Julie Taymor on Tweaking the Biopic Format With Gloria Steinem Tale ‘The Glorias’

In Julie Taymor’s official Sundance entry “The Glorias,” 80 years in the life of feminist icon Gloria Steinem unfold in chronological order. Except when they don’t.

The visionary director behind “Across the Universe” says she could not bear the conventions of sweeping Hollywood biopics, which are fond of flashing title cards with years and geographic locations, among other shortcuts that do the heavy lifting for moviegoers. So Taymor dreamed up her own narrative device: a rusty Greyhound that exists outside the realm of the film’s events — a vehicle seen only in black and white where four actors, all playing Steinem at pivotal points in her life, meet to parse the past and the future. 

“For me, the key to the movie is what I call the bus out of time,” Taymor tells Variety of the scenes, where all of her Glorias — Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, teen Lulu Wilson and little Ryan Kiera Armstrong — “connect in a conversation about moments of inner conflicts and self-recriminations.”

The bus itself is an obvious reference to innumerable journeys that the real Steinem has taken to marches and conventions and speeches and rallies since the early 1960s, when she became a prominent face of second-wave feminism. But beyond that, Taymor says, it is a symbol of what Steinem’s life has been: “Not a tidy three-act drama. It’s a road picture,” says the director, who is the daughter of a feminist author-activist mother and an OB-GYN father. 

Steinem elaborates: “It’s an unusual film in that it wasn’t one specific relationship or thematic point in time. In a sense, it’s really about a movement, and what that means to us as an enlarged family, as well as our own family. I wanted that to come across.”

Taymor’s source material was Steinem’s 2016 memoir “My Life on the Road,” which saw the latter contextualize the entire women’s movement by way of her travels. Taymor has walked the biopic path before, with the 2002 Academy Award winner “Frida,” but she had little interest in returning to the genre until she read Steinem’s book. 

Steinem instantly agreed to Taymor’s pitch. Before a single page of script had been written, Taymor preemptively took a camera to roll footage of Steinem on election night 2016, when both anticipated she would capture Hillary Clinton’s victory and thus a perfect epilogue to the upcoming film. They were wrong. “It was devastating,” Taymor says.

The footage was never used; instead, Taymor followed Steinem to the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington, where she filmed her rousing speech on “the upside of the downside” of Donald Trump’s win. 

“The Glorias” arrives in Sundance at a time when so many of the issues that Steinem raised decades ago — gender equity in the workplace, sexual harassment, the minimizing of race in conversations about sexism, the war on reproductive rights — are still boiling points of contention in show business and beyond. 

One of the reasons Steinem entrusted Taymor with her life story, she tells Variety, is that the director fundamentally understood that any movie about her would have to be about women as a whole — especially those beside her on the front line. 

 As a scholar and an architect of systemic movements like the fight for equitable workplaces, Steinem says they typically come down to people sitting in a circle sharing experiences of oppression, learning they are not alone, and realizing that acting together inspires change. So goes the narrative of her life, she says. 

“I was hoping that my story, and the story of the people around me, would be part of [Julie’s] process,” says Steinem, who has long said that black women taught her feminism. “I hoped, because the women’s movement has often been portrayed as white or mostly white, when in fact it’s always been disproportionately black women.” 

Taymor’s movie elevates a diverse group of activists who have not enjoyed the celebrity of their white counterparts. The multicultural reformers include: Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Flo Kennedy (a scene-stealing Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero, who portrays the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation), Bella Abzug (Bette Midler) and Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez). 

“The charisma of these women together, the joy — we had the cameras flying,” Taymor says of filming scenes around the launch of Ms. magazine, the landmark feminist publication co-founded by Steinem and Pitman Hughes in 1972. The sequence also brings a cringe-inducing reminder that less than 50 years ago, the federal government did not have a salutation on official forms for unmarried women over 18 (only “Miss”). 

The director described the film as having “a different kind of energy of women to women, who are smart women, idealistic, visionary and out there to change the world that they see. That is a love story that we as women don’t get. You see movies about male buddies and war camaraderie all the time. Look at the top movies this year.” 

Steinem’s path in “Glorias” is littered with historical land mines, like the crushing defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and the vulgarity feminists faced in popular, misogynistic culture (a scene in which the staff of Ms. shows Steinem a cartoon of her that appeared in The Village Voice; the lampoon, billed as a party game called Pin the Cock on the Feminist, is brutal until Midler’s Abzug breaks in with a joke). There are also some chapters of her story Steinem would rather forget. 

