Usually, the road to canonization begins after death, but The Glorias attempts to cement Gloria Steinem’s progressive sainthood status while the trailblazer is still (thankfully) alive and well. Julie Taymor’s drama shares four incarnations of Steinem throughout her life — as a small girl (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), a tween (Lulu Wilson), a young woman (Alicia Vikander), and an established icon (Julianne Moore) — but she never appears as anything less than perfect at any point. The Glorias is based on Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road, and the activist makes a cameo appearance in the final moments of the film (spoilers, I guess?), but that very closeness tilts the adaptation into hagiography. Not even Steinem could be this flawless, despite her massive impact on women’s rights.
While The Glorias doesn’t boast a nuanced look at Steinem, at least it isn’t your standard biopic. Time and place are slippery, and the script from Taymor and Sarah Ruhl refuses to follow a linear structure. The film bounces back and forth between periods of Steinem’s life, even as the larger arc proceeds according to historical record. Taymor’s film does more than play with time; she has the four Glorias interacting, often together in black and white on a vintage bus. Occasionally a different version of Gloria steps into another Gloria’s shoes: Moore’s oldest Gloria takes the place of a younger, less confident one in a moment of public harassment, while the vulnerable Armstrong girl tearfully watches an angry crowd surround the adult Gloria’s car. It’s a creative approach that comments on how our past shapes us, and our younger selves still reside within.
The scenes with Armstrong and Wilson’s Glorias reveal a childhood tinged by uncertainty but filled with love. Steinem’s father, Leo (Timothy Hutton), is always scheming, undependable in everything but his affection for his daughter. Her more straightlaced mother, Ruth (Enid Graham), should be the constant in her daughter’s young life, but chronic illness turns Gloria into her mother’s caretaker. Moments with Vikander’s grown-up Gloria find her traveling through India and fighting sexism in newsrooms, while her older counterpart played by Moore is the icon recognized by strangers for all she has done for feminist causes.
The movie works hard to be inclusive, with nods to Steinem’s work battling racism and classism in addition to sexism. Other activists — Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez), Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), and Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero) — make appearances on screen and in the Glorias’ lives, but their scenes alternate between channeling the fist-pumping energy of a rally to feeling like you’re reading a Wikipedia entry about second-wave feminism. Toussaint is particularly magnetic, though the usually boisterous Midler doesn’t leave much of an impression.
Given that The Glorias is directed by the always distinct Taymor, the film does bear her signature style, if only in spurts. Surreal animation pops in briefly, but it seems like it’s less than a minute or two of the 140-minute running time. Steinem’s story — fascinating on its own merits — doesn’t need the embellishments, but much of this movie outside of its unconventional structure feels like it could have been directed by anyone.
While The Glorias has whole stretches that don’t reveal its authorship, it’s equally opaque about its subject. It doesn’t just leave the audience with an entirely positive picture of Steinem; it’s a portrait that doesn’t communicate much about her beyond biographical details. Sure, the credits roll and we have learned that she has a talent for tap dancing, but there’s little psychological depth here. The film is ambitious in its scope, covering 80 years in an impressive life, but that breadth leaves little opportunity to really explore who Steinem is.
The Glorias is clearly (and rightfully) in awe of Steinem and all she has accomplished. It lets the audience reflect on her impact, demonstrating how far we’ve come — and how far we haven’t — on still-relevant issues like reproductive rights. However, with its idealized approach, the result cannot give the icon her full due. Taymor’s film doesn’t proffer a biography of a real person; instead, this feels like the deified version, which shortchanges Steinem, her human story, and everyone she has inspired along the way.
“The Glorias” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.