Gloria Steinem is the feminist icon of a generation, and the timing of Julie Taymor’s The Glorias on the cusp of an election and in the midst of political turmoil revolving around women’s and civil rights couldn’t be more fitting. Steinem championed these movements at a time when barriers for women were significant — and while the film is foremost a Steinem biopic, it’s also a lesson on the history and intersectionality of feminist movements over the last 80 years.
Taymor is no stranger to films about strong, trailblazing women — namely Frida (2002), which gifted audiences an intimate portrayal of the life and politics of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Some of the whimsical fantasy scenes in The Glorias seem better suited for Frida’s surrealistic backdrop, but other off-the-wall techniques fit right in. Most successful is the film’s framing device: a sepia-toned bus journey taken by the four differently aged Steinems — played by child actors Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Lulu Wilson, and Academy Award winners Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore, each representing a different crucial stage of the subject’s life. As the Glorias peer out the vehicle’s windows at their many milestones happening outside, they share regrets, triumphs and failures. It’s a fascinating approach — as if the viewer is sitting in on a therapy session in which Steinem communicates with her past selves in hopes of achieving closure and clarity.
Still, the strongest element of this film is not the fantasy, but rather the connection to reality. Taymor forges this link through a mixture of faithful re-creations of notable Steinem interviews and archival footage of civil rights movements throughout the course of her life in a way that gives the film greater credibility than the typical biopic. The writer/director also spotlights other feminist icons and their effects on Steinem, such as Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe) and Bella Abzug (Bette Midler). Their inclusion expertly establishes the vital importance of sisterhood across racial, cultural and political beliefs. And if all that isn’t appealing enough, there’s the inspired casting of Moore as the fourth Gloria, who’s so spot on in channeling Steinem’s distinct demeanor, voice and appearance that viewers will no doubt find themselves doing more than a few double takes.
The Glorias is inspirational and uplifting, but it also brings with it a tinge of hopelessness for sympathetic (and empathetic) viewers who know all too well that these hard-fought struggles for women’s equality are currently under attack. Nevertheless, once the despair wears off, the film imbues these same viewers (and possibly others as well) with a call to vigilance and action so that no personal liberties will be taken for granted.
Available to stream via Amazon Video starting Sept. 30