The Glorias review – Gloria Steinem biopic is a laughably shoddy mess

Julie Taymor’s film on the multiple life stages of the defining feminist turns what should be a fascinating character study into an embarrassing disaster

It takes less than a minute into The Glorias, the director Julie Taymor’s shallow biopic of the feminist icon Gloria Steinem, to realize something is off. Four iterations of Steinem at different ages – child (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), teen (Lulu Wilson), young woman (Alicia Vikander), and middle-aged (Julianne Moore) – sit on an old Greyhound bus going … somewhere, each shaded a strange and uncomfortably wan gray against the colorful scenery out the window. Why edit half the scene in color, half in black and white, like the early iPhoto effects of the mid-2000s? There doesn’t seem to be a reason other than to gesture at depth – one of many baffling artistic choices that turn a nearly two-and-a-half-hour film on what should be a fascinating, mettlesome, complicated character study into an uneven, trite and at times laughably shoddy mess.

Steinem’s long life and career (she is now 86 years old) as a journalist, second-wave feminist leader and the co-founder of Ms Magazine in 1972 has been trailblazing and often heroic, if not immune to critique. There is vast material for an exploration of shifting American womanhood and the contradictions of activism within and outside of institutions. But instead of meaningful conflict, The Glorias, based on Steinem’s 2015 memoir My Life on the Road, presents Steinem as an unerring and widely appealing hero, one who can drop into a bar in South Dakota, as Moore’s iteration does in the film’s opening minutes, and receive praise from a female biker for inspiring her to “take to the road on my own” before speeding away in the reflection of Steinem’s signature aviator shades.

The rest of The Glorias is similarly obvious and cloying while also shifting wildly in tone. The screenplay by Taymor and Sarah Ruhl splices scenes from Steinem’s life into a narrative whose general trajectory is chronological but seesaws awkwardly between the years. The young Steinem, book-hungry and observant, is close with her father, Leo (Timothy Hutton) an itinerant and unreliable antiques dealer who keeps the family on the move. As a teenager, Steinem cares for her mother (Enid Graham), an invalid struggling with mental illness, in Toledo, Ohio, after Leo abandons the family for the open road. The pain from this period occasionally leaks into an overlong stretch of time in which a miscast Vikander plays Steinem as a recent college graduate in India and later intrepid young writer in New York with a jarringly bad attempt at Steinem’s midwestern accent, flat but with none of the heartiness. Moore plays some of the feminist movement’s greatest iconographic hits – the 1977 National Women’s Conference, the first issue of Ms Magazine – as the fully grown Steinem.

All four versions of Steinem commingle, in that uncomfortable black and white, on the bus to nowhere, for grimace-inducing scenes which serve to make broad thematic statements. The conceit of a character communing with her past ghosts is not an inherently cringey one – HBO’s The Tale successfully provoked unsettling admissions of complicity and the revisions of memory by pitting different-aged versions of its main character against herself. The Glorias’ main conceit of multiple Steinems feels, by contrast, like a shallow gimmick whose potential is squandered by bizarre directing choices – one scene that commutes anger into a red-hued, poorly executed Wizard of Oz tornado dream sequence made me cackle out loud.

It’s a shame, because the bantering of The Glorias has at its core a worthwhile message: that a woman can grow into owning her choices, and can synthesize her personal experiences into a coherent, expansive political philosophy. That’s a good faith reading of a project that I would like to believe was intended to do more than just lionize its star by sanding down her real, human complications. The lost opportunity is highlighted by Mrs America, a show released earlier this year, which reanimates the feminism culture wars of the 1970s with nuance. Mrs America’s Steinem, played guilelessly by Rose Byrne, falters in judgment, grapples with her notoriety and instinctive press magnetism, and learns from the thorny gaps between the utopian vision of Ms Magazine and its actual environment for black and queer editors.

Lorraine Toussaint and Julianne Moore in The Glorias
Lorraine Toussaint and Julianne Moore in The Glorias. Photograph: Dan McFadden/AP

The Glorias, by contrast, glosses over the intense and generative intersectional conflicts within the feminist movement in favor of an inhumanly rosy fantasy: a collection of diverse women standing around a table, laughing and agreeing with one another. Most insidiously, it recasts Steinem’s hard-won political evolution into a hero’s journey of magical discoveries, in which she absorbs an intersectional approach through boldly stated themes said by people of color, then exhibits her exceptionalism by merely listening. Black feminist leaders such as Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe) and Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), labor rights leader Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez), and Native American activist and real-life best friend Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero) serve merely as imparters of wisdom quickly huddled under Steinem’s star power rather than complicating, sparring minds of their own.

Another film might have mined Steinem’s remarkable life for its complications and contradictions, but The Glorias settles for slapdash iconography – Steinem picks out her signature aviators because as a saleswoman laments they “hide your beautiful face”, and declares “Martin Luther King is leading his civil rights march on Washington. I want to cover it!”

The nowhere bus, ultimately, colors in with a sea of pink “pussy’ hats and the real Steinem, en route to the 2017 Women’s March in Washington – a genuinely inspiring show of feminist activism whose many rough edges and various hues are, like Steinem’s biography in The Glorias, leached of their power in favor of an easy story.

  • The Glorias is available on Amazon Prime in the US from 30 September with a UK date to be announced

Contributor

Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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