One of the brilliant things about director Julie Taymor’s new film, The Glorias (set to release nationwide September 30, 2020), a distinctive biopic of Gloria Steinem that challenges conventions of chronology and identity, is its insistence that the story is not really about Steinem at all.
Taking Steinem at her word that her primary role is as a listener—a “kind of celestial bartender,” she writes in her memoir My Life On the Road (Random House, 2015), upon which the film is based—The Glorias chronicles Steinem’s life by showing us the strength, vitality and struggles of the brave women and men who inspired her.
Taymor (Across the Universe, Frida) is especially thoughtful toward the other women in the film whose lives touched and motivated Steinem, including fully realized, if sometimes brief, portraits of other feminist luminaries, portrayed by an impressive cast: Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez), and Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero).
“The very nature of a person’s life is that you can’t [portray] equally all those women,” Taymor laments. “So, I felt like if we really give a good sense of who these other, extraordinary women were, then anybody interested will go out and do the research.”
Listening, insists Taymor, is “the opposite of our white male establishment patriarchy with its leader not listening to anybody. I think that Gloria’s greatest contribution to any movement is her ability to listen.”
Taymor further describes the importance of a formative scene in the film, in which 20-something Gloria travels to a remote Indian village during her two years on fellowship in the country. There, she participates in a talking circle, where she learns firsthand that “letting people talk about the traumatic events that have happened to them is an incredible way to be political,” Taymor elaborates.
Of course, listening alone is not enough. The film deftly manages to focus on Steinem while decentering her—pushing back against the idea that she had any interest in the fame born of the media’s framing of her as the face of the women’s movement.
However, The Glorias and Steinem herself insist that those with privilege must learn when to listen and when to speak—as Mrs. Greene, an older Black woman at the 1963 March on Washington admonishes young journalist Gloria, “You white women, if you don’t stand up for yourselves, how can you stand up for anybody else?”
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While this scene and others are near verbatim from Steinem’s memoir, her other writing, or archival footage, others are dramatized or stylized to serve an affective turn.
Four actors play Steinem—hence the plural of the title—and while this comes as no surprise for a biopic spanning eighty-five years, Taymor does not confine her actors to their time periods, as other directors would. Together, they are all Gloria, past, present, and future: the precocious six-year-old Gloria (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), worshipful of her nomadic father; the young teen Gloria (Lulu Wilson), caring for her anxious, unstable mother with both mature respect and childlike uncertainty; the young adult Gloria (Alicia Vikander), who makes a name for herself as a journalist before founding Ms.; and Gloria at 40-plus (Julianne Moore), whose experience and pragmatism do not encumber her humility and hope.
Taymor likes to distill her narratives down to a symbolic concept that ties its component parts to a larger whole, what she calls an “ideograph.” For The Glorias, the disparate moments of Steinem’s life come together via Taymor’s “bus out of time,” in which the four Glorias comfort each other, offer advice and meditate on the privileges and sacrifices of their communal experiences.
“How did you know?” Steinem asked Taymor when she first shared the concept of having multiple, interconnected Glorias with the feminist icon.
“Sometimes I’ve walked down the street in New York,” Taymor recalls Steinem saying, “and I see my younger self in another corner and I want to pat her on the back and say, ‘it will be okay.’”
Indeed, these moments of intergenerational comfort feel remarkably universal and humanizing, while giving us further insight into Steinem’s activist bonafides. Haven’t we all had moments where we wish we could go back and console our younger selves?
One of Taymor’s favorite moments illustrates the genius of this conceit. In the scene, Gloria’s car makes its way slowly through throngs of anti-choice protestors. They scream, pound on the hood. A young girl, face twisted in fury, slams her fists on the window; “baby killer!” she snarls through the glass.
Suddenly, we see the youngest Gloria in the car, sobbing in fear. “The interior Gloria is completely ravaged,” Taymor explains, “but when she gets out of the car, it’s [the adult] Gloria Steinem who is impervious to the vitriol.”
In this and other ways, the interchange of the four Glorias and the film’s fluid relationship to time artfully visualizes the way we all speak to our past and future selves throughout our lives.
Taymor also spends significant time on Steinem’s parents, emphasizing how they both informed her activism and penchant for travel.
“I wanted people to see the full Gloria by seeing her father and her mother,” says Taymor. The film carefully acknowledges the complexity of each’s humanity, how “[Gloria’s] mother was truly damaged by her relationship with her father,” how her career as a journalist floundered, how “little things stop[ped] the flow of this mother’s development, this woman’s development.” And yet, Steinem also owes much to her father, an eternal optimist who was most at home on the road.
Steinem’s father has one of the film’s most memorable lines, a motto framed as an aspiration for all the Glorias and the rest of us: “If you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, it could be wonderful.”
In these precarious times, where we seem poised on the brink between democracy and despair, The Glorias still manages to present a message of hope. After all, it’s Steinem who reminded us at the 2017 Women’s March that there can be an “upside to the downside.”
The film, Taymor hopes, will inspire viewers to vote and show “the power of grassroots movements.” She reflects further how she wants us to see “these women as extraordinary—those who fought for all these rights—the particulars of them: the humor and sophistication of Flo Kennedy, the selflessness of a Dorothy Pitman Hughes,” and the complexities of the many different yet united women, then and now, who form the backbone of a movement for peace, freedom, and equality.
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