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The Glorias: 2020’s Second Best Steinem Story

The Glorias utilizes a structure which prevents the film from properly contextualizing – and celebrating – a critical historical figure.

It is unfortunate for some films that they cannot control their competition. What I mean by this is that Deep Impact certainly did not benefit from opening at the same general time as Armageddon, nor was Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle helped by its proximity to the release of The Jungle Book. Perhaps the better comparison in recent memory is Infamous releasing in the shadow of CapoteThe Glorias cannot escape comparison from the recent release of the utterly superb mini-series Mrs. America.

The Glorias is an unconventional biopic of famed stalwart feminist, Gloria Steinem. In the film’s conceit, the various versions of Steinem depicted in the film exist in conversation with one another. The film is framed by the various Steinems sitting in a bus, interacting with each other, as the film jumps to key moments in Steinem’s actual life. Occasionