I don’t know shit about Gloria Steinem. Mea culpa. I know the name, vaguely know she’s connected to feminism, and that’s about it. So when I got the offer to review The Glorias, director Julie Taymor’s (Frida, Across the Universe) new biographical film about Steinem, I happily took the opportunity. I was looking for a story that explained who Steinem was and why she was important. On that level, The Glorias is somewhat successful. On others? Not so much.
Movie biographies are difficult. How do you condense a life into two or even three hours? How do you fit it into the narrative constraints of cinema without resorting to cliché? Taymor’s a good choice for this material. With a theatrical background that she’s consistently incorporated into her earlier films, she’s not going to go down the traditional biopic road. And in many ways here, she doesn’t.
The movie spirals out of a central image of a Greyhound bus. These scenes, shot in black and white, feature Gloria Steinems, plural, as they ride this metaphorical vehicle together. They’re all different aged Glorias, portrayed among others by Alicia Vikander and Julian Moore, and they interact with each other, questioning the decisions they made at different points in their life. Around this centralized hub, the movie follows loosely chronological tangents that portray Gloria’s life from childhood onward, while jumping back and forth in time as the story sees fit.
All of this could be confusing, but kudos to Taymor and editor Sabine Hoffman, who do a good job keeping us on track and do so without leaning on title cards to clarify time and location. The more traditional “life of” scenes, meanwhile, work well enough and are reasonably engaging. You would be hard pressed to have a movie with both Vikander and Moore that’s not at least somewhat engaging.
But the more conventional narrative is interrupted by theatrical asides, flights of fancy illustrating Ms. Steinem’s mindset. For example, when the Julian Moore version of Steinem attracts the ire of the patriarchy (read: old white folk who like the status quo just as it is because it benefits them, thankyouverymuch), the movie cuts to a younger Steinem on a stage, the center of a literal knife throwing act. Get it? They’re sharpening their knives for her. In case you don’t, the characters actually say so. It’s bold, but also clumsy and too on-the-nose.
Oddly, for a movie with such adventurous moments, its cinematography is kind of, meh. Sure, there are intriguing visuals, neon green reflections on raindrops in an otherwise gray image, but other than those standout moments, the lighting is very bland, milky white, like the angry men, arms crossed, watching Gloria Steinem give a speech. I wonder if this was done for budgetary reasons, so the filmed footage better matched the copious newsreel footage?
And while those theatrical flourishes enliven the film’s otherwise pedestrian look, they still don’t relieve the film of cliché. Goodness no. The dialogue often exists solely to give context, to explain why something is important, or to impart historical portent. Characters tend to speak in expository fragments that sound more like they’re reading CliffsNotes out loud. Though, to be fair, I’m not sure how else this movie could move at a good pace and impart the proper knowledge to the audience. But that’s what separates an okay movie from a great one. The great one figures out a way.
Not everything is spelled out, though. Some of that in-your-face-ness is nicely balanced with a more hands-off approach. A tragic moment that could have been milked for maximum drama is instead presented with silence and relies on Alicia Vikanders’ facial expressions as she reacts to a phone call, the voice on the other end never even heard.
As the movie goes on, the drama of watching Ms. Steinem grow up and finding her voice gives way to a final hour that feels more like a highlight reel of Gloria listening to disenfranchised women revealing the horrors of their experiences. It gives voice to people that need to be heard, but dramatically it leaves the film inert, like the movie has to stop cold to impart its message. Couldn’t the message and the story coexist? As it is, we don’t even get a sense of what Gloria Steinem did with all of the stories she’s writing down.
In the end, the movie ends up feeling like a commercial for Gloria Steinem™ or Steinem’s Greatest Hits. Admittedly, when the real deal shows up at the end, it is powerful and it sets into relief how much Alicia Vikander and Julian Moore put into their physical performances, as both look and especially sound like her, nailing her unique cadence.
But for all of the film’s attempts to get into her head, we don’t end up with much insight into Steinem, the person. Though I’m not sure a movie, with its limited runtime, could ever successfully cover every aspect of a complex person dealing with a complicated society over the course of several decades. Faults or not, I still appreciated the attempt, as it set me on my own road, one that alleviates my lack of shit-knowing about an important person.
…And yeah, my copy of My Life on the Road has already been ordered.
The Glorias is already streaming exclusively on Prime Video