Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I expected something more adventurous, more challenging—a biopic worthy of its boundary-pushing subject. Perhaps I read too much complexity in the title, “The Glorias,” Julie Taymor’s sweeping film about the great women’s-liberation icon Gloria Steinem opening today on Amazon Prime, which in its unusual pluralism suggests a life of bifurcations, of multiple identities.
We have multiple actors, yes, but Taymor’s film isn’t anything close to, say, “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’ enigmatic telling of Bob Dylan’s chameleonic life. It’s more like “On the Basis of Sex,” the glossy Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic now seeing a second life in theaters, even down to the triumphant cameo, at the very end, from the real woman herself. “On the Basis of Sex,” in its conventional vernacular, did not do justice to the dearly departed warrior for equal rights, and “The Glorias” similarly prizes messaging over messiness, theatre over life.
Adapted from Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road, Taymor and Sarah Ruhl’s screenplay succumbs to the temptations of biopics through time immemorial: It reduces the person’s life to signposts, stopping at each one long enough to mail a postcard but not long enough to capture the subject in all of her dimensions, all of her flaws.
Imagining Steinem’s life as a bus ride through time and space, it initially hopscotches between periods in her life before settling on a more-or-less straightforward chronology. Its strongest asset is its cast, with four women portraying Steinem at various points in her timeline: Ryan Kira Armstrong plays Steinem as a child, Lulu Wilson as a teenager, Alicia Vikander as a young adult and Julianne Moore from her 40s to the present day. Vikander and Moore, in particular, are so symbiotically connected, so conjoined in their movements and mannerisms and, yes, their makeup and hairstyling, that the transition from one actor to the other is nearly imperceptible.
We learn a good deal about the hardships Steinem has endured, and the experiences that transformed her from conformist homemaker-in-waiting to trailblazing advocate for women’s equality. Born to an itinerant and often bankrupt father and a loving but mentally ill mother, Gloria had to essentially raise herself, and despite an early lack of schooling, she made it into Smith College and later an illuminating fellowship in India, where she met women dehumanized by the horrors of the country’s caste system. In the movie’s telling, she emerged from this experience with a new understanding of women’s rights issues, which she carried over to her journalism back home.
Arguably overstating the obvious, “The Glorias” paints magazine newsrooms in the 1960s as cesspools of leering chauvinists all too happy to delegate secretarial drudgery to that newest and most exotic of creatures: the female reporter. Tired of too often being told that she “writes like a man” and “sounds like one of those crazy [activist] women,” she finally rejects that environment to start her own magazine, the pioneering Ms. She earns help from a cast of flamboyant supporting characters, from Bette Midler’s Bella Abzug to Lorraine Toussaint’s Florynce Kennedy, who, like so many of the characters, tend to speak in platitudes. (“We’re here to make revolution, not dinner,” e.g.)
Taymor, ever the indulgent visual stylist, adds florid kitsch to what is otherwise a straightforward hagiography, though none of it elevates her narrative. It just feels juvenile, like the flight of witchy, infernal fantasy that emerges from the piggish question of a TV host—all flames and broomsticks and multiple Glorias colliding.
And because it jettisons any sense of Steinem as anything but a faultless crusader, the political tone of “The Glorias” is one of arch self-congratulation with an eye on the present. Scene after scene play less like lived-in reality than like stage-managed lectures, about privileged male predation, about intersectionality, about the preservation of women’s reproductive health.
As awful as it is that so many of these hurdles Steinem leapt are still being addressed and relitigated, there are subtler ways of expressing their contemporaneity than by explicitly stating it in a screenplay. In a particularly righteous scene, Steinem abandons a taxi whose driver spouts racist Trumpian epithets to a handful of Black and Hispanic pedestrians. The scene exists to show enlightened the movie is, not how impactful it was in Steinem’s life. We’re smarter than this film. So is Steinem.