Films about women working together to change the world for the better are rare if not nonexistent.
Sure, we are often invited to cheer along to you-go-girl movies like Hidden Figures, What’s Love Got to Do With It? and Erin Brockovich. And women are welcome to get together onscreen for a heist or romantic adventures.
But big-picture, systemic change? Good luck finding that film in the Hollywood collection.
(Side note: For fun, look at the list of women who have won the Best Actress Oscar and ask yourself this: In how many of them can I name even one other female performer that appeared alongside her?)
The knee-jerk — or, perhaps just jerk — reaction to the above is to blame male-dominated history. But that ignores a hyper-cautious film industry reluctant to put smart women in the same room together onscreen to achieve something bigger than themselves … which brings us to Julie Taymor’s The Glorias, the new biopic now streaming on Amazon Prime Video that focuses on the life and impact of pioneering feminist Gloria Steinem and, for contrast, to Gloria: A Life, the off-Broadway play that recently aired on PBS’ Great Performances series; these independently conceived bio-projects cover much of the same material.
Both chart Steinem’s rise and awakening, including reporting undercover as a Playboy Bunny, co-founding the magazine Ms. and being a key organizer in the first National Women’s Conference. Both steadfastly acknowledge the contributions of others and the importance of intersectionality in breaking ground for women. Both avoid delving far into Steinem’s personally life with the implicit message that it’s really none of our business.
What’s different is artistic vision.
The stageplay is instructive and engaging but fairly artless, feeling like a carefully crafted effort to check all of the boxes in this remarkable life. As Steinem, Christine Lahti directly addresses the audience — instructing us gently, but clearly — and the play ends with an open discussion among audience members which, as aired, felt more like underlining than added perspective.
Film, though, allows for scale — a sense of the national impact Steinem and company achieved with their work. That’s playfully presented in The Glorias through a montage of reactions when the first issue of Ms. hits the stands and powerfully played when Steinem and her team pull off the national conference.
The screen Steinem is played by four actresses — Ryan Kiera Armstrong as a kid, Lulu Wilson as a teen, Alicia Vikander in her early career and Julianne Moore for the rest. It’s a smart move, allowing some of the piece’s quietest, most beautiful moments as Taymor and co-writer Sarah Ruhl comfortably and smoothly make leaps through time but also allow the various Glorias to react to each other. The central image for her (their?) journey is a bus ride — which may seem obvious, but it works as a metaphor and an opportunity for connections between these aspects of Steinem’s life.
Steinem’s stillness, often refreshing, can make the film feel longer than it is. And the reality that there’s still a long way to go to reach equality keeps The Glorias from being as cathartic as one might hope. But the film solidly captures Steinem’s attitude toward the sexism around her: It just make sense that women should be treated as equals to men, right? Right?
Decades-spanning films are rife with cameo possibilities, but Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pittman Hughes and, joyously, Lorraine Toussaint as Florynce Kennedy not only provide smart contrast to the low-key Steinem but also enhance the underlying message that this is not a film just celebrating the achievement of one woman.
Sure, Steinem was a pioneer — perhaps the most humble and gracious one you’ll ever see on film. But Taymor knows this is a film — and a movement —about more than an individual personality. It’s about the power of women — individuals with different styles, approaches, backgrounds and biographies — working together.
That knowledge elevates this rare, unconventional, accessible film.