By Nadia Dalimonte
Julianne Moore in The Glorias (2020)
“When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. Taking to the road - by which I mean letting the road take you - changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy.”
This excerpt from Gloria Steinem’s book ‘My Life on the Road’, upon which The Glorias is based, feels like the heart of Julie Taymor’s film. The Glorias is an off-center, unusual, lovingly messy biopic where all directions lead to the open road. The film begins with a Greyhound bus, which appears throughout the film transporting Glorias of different ages. Taymor follows not one Gloria, but four, and each are glorious. Each represent different stages of Steinem’s life, from childhood to present day. Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays the youngest Gloria, followed by Lulu Wilson who plays the teenage version. Alicia Vikander takes over the 20s-30s bracket, and Julianne Moore comes in for the later years, from age 40 to now. There are moments throughout the film where they all unexpectedly share the screen, on a bus in perpetual motion. It’s a welcome technique put in place as buildup to a touching final scene.
The life of Gloria Steinem is an extensive one, spanning decades of work with a lot of moving parts. It’s not the easiest feat to condense her upbringing, experiences, and the women’s liberation movement, into a feature film. But Taymor tries the task, melting historical moments with surreal choices that raise confusion more than anything else. I never could have predicted a Wizard of Oz-inspired interview sequence of all the Glorias flying around a tornado in response to a talk show host telling her that she’s a “sex object”. Taymor raises concepts that don’t always make a seamless transition to the screen. At best, dipping into surrealist expression is a change to a mostly by-the-numbers biopic clocking in at 2 hours and 19 minutes.
The Glorias moves in perpetual motion, a familiar state of mind for Steinem starting with childhood. Her father Leo, played with eccentricity by Timothy Hutton, was a traveling salesman. Also known as “Steinemite”, he would pack up the family and move every fall, in search of better financial prospects. According to Leo, “travel is the best education”, a sentiment that would stay with Gloria for many years to come. Taymor uses scenes of Glorias on the road as narrative transportation from one timeline to the next. Following childhood, she switches to Gloria as a young woman (played by Vikander) traveling to India on a 2-year academic fellowship. She travels from village to village, listening to women’s stories, which sparks her activism. A committed performance by Vikander, along with watching Gloria defy misogynistic attitudes when she starts a job writing at the Times, makes this the most engaging chapter of the film. Vikander does a wonderful job portraying Gloria on the cusp of her career, at a time when all that seemed to matter to people is that she was a bunny (in reference to her undercover piece ‘A Bunny’s Tale’), not the working conditions she wrote about, not that she’s a writer.
In this chapter, the film expands a bit on Gloria’s intriguing relationship with her mother Ruth (played by Enid Graham). For as long as Gloria could remember, she recognized her mother’s spirit was broken. What if Ruth had left her husband, left New York? Older Gloria (Moore) says Gloria would’ve never been born, to which younger Gloria (Vikander) replies Ruth would’ve been born instead. It’s an interesting conversation that speaks to the perceptive quality about having a bus full of Glorias and how being on the road shaped the person she has become. While Taymor bringing the Glorias together doesn’t always deliver an engaging drama, it’s a thoughtful decision with an emotional payoff. It provides some strong insight that the rest of the film lacks. Halfway through the runtime, Taymor shifts to Gloria in her forties (played by Moore), when she starts Ms Magazine and builds on her work with the women’s rights movement. While Moore is great in the role, there’s a lot of reliance on montages in this chapter, from panels and interviews to conference highlights. The film loses some steam and flow, cobbling together flashes of remarkable actions while stepping around intersectional conflicts involving more women who were instrumental to the movement. With not enough time to really delve deep, women such as Flo Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes (played greatly by Lorraine Toussaint and Janelle Monae), dip in and out of scenes. Bella Abzug (Bette Midler) makes an enthusiastic appearance here and there. Native women fighting for tribal sovereignty are also on the sidelines.
The film follows a jagged and disjointed path that doesn’t maintain its grasp on Gloria herself. But Taymor's biopic leaves a lasting impression through some good performances (Vikander being a personal favourite) and an even better ending that features a fifth Gloria: the real one.