About an hour and a half into Julie Taymor's turgid Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias, a scene stands out that perfectly encapsulates the good intentions but ultimate failure of the film. When Newsweek magazine approaches Steinem to appear on its cover, she is resolute that she will not pose, arguing that the movement is more important than any one individual and that the movement would exist with or without her.
This is the fatal flaw of The Glorias: It wants to be both a biopic about an icon and an exhaustive record of the decades-long women's rights movement. The film wants to focus on both the individual and the collective, resulting in a work that doesn't capture either particularly well. Its construction leaves Steinem as a distant figure and covers the women's movement like an incomplete Wikipedia entry. At the end of the scene, Newsweek sends a photographer to shoot one of Steinem's speeches and publishes her image on the cover without her consent, rendering her principled stand moot.
Similarly, the grand ambitions of director Julie Taymor weigh the entire film down.
The conceit of The Glorias is that four different versions of Steinem (child, adolescent, young professional, and mature activist) are tackled by four different actresses — the latter two portrayed by Oscar winners Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore. The framing device places all four incarnations of Steinem on a bus, touring important events in her own life. The daring approach allows for the different Glorias to interact with one another. The decision, recalling the innovative work of I'm Not There by Todd Haynes to capture the multiplicity of identity in Bob Dylan, is exciting at first. Oddly, Taymor doesn't press into this unconventional approach. And none of the Glorias has anything really interesting to say to any of the others.
Perhaps using Steinem's own book, My Life on the Road, as the source material anchors the film in a literal way that holds it back. Taymor has an interesting history of unconventional adaptations, from her staging of The Lion King on Broadway to Shakespeare adaptations like Titus and The Tempest. She turned Beatles songs into an over-the-top, revolutionary musical (Across the Universe) and even crafted an excellent biopic, Frida, that matches the artist's visionary work. The Glorias feels as though realism and convention have hindered Taymor's greatest attributes as a director.
Also working against Taymor's film is that so much of the material was already covered in the FX series Mrs. America, which examines the battle around the Equal Rights Amendment. This is only a fraction of Taymor's film, which attempts to explore most of Steinem's 80-year life in about two and a half hours — more than any one film can manage. It wants to cover Gloria's childhood, her professional development, and her transition to activism while also documenting the diverse and multifaceted women's movement over the decades. Mrs. America instead lasers in on a very specific and tangible time period, allowing it to better explore its characters and the zeitgeist.
Taymor's film is forced to move at a breakneck pace that nullifies any emotion or suspense, as when it leaves behind a scene of Vikander crying over the loss of a loved one as quickly as it appears. Despite many slow scenes, its frantic pacing sacrifices Steinem as an engaging character. Vikander and Moore (and I say this as an obsessive Moore fan) are never given enough time to explore their shared character. One can't be faulted for hoping that Rose Byrne, who portrayed Steinem in Mrs. America, might make a surprise appearance as a fifth Gloria and bring with her the energy, humor, and intelligence of that portrayal.
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The Glorias also fails where the FX series succeeds in capturing the intersectionality and divisions of the women's movement. This has more to do with the format of each than anything else. As a series, Mrs. America simply has more time to explore the movement. With a more limited run time, The Glorias is a scant and shallow look at the many figures of the movement. A talented supporting cast — including Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Lorraine Toussaint as Flo Kennedy, and Bette Midler as Bella Abzug — is wasted in this film, each character worthy of their own biopic and functioning solely to deliver expositional dialogue here.
Perhaps The Glorias would benefit from ditching its source material altogether. There is something of a conflict of interest in having a biopic created with the subject involved to any extent, with the main issue being that Steinem is too perfect. To use a bus metaphor, the film is told from the rearview mirror. We aren't shown Steinem growing into herself or her ideals; she's just constantly moving forward. Likewise, the film emphasizes Steinem's greatest attribute is listening over speaking. We greatly need this approach in the real world, but, as an on-screen concept, it isn't very cinematic.
Ultimately, the film feels overworked and overstuffed. The scripting isn't funny when someone tells a joke, the political speeches aren't really inspiring, and it all feels like it exists in a kind of progressive echo chamber. Taymor manages to fit in some of her theatrical flourishes, but most fall flat and are unevenly dispersed. Her most memorable and distinct moment in the film — in which all four versions of Steinem take on a chauvinistic male interviewer in a dark fantasy sequence merging imagery from The Handmaid's Tale, The Wizard of Oz, and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman — is a breath of fresh air but entirely out of place in the film. One can't help but wish The Glorias had the space to embrace its visionary director's greatest attributes.
The Glorias. Starring Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Janelle Monáe, and Bette Midler. Written and directed by Julie Taymor. Rated R. 147 minutes. Streaming now on Amazon Prime.