Review: Four actresses and Julie Taymor go full epic for Gloria Steinem in ‘The Glorias’

Alicia Vikander as Gloria Steinem, Monica Sanchez as Dolores Huerta, Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes in "The Glorias."
Alicia Vikander, from left, as Gloria Steinem, Monica Sanchez as Dolores Huerta, and Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes in the movie “The Glorias.”
(Dan-McFadden / LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

Gloria Steinem: what an icon, and what a life. Though the famous feminist was often self-effacing, she deserves a grand biopic, and does she ever get one in Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias,” a surrealist, 2½-hour cinematic treatment in which four different actresses portray Steinem, sometimes all at once.

Based on Steinem’s 2016 memoir, “My Life on the Road,” adapted by Taymor and Sarah Ruhl, “The Glorias” takes its rather Jungian “inner child” approach from Steinem herself. She described the process of getting to know her inner child in her 1992 book, “Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem,” and elaborated on the practice of communicating with and comforting that inner child during a 1993 appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” In Taymor’s film, the four Glorias are played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore, and though they inhabit Steinem at different stages of life, a running motif positions the four together on a bus racing to an undisclosed location. They ask questions, support and talk to one another about regrets and missed opportunities; the youngest inquires, “Are we there yet?” (Unfortunately, no).

“The Glorias” is long but thorough, and as Taymor carefully details Steinem’s rise as the face of the women’s movement, the filmmaker also draws out the important themes that mark Steinem’s life. The siren call of the road is instilled in her by her footloose father (Timothy Hutton), who believes in travel as life’s ultimate education. There’s the nonstop sexual objectification that Steinem endures, and badgering about her love life, a constant nuisance that feeds the fire of her fight. Ultimately, through her work she finds a connection to indigenous and Native culture, which shows her that matriarchy isn’t just possible, it’s elemental. These themes provide the motivation for Gloria’s work as a writer, activist, founder of Ms. Magazine, and intersectional feminist, illustrating her drive for a meaningful existence for women outside of traditional patriarchal family structures.

That type of existence that Steinem not only imagines but manifests for herself, is dependent on reproductive freedom. Steinem’s life story is the fulfillment of a request by a London doctor in 1957, who, in exchange for an abortion referral, asked the 22 year-old Gloria, on her way to a fellowship in India, to promise, “You will do what you want to do with your life.” Steinem’s subsequent fight for reproductive freedom for all women demonstrates the expansiveness of her vision, that all women might do what they want to do with their lives, with children or without.

Julianne Moore, left, as Gloria Steinem, and Bette Midler as Bella Abzug in the movie "The Glorias."
(LD Entertainment / Roadside Attractions

Taymor approaches the idea of a cinematic memoir with gusto, applying different techniques to visualize history and memory. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto utilizes a desaturated color palette, like a faded photograph, blending in black-and-white footage of the four Glorias on the bus. Archival news footage is woven throughout the filmed narrative sequences of marches, protests and the 1977 National Women’s Political Caucus, animating the notion of a living history that remains present.

Taymor being Taymor, there’s also a tendency toward the expressively theatrical, punctuating dramatic moments with experimental and outré flourishes. But while these wild, hallucinatory fantasies are visually and emotionally evocative, there’s a frustrating sense that they bypass or let the viewer escape the stark reality of sexism and racism. In one such moment, a TV host describes Steinem as a “stunning sex object” to her face on live TV (and expects her to respond), which Taymor spins into a witchy red tornado of swirling Glorias consuming the man alive. Yet it almost feels like it would be more powerful to simply sit in that moment and experience the discomfort, the way Steinem forced men to.

Using every tool at her disposal, Taymor crafts an epic tapestry of a remarkable life, paying tribute to the glorious Gloria Steinem. “The Glorias” ends on a hopeful, almost triumphant note, but in this specific moment, it’s a note that strikes an inadvertently mournful tone. Even the Women’s March of 2017 feels like ancient history right now. Despite the current challenges facing all that Steinem fought for and achieved in the 1970s, her final words in the film, spoken during the Women’s March, resonate. “Remember, the Constitution does not begin with, ‘I the President,’ it begins with ‘We the People’.” They are words to heed now more than ever.

'The Glorias'

Rated: R, for some language and brief lewd images

Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes

Playing: Available Sept. 30 on Amazon Prime