Gloria Steinem was one of the most influential people of the second half of the twentieth century. As one of the leaders of the women’s rights movement and founder of Ms. magazine, she helped change attitudes in the US and around the world.
When she appeared at the St. Louis Speakers Series a couple of years ago, my wife couldn’t believe we were going to see this icon in person. Even in her eighties, she remains impressive as hell and deserves to be the subject of a good biopic.
Unfortunately, “The Glorias” fails her.
Based on Steinem’s book, “My Life On the Road,” the movie is too long because it tries to do too much. Instead of focusing on her massive string of achievements that began in the 1960s, we get an origin story of little Gloria (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) and her parents — an invalid mother with mental illness and a father who deals in antiques but seems to have some secrets that are never shared with us. Then we move on to the teen years, where Gloria (Lulu Wilson) takes care of her mother when her father abandons them, before we meet Gloria (Alicia Vikander) as a recent college graduate traveling to India.
All of that may have been fascinating to Steinem and helped form her worldview, but it’s not until we meet the adult Gloria (Julianne Moore) that the plot finally gets rolling. But then, director Julie Taymor doesn’t trust the story to unfold with real moments from our heroine’s life. Instead, she injects flashbacks and scenes where the older Gloria talks to younger versions of herself in black and white, often while riding in a train, bus, or car.
Along the way, particularly during the Vikander and Moore sections of “The Glorias,” she encounters men who refuse to give her a break, from editors to advertisers to interviewers. They all treat her in the demeaning way too many guys from the “Mad Men” era acted, and while that was certainly part of the obstacle course Steinem and other women of that time were forced to run, the movie makes it seem as if she never met a male human who treated her well.
Because it wastes so much time on Steinem’s backstory, “The Glorias” gives short shrift to some of her biggest accomplishments (e.g. her organizing of the 1977 National Women’s Conference, her founding of Ms. Magazine, her role in the Pro-Choice movement). Oh, they’re all in there as set pieces, as well as scenes of her undercover as a Bunny at a Playboy Club, which became a magazine exposé and later a horrible TV movie starring Kirstie Alley. Yet the way Taymor frames those elements, they come off as no more important than Steinem’s visit to a Native American reservation — which may have made for an interesting chapter in the book, but plays blandly in the movie because Steinem does nothing more than observe the actions of others.
As for the cast, Moore — one of our best actresses — is quite good as the older Steinem, capturing her flat Ohio accent and the same winning personality we witnessed when she spoke here in 2018. The two younger Glorias are fine, but not much is asked of them. The one Gloria who is miscast is Vikander, who plays her without any urgency or drive, two traits that Steinem has in droves, and with an odd ethereal feel in the inter-generational scenes she has with Moore.
The supporting cast includes: Timothy Hutton, also good as Gloria’s father, Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a women’s rights activist who worked alongside Steinem; Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, a choice that’s almost too obvious; and Lorraine Toussaint, who steals every scene she’s in with a luminous performance as Florynce Kennedy, whose activism against racism, sexism, and classism dated all the way back to the early 1950s (she deserves her own movie!).
As countless other biopics have proven, it’s hard to boil anyone’s life down to a movie of reasonable length. Perhaps “The Glorias” would have worked better as a limited TV series of three or four parts — only if it started with her accomplishments and then filled in her backstory (not every biography has to go in chronological order!). But in any feature-length movie, a good director must make choices about which portions of the story to focus on and what to leave out. Taymor failed in that regard, leaving us with a two-and-a-half-hour disjointed mess.
I give “The Glorias” a 3 out of 10 — one each for Moore, Toussaint, and Hutton. It begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video today.