In “The Glorias,” Julie Taymor’s pinpoint timely yet rousingly old-fashioned biopic about the life and times of Gloria Steinem, the legendary feminist leader is portrayed by four different actresses at four different stages of her life. Alicia Vikander plays her as a young woman wearing a sari as she travels through India, planting her flag as a writer in the insanely male-centric world of 1960s New York journalism, and in her formative days as an organizer and rising star of the women’s liberation movement. Julianne Moore plays her in her activist and celebrity-spokeswoman-of-the-movement 1970s heyday and beyond. Nine-year-old Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays her as a girl growing up in 1940s Ohio, and Lulu Wilson plays her as a teenager.
Every so often, a couple of the Glorias will converse or give each other a shoulder to lean on during a Greyhound bus ride, usually shot in black-and-white (the fact that Steinem is perpetually on the road is one of the film’s themes), and there’s a funny moment when two of them face each other on a talk show. The movie also jumps around in time a lot. And since Taymor, as a director of film and theater, has an established pedigree of playfully adventurous storytelling, you may suspect, early on, that in “The Glorias” she’s crafting some clever postmodern game of how to stage a big-screen biography, the way Todd Haynes did with Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.”
But “The Glorias,” it turns out, isn’t some heady deconstruction of Gloria Steinem’s image or mythology. Despite the teasing title, it’s not about several competing Glorias; it’s about how all the women Gloria Steinem met or knew, and whose pain and perception she absorbed, were Glorias. “The Glorias,” at heart, is an almost startlingly conventional movie, told with the sprawl — and, at times, the paint-by-numbers psychology — of a sidewinding cradle-to-grave biopic. The film is acted with great flair and emotional precision, and it’s been staged by Taymor with vividly detailed historical flavor, yet it tells Steinem’s story in a way that’s more wide than deep. We come away moved by her journey, and with an enhanced appreciation for what she did, how she did it, and what it took. But the richer question a biographical drama can ask — apart from the accomplishments and the public image, who is this person? what’s the inner mystery that makes her tick? — never gets fully answered in “The Glorias.” The movie is as much a biography of second-wave feminism as it is of Steinem, and so its effect is to touch and inspire us in a solid but slightly neutral way.
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That said, the traditional approach taken by Taymor, who co-wrote the script with Sarah Ruhl (it’s based on Steinem’s 2015 memoir “My Life on the Road”), works fine and dandy on its own middlebrow terms, because the spirit of radical invention is right there in Gloria Steinem’s story — in how she became a crusader by deciding, in each encounter, to stand up against a culture so dominated by the male perspective that the movement couldn’t just be about changing the rules. It needed to be about revealing to men that, having ruled the world for so long, they literally didn’t know what they didn’t know.
“The Glorias” is two hours and 19 minutes long, and a little too much of that running time gets taken up by the story of Steinem’s youth. Yet the relationship between young Gloria and her warm, rumpled, irresponsible dreamer of an antique-salesman father, played with subliminal heartbreak by Timothy Hutton, is touching and vital to the narrative; it gives her a foundation of kinship with men, even as she’s going to spend her life fighting them. The Steinem home might be described as a lovingly managed disaster. Gloria and her older sister are taken care of, but their mother, Ruth (Enid Graham), suffers from depression, feeling trapped and bedraggled in a home with no stability. When Gloria learns that Ruth once wrote for newspapers, but had to do it under a pen name, only to quit, it’s as empowering a scene as the publishing-office encounters in “Little Women.”
Gloria isn’t presented as any sort of rebel (as a teenager, the most adventurous thing she does is to tap dance with a black friend in her father’s barbershop), and the roots of her feminism are diverse. They’re there in the saddened empathy she has for Ruth, and in the tales of rape and oppression she hears during her two-year student fellowship to India during the ’50s. All that forms the soil in which her consciousness will flower once she leaps into the world of New York journalism, which turns out to be a giant man cave.
She’s an intuitive and funny enough writer to land a job with The New York Times, but her editor keeps insisting that she stay on the ladies’ beat. He then invites her to join him in a hotel room; she quits on the spot. But at Show magazine, she gets traction by going undercover as a Playboy Bunny and writing what became a very famous story about it. Taymor stages these scenes with a socially acute “Mad Men” verve.
The liveliness of the film’s tone comes from the way that Gloria, as enraged as she is at the sexist mountain she has to climb, doesn’t have an ax-grinding bone in her body. Vikander, a terrific actress, marvelously mimics Steinem’s brainy sensuality and slightly clenched epigrammatic wit. With her long straight now-blonde hair parted in the middle, set off by what would become her signature tinted aviator frames (saleswoman in the glasses store: “Those are too big! They hide your beautiful face!” Gloria: “They’re perfect!”), she has the look that, as so many have noted, made her the perfect “presentable” media face of the modern feminist movement.
Yet what also makes the Steinem we see a star spokeswoman is that she’s such a wittily rational person. She simply can’t fathom why she’d be the one in the office who has to make a pot of coffee, or why her editor at New York magazine goes apoplectic when she pitches the notion of covering the Civil Rights march on Washington. Through her calm close-to-the-vest nature, she’s pioneering a kind of I don’t get it! feminism. As in: I don’t get why the world works this way, so why wouldn’t we change it?
But if that’s the right attitude, it doesn’t mean that evolving past age-old sex roles requires anything less than heavy artillery. Gloria starts to speak at engagements, and bonds with a number of the other leaders of the feminist movement, all clasping hands across lines of race and class — notably Dorothy Pittman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), who teaches her how to speak in public, and the great intrepid Florynce Kennedy (brilliantly played by Lorraine Toussaint), the lawyer and activist whose renegade-cowgirl wardrobe and shoot-from-the-hip oratory become a benchmark of the movement. Bette Midler plays Bella Abzug (of course!), and does it with full Abzugian yenta-from-hell life force. Gloria absorbs the lessons of these women, which isn’t just one of style. It’s the lesson that women’s rights, Civil Rights, and economic rights are indivisible crusades.
“The Glorias” gets into the nitty-gritty of the backroom politics of the feminist movement, and on that level it’s a richly gratifying movie. We see the strategizing on abortion and the ERA, and the founding (and running) of Ms., a magazine that was daring and finely executed enough to prove that the revolution may not be televised, but it will be put between perfect-bound covers.
And Taymor, one is glad to see, does find a bit of space to play around. She stages a fantastic surreal satirical sequence of Gloria on a talk show, being asked by the smug leering host about her “sex object” looks and — the inevitable question — why she isn’t married. Yet because that theme is such a delicate one, you may feel that Taymor, as a filmmaker, is also shying away from it. She doesn’t dramatize one minute from any of Steinem’s relationships with men, and lest in making that complaint I sound just like that talk-show host, I cling to the idea that a biopic is exactly where you want to see that, where you want to soak up the flavor of how a figure like Steinem, as she was fighting male culture, negotiated male culture in her private life. The movie lacks that dimension.
Julianne Moore, make no mistake, could have taken that dimension and run with it. Her performance is etched with a twinkle of hard-won knowingness, especially when she’s delivering vintage Steinem-isms like “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.” And she expresses what may be the ultimate truth of Gloria Steinem, which is that she decided to devote her life to fighting a war — but it was a special war, because it was waged almost entirely out of love. Love for her sisters, love for America, even love for the men she was fighting. That’s why she’d do whatever it took to wake them up.