Julie Taymor directs Julianne Moore in a frustratingly muted look at the feminist movement icon.
Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story is a masterpiece not just because of its sense of humor and genuinely catchy songs, but because it perfectly distilled the problem with most biopics. Out of an overabundance of caution, and a desire to remain respectful to the subject, far too many biopics take the “playing all the hits” approach, telling the audience things they already know, with a kiddie pool level of depth and insight. They’re rarely bad (glaring exceptions like the John Belushi fiasco Wired aside), but rarely ever great either. The phrase “comfortably mediocre” comes to mind, and it’s the best way to describe Julie Taymor’s The Glorias, a commendable but ultimately bland look at the life of Gloria Steinem.
When you consider Taymor’s other biopic, the lavish, dreamy Frida, it’s both puzzling and disappointing to see how by-the-numbers The Glorias turns out to be. Again, it’s not bad, per se, but, save for a couple of fantasy sequences that are just sort of wedged in there with no real purpose, it absolutely refuses to free itself from the confines of the biopic formula. Much like how Walk Hard opens, with Dewey Cox having to spend time before every show reflecting on his entire life, The Glorias opens with Gloria, played by different actors during different periods of time, sitting on a Greyhound bus, and thinking about her own life. Occasionally the Glorias (hence the movie’s title) overlap and talk to each other, which is an interesting concept, but doesn’t really add up to much.
Not to belabor a point (and yet I plow forward anyway), all the expected beats are there: we get the hard-scrabble childhood, where young Gloria (Ryan Kira Armstrong) grows up with an eccentric dreamer father (Timothy Hutton) and a joyless mother (Enid Graham) who has no time for such things as daydreaming or fun. Alicia Vikander plays Gloria in her 20s and 30s, as she evolves from a scrappy girl reporter to the face of the second wave feminist movement (there’s even a scene where she chooses what will become her trademark aviator glasses). Older Gloria (Julianne Moore) continues representing the movement, while it gradually changes hands to a younger generation. The Glorias isn’t a movie so much as a highlight reel: here’s Gloria getting her first newspaper job. Here’s Gloria working as a Playboy Club Bunny. Here’s Gloria meeting other soon-to-be-famous feminists, like Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller and Dolores Huerta. Here’s Gloria starting Ms. magazine. You can almost hear the scratching of a pencil marking off a checklist.
When you consider Taymor’s other biopic, the lavish, dreamy Frida, it’s both puzzling and disappointing to see how by-the-numbers The Glorias turns out to be.
What we don’t know is how Gloria feels about any of this. When The Glorias ends on a triumphant note, we don’t come away knowing anything more about Steinem than we did when the movie started. There’s little insight into who she is as a person, or how fighting for women’s equality for more than fifty years impacted her. Other than perhaps the death of her parents, which is barely touched upon, as far as this movie goes Steinem has known nothing but success and accomplishment, which (a) can’t possibly be true, and (b) doesn’t make for very interesting watching.
It also doesn’t help that, for a subject as contentious (and still contentious) as the feminist movement, there’s virtually no conflict. As a cub reporter, Gloria receives sitcom level “sexist” treatment, like being confused for the coffee girl, and is often patronized, but never threatened, and certainly never held back from doing what she wants to do. The most heated things get is an angry confrontation with a racist cab driver, which, again, like the framing device, doesn’t really come to anything. Men seem to greet the changes Steinem spearheads with resigned exasperation, rather than the reality of anger, and, on occasion, violence, which, I reiterate, is still a pressing issue now. The Glorias seems to be going out of its way not just to revere its subject, but to suggest that the second wave movement was far more popular than it actually was at the time.
Perhaps this would be less disappointing if Taymor was allowed to go full Taymor, but other than the aforementioned fantasy sequences (which, frankly, aren’t even that well done), her direction is as restrained as the rest of the movie. Across the Universe said absolutely nothing (other than perhaps “Man, the Beatles are great”), but at least it said nothing in a visually arresting, fascinating way. Here, the most artsy it gets is muting the colors in scenes that take place in “the past,” and transitioning near the end of the film from movie Gloria to the real Gloria (which, on a positive note, emphasizes that Moore’s resemblance to her, particularly in the present, is uncanny). There’s no signature flair to The Glorias. It’s the very definition of “workmanlike.”
The Glorias is fine. But at two and a half hours long, it needs to be more than fine. More importantly, it needs to be more honest in its portrayal of how the feminist movement evolved. Going by this movie, virtually all women were pro-choice and angry about the power structure that resulted in wives and mothers being treated like house servants. All they needed was women like Gloria Steinem to lead them in a revolution. Phyllis Schlafly appears as a 15 second TV clip, dismissed by Bella Abzug (played by Bette Midler) snapping “Can we turn this shit off?” and never seen or mentioned again. There’s no mention of how much damage Schlafly personally inflicted on the feminist movement, and there’s certainly no mention of how, even today, the movement continues to receive massive pushback not just from men, but from other women, whether they’re trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or members of churches that demand deference to husbands. Gloria Steinem’s contribution to feminism cannot be overstated, but we still have so much work to do.
The Glorias is available on Amazon Prime and VOD starting September 30th.