened had she not found a doctor willing to break the law and provide her with an abortion. Clips of contemporary television footage reinforce how much, in those days, sexism was simply the accepted norm, from Richard Nixon appearing baffled at the thought that women would want a title that did not indicate their marital status to Harry Reasoner confidently declaring that Ms. magazine would run out of things to write about after an issue or two (it began publication in 1972 and continues to this day).
My main criticism of The Glorias is that, at almost two and a half hours, it’s too long. This is an epic film about an epic life, to be sure, but a little judicious trimming would have improved its effectiveness.| Sarah Boslaugh
The Glorias is available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusive on Prime Video beginning Sept. 30.