Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
USA, 2020. Artemis Rising Foundation, Page Fifty-Four Pictures, The Glorias. Screenplay by Julie Taymor, Sarah Ruhl, based on the book My Life On The Road by Gloria Steinem. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. Produced by Lynn Hendee, Alex Saks, Julie Taymor. Music by Elliot Goldenthal. Production Design by Kim Jennings. Costume Design by Sandy Powell. Film Editing by Sabine Hoffman.
Activist, writer, leader, intellectual and style icon, Gloria Steinem is many things to many people and not all of them good, the marker of a generation, a timeless symbol for progress and, to her detractors, manhater, baby killer and the head of a task force to erase the existence of marriage. A woman whose life brims with so much incident in so many places around the world cannot be contained as one character, so director Julie Taymor has cast four different women to capture her not only at various ages but on various journeys: the little girl (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) witnessing her father (Timothy Hutton) keeping house and home together in increasingly impractical ways, the teenager (Lulu Wilson) who has to take care of her mentally ill mother (Enid Graham) after years of carrying the stress of her father’s cavalier attitude towards responsibility, the young adult woman (played by Alicia Vikander) who travels to India and is first awoken to her need focus attention on women’s both essential and underappreciated role in society, and the confident and accomplished adult (Julianne Moore) who co-founds a feminist magazine (Ms.) and leads a movement to push for the ERA. Steinem herself never wrote from the position of needing to exalt herself and always encouraged the opening up of feminist activity to go beyond her own white, middle-class scope, but those of us who like and admire her certainly don’t mind building a personality cult around her, and Taymor appears to be one of them: smart and daring, Steinem’s career-making article going undercover as a Playboy bunny is the exact kind of glamorous superspy we want our feminist icons to be, and who isn’t thrilled the first time she finds those legendary sunglasses and puts them on for the first time (as origin stories go, this one scene was far more exciting than Joker, Maleficent and about a million superhero movies combined). In her choice of adapting Steinem’s 2015 book My Life On The Road, Taymor (co-writing the screenplay with playwright Sarah Ruhl), makes her subject’s literal movement around the globe the spine of her examination of Steinem’s life, the constant traveling to escape her father’s creditors as a child and her perpetual search to meet more people and do more for them as an adult; to emphasize it as a theme she cuts away from dramatized historic scenes to a magic bus ride where all four versions of Gloria sit together and reflect on their choices, joys and regrets. It’s the kind of original storytelling we expect from the director who created Frida Kahlo’s world from within her own creative inspiration and gave us a more disturbing Shakespeare than we had ever seen before, but the travel motif is hard to hold on to and becomes an annoying distraction in the second half of the film rather than the finishing touches on a biopic told in an original manner. All four actors bring this magnificent figure to life with verve and intelligence, Moore in particular doing a perfect job of capturing Steinem’s deep, controlled voice and unwavering resolve, but when you get to her creating the National Women’s Political Caucus and her campaigning for the Congressional election of Bella Abzug (played by a spirited Bette Midler), it becomes clear that Taymor is undecided on whether or not this is a movie about Steinem’s own personal development or a panoramic look at a few decades of change in women’s politics. Either one is something that she could make a good film out of, but as we lose touch with the subject’s personal feeling and she becomes a symbol for the right side of history, the film’s weighty running time begins to feel like a heavy load to carry and, while it has moments that are inspiring, it is undoubtedly impersonal.