The timing of The Glorias couldn’t be more perfect. With the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and political discord in the U.S. once again calling women’s reproductive rights into question, it seems now is the time to recall the wave of American feminism in the 1960s and 1970s with a spotlight on journalist and activist Gloria Steinem. But sadly, Julie Taymor’s look at her tumultuous and itinerant upbringing and rise in the political and cultural arena falls short of what Steinem deserves.
Based on Steinem’s own memoir, My Life On The Road, the film is structured as a fantastical road movie, weaving in and out of varying time periods as a number of actors share the role, including Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore. Though this weaving narrative journey may have served her memoir well, it doesn’t quite translate to the screen.
Taymor takes a surreal approach that sees different versions of Steinem in black-and-white sit on a bus as it journeys through her life, allowing them to reminisce. These cinematic touches are often jarring—ripping viewers out of the moment as the story meanders and drags. Some of these elements are unintentionally laughable, like when Vikander’s Gloria swirls into a red haze dressed as a Playboy Bunny, distracting from the very points the film—and Steinem—are trying to make about sexism. But strip away these exaggerated moments and what’s left is a biopic riddled with clichés offering audiences little insight into Steinem’s life as an activist and icon.
It’s not to say Steinem’s story isn’t an interesting or important one. Perhaps The Glorias biggest challenge is that is comes on the heels of FX’s series Mrs. America. The series charted Phyllis Schlafly’s fight against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, putting her into direct conflict with Steinem and compatriots Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, Betty Friedan and Flo Kennedy. While Rose Byrne may have had one of the series’ less-flashy roles, her take on Steinem over a number of episodes allowed for breathing room to escape the clichés and focus on her part in the movement itself. Though the critical reception of Mrs. America was generally positive, Steinem didn’t buy into it and instead threw her support behind The Glorias. Unfortunately, because that film tries too hard to do too much in such granular detail, it fails to create a cohesive whole.
As in Mrs. America, key figures in the feminist movement including Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), Dorothy Pittman Hughes (Janelle Monae) and Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint) are featured in the film. They drift into Steinem’s life and just as abruptly disappear after boosting her up at Ms. or at the National Women’s Conference.
Vikander and Moore are fine but they are left with a story that doesn’t pack the necessary punch it needs to deliver, especially in the third act. While Vikander gets to shape young Steinem into an eager journalist outraged at the sexism she’s confronted with, Moore’s Steinem rarely rises above being a cool boss, someone clad in all-black that both little girls and bikers can look up to.
In the end, Steinem and her legacy deserves more and so do audiences.
The Glorias arrives on VOD and Amazon Prime Video on Oct. 2.