Love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Gloria Steinem has been one of the most transformational American figures of her lifetime, not only fighting the good fight of feminism but also skillfully shifting the course of the national dialogue, taking concepts that were once considered radical and making them palatable and urgent to a broad audience.
That ability to bring big and potentially scary ideas to the masses, and to inspire thought and action, is sorely missing from “The Glorias,” Julie Taymor’s subject-approved biopic, based on Steinem’s memoir “My Life on the Road.” It’s a mannered and muddled take on an exciting life story, and even Taymor’s trademark flights of fantasy are fairly hit and miss.
Taking the title of the book literally, Taymor and co-writer Sarah Ruhl use a bus as a central motif, and the passengers are Steinem, in four separate phases of her life: The child (Ryan Kiera Armstrong, “Anne with an E”), the tween (Lulu Wilson, “The Haunting of Hill House”), the young journalist and budding activist (Alicia Vikander), and the founder of Ms. magazine and beyond (Julianne Moore). It’s a gamble that works when the older Glorias commiserate — Moore’s Gloria provides a snappy comeback to a sexist talk-show host that Vikander’s Gloria couldn’t — but feels mawkish when, for example, the oldest Gloria holds the youngest Gloria’s hand at an emotional moment.
Until Moore takes over the role, “The Glorias” lurches back and forth through her early life, pinballing from memories of Steinem’s charming but unreliable father (Timothy Hutton) and emotionally fragile mother (Enid Graham, “The Sinner”) to post-college Steinem traveling through India and going undercover as a Playboy bunny to write the investigative piece that originally put her on the map as a reporter.
The latter sequence gives legendary cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto a moment to shine, as Steinem and a dozen other Playboy bunnies climb a lit-from-beneath spiral staircase for a photo shoot in a Busby Berkeley-esque sequence. It’s one of those moments where Taymor’s propensity for dazzle supports the story she’s telling; less successful is a childhood flashback involving an impromptu tap-dance number, which would have worked much better had Taymor and Prieto not cut off the dancers’ feet out of frame so much. And as for an extended “Wizard of Oz” sequence, the less said, the better.
“The Glorias” tries to pack an eventful life into two and a half hours, and the results feel simultaneously overstuffed and lugubrious. (“Are we there yet?” gripes the youngest Gloria at the two-hour mark, and I felt her pain.) Steinem may have issues with the recent FX miniseries “Mrs. America,” but that show at least offered enough real estate so that viewers came away understanding the significance of moments like the National Women’s Political Caucus’ presence at the 1972 Democratic Convention or the 1977 National Women’s Conference. (Moore’s Gloria refers to the latter as “a catastrophe,” but “The Glorias” never explains why, except to say that the Equal Rights Amendment didn’t wind up passing.)
Taymor and Ruhl also fall a bit short in their portrayal of minority women’s voices in the feminist movement. Whether it’s Indian women talking about the degradation they’ve suffered under the caste system or Black marchers in Washington, D.C., relating the horrors visited upon Fannie Lou Hamer, much of “The Glorias” involves women of color teaching Steinem about their own fraught histories. Clearly, the intent here is to illustrate Steinem’s education and evolution, and to underscore the importance of intersectionality when discussing issues relating to women’s rights. The results, more often than not, come off as the story of a white woman experiencing personal growth via the trauma of non-white women.
Vikander and Moore, two of the screen’s most versatile and empathetic performers, both seem oddly stilted here, as though capturing Steinem’s singular speech pattern somehow restricted the rest of their performance. (Another point for “Mrs. America,” which gave us Rose Byrne’s Steinem, a funny, fluid and ferocious creation.) During her handful of scenes, Lorraine Toussaint dominates the film; her take on activist and author Flo Kennedy provides a dynamism that “The Glorias” could have used a lot more of.
As the film periodically reminds us, Gloria Steinem grew up loving the movies and wanting to become a dancer, and she poured that sense of show business into a paradigm-shattering career as an activist; one of Steinem’s great strengths is understanding the media, whether she is its subject or, as the publisher of Ms., one of its practitioners. Someone this savvy about words and images should have rated a biopic that is, too.