Taymor had to convince her that the movie could not overlook “A Bunny’s Tale,” a highly read 1963 Show magazine piece for which Steinem reported undercover as a waitress in Manhattan’s Playboy Club. The activist exposed subpar working conditions for the nonunionized staff. Vikander’s Gloria grapples with the sensational response to the story, especially the widely disseminated image of her in bunny gear. Steinem says she never outran the piece, or the image of herself in a skimpy uniform and detachable rabbit tail. 

“I’m glad that I did the story, because it did change the working conditions for the Bunnies, but it has often characterized my whole life,” she says, adding that a Broadway producer pursued her for years to adapt the story for the stage. Even at 85, when people “want to put me down they say, ‘She’s just an ex-Bunny.’” 

Hard as those moments may be to swallow, the on-screen Glorias and the woman herself convey a sense of stillness not commonly associated with agents of turbulent change.  

“She has a remarkable power in her inability to be rash. It’s not something that is very dramatic, in terms of what we expect in theater and film. People expect a lot of emotion and movement,” Moore says of playing Steinem. “But there’s something about Gloria. The challenge was how to embody that and let it be dramatic.”

Steinem sees this quality as more circumstantial, saying, “It may just be that I come from the Midwest, where you have to be on LSD to know that we’re angry.” 

Taymor depicts other events as hard confrontations but ones that ultimately helped the movement — as when Moore’s Gloria convinces staunch Catholic Huerta to support a pro-choice point of view. 

“I tried to show Gloria’s ability to cross racial and cultural boundaries. She wasn’t a Smith College white girl with a lock jaw, which is what people thought about her, and the moment she talks about abortion is one of the most important moments of our time. Gloria inspired Dolores Huerta to become pro-choice. Is Gloria pro-abortion? No! There is to be a distinction, and I want this movie to profoundly make that,” Taymor says. 

Coincidentally, principal photography on “The Glorias” began in January 2019 in Savannah, Ga.  Two months later, after filming had wrapped, state lawmakers would vote in HB 481, the “heartbeat bill” that outlaws abortion after six weeks. Hollywood revolted, threatening to pull up a decade of infrastructure it had laid in local productions thanks to the state’s generous tax incentive program. (Steinem approves of all those who left, saying economic boycott is one of the most “peaceful, effective means of change.”) 

Taymor says she’d like to bring her finished film back to the state “as a protest,” once it secures the domestic distributor it will seek in Sundance — the final hill to climb in a filmmaking process that she cautiously concedes was not easy. “We didn’t get the money from Hollywood. We did not get the support from Hollywood to make the movie that I made,” she says. 

International rights were sold by Glen Basner’s FilmNation to pad the production budget, pegged at $20 million by insiders familiar with the project, though the production disputes that figure. Taymor says the film owes the majority of its purse to an anonymous financier. Neither Taymor nor numerous parties associated with the film will name the benefactor. 

“They believed in Gloria, they knew her and they loved the script. That doesn’t mean we didn’t struggle with money,” says Taymor, whose penchant for highly stylized visual sequences and practical effects like masks and stunts do not come cheap — at least not outside of well-financed tentpole factories like Marvel Studios and DC Films. 

Taymor believes the few women directors working today get a bad rap for pointing out elephants, but couldn’t resist noting the hypocrisy of the industry talking a gender equity game, but not walking with its checkbook. She says no potential suitor was willing to spend more than $10 million to make the movie . 

“I felt, how many LBJ movies do we need?” she says. “How many biopics of Martin Luther King have I seen? How many Winston Churchills?” She’s incredulous over the resources given to movies about revered male figures, compared with movies that honor great American women. 

“The Glorias” is Taymor’s fifth feature, excluding filmed versions of the Tony Award winner’s stage productions (including the hit musical take on “The Lion King”). 

While initiatives like the studio-backed 4% Challenge, which demands gender equity behind the camera, have made noise over the past two years, Taymor’s struggle to finance “The Glorias” suggests a lack of significant progress.

The silver lining, she says, is that her mystery financier structured its backend deal so that any profit it received from a domestic rights sale and subsequent box office grosses will go to a fund dedicated to women’s issues. Steinem will choose which causes get the money. 

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