Sundance Review: Despite good performances ‘The Glorias’ can’t liberate itself from convention
The Glorias, directed by Julie Taymor based on the book “My Life on the Road” by Gloria Steinem, shows the confluence of “Glorias” who powered the women’s movement in America. Ranging from Steinem’s early formative experiences to her relationships with feminist pioneers like Bella Abzug (played by Bette Midler with the extreme SNL “Coffee Talk” verve with none of the mocking satire) who together formed the National Women’s Political Caucus. The Glorias cast a wide net in defining what being a “Gloria” means. It’s something akin to what Rian Johnson did in The Last Jedi by democratizing what it means to be a Jedi. Anyone with the gumption in service to women’s rights, abortion and the ERA is a “Gloria” in this often too-broad of a biopic.
Ryan Keira Armstrong (The Art of Racing in the Rain) plays Gloria as a little girl and Lulu Wilson (The Haunting of Hill House) plays her as a teenager, who with her older sister took care of their depressed mother Ruth, played by Enid Graham. Gloria discovers her mother’s long-forgotten career as a journalist was scuttled because she was forced to write under a pen name. Ruth’s story is one that kindles Gloria’s vision for equality. This vision was fed by feminist pioneers Wilma Mankiller (Longmire‘s Kimberly Guerrero), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint’s magnetic performance here is beaming with take no shit cowgirl attitude), and Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Moonlight‘s Janelle Monáe). Although each actress is cast pitch-perfect as Gloria’s mentors and co-laborers in the movement, it’s disingenuous to try and lump other pioneers under Gloria’s banner. However it is important to gender the term “Glorias” as female because this isn’t a movie about male allies. The picture doesn’t spend substantial time with any male figures or lovers in Steinem’s life beyond Timothy Hutton as Leo Steinem, Gloria’s father. It’s her father who told Gloria to get an education by going on the road to see places like India where she listens to women’s problems, later being called a “celestial bartender” because she cultivated the discipline of listening.
The film is at its best when the acting chops of Academy Award winners Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore are unleashed to play adult Gloria (until present day Gloria takes over at the end). Vikander plays Gloria on the verge of a life of activism. She takes a fellowship in India and throws herself into the patriarchal world of journalism in the 1960s, which she learned from and ultimately left to create “Ms.” magazine. Moore plays the sunglasses wearing Gloria who shot to fame. It’s this era of Gloria’s life where she turned down the cover of Newsweek, saying, “A movement is lots and lots of people moving, not one person being photographed, not one white woman, not me. There would be a movement without me.” Which seems at odds with democratizing Steinem and her values in the film. Regardless, Vikander and Moore share an ingenious moment when Vikander is ask sexist comments during a televised interview. Moore taps in and relieve the younger Steinem of answering. She puts the interviewer in his place, and the scene lets us analyze both actresses equally strong but different Glorias. Moore shines as Gloria because she embodies a stateswoman’s values as an actor on her own and those of Gloria activist. It’s acting alchemy of the highest order. You can see how lessons the previous Gloria learned tie into how Moore performs.
Even with Vikander and Moore’s excellence as performers imbuing their characters, it’s the contemporary Gloria who’s the most compelling and interesting. The Gloria who can be misinterpreted like the rest of us, who still has something to learn; not a god-like figure we see most of the film.
Taymor’s film is at its best when it isn’t trying to inspire, but tell Steinem’s story in the extravagant way only she can. DP Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, The Irishman) saturates the passing of time with color changes that pop, and desaturated color in the earlier childhood scenes. In true trippy Taymor fashion the movie dips into surrealism when fictional scenes take place in Gloria’s mind, melding directorial vision with inspired politics. But these welcome deviations are few because didactic lessons take precedent over feeling in the movie. It’s like the movie can’t pick a cogent lane of thought to tell this 80-year spanning narrative.
In our political times one understands why Taymor would use a figure like Gloria Steinem to be the spark that will light the fire that will burn down the patriarchy in the White House. To successfully inspire audiences with the biopic, Taymor should have made connective tissue of Gloria’s experiences emotionally fulfilling scenes instead of stripping a natural flow between moments in her life. Instead there are inventive scenes in black and white of the four Glorias traveling on a bus to said experiences. You can argue it’s in line with Taymor’s style, but it comes across so clunky that conventional editing could have smoothed the rough edges in the story. The democratizing of Gloria is in line with her past crowd-pleasing spectacle on Broadway, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, whose concept took millions of dollars and many injured actors to perfect. The Glorias likewise could use some more time in the edit to help make the broader meaning of “Glorias” emotionally convincing and inspiring. Having the right values isn’t enough. We learned that in 2016.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. [UPDATE: The Glorias has been picked up by LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions for US distribution]
Joshua is an entertainment journalist with bylines at The Film Stage, Out Magazine, Indiewire, and The Playlist. He is based in New York City and is a voting member of GALECA. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @joshencinias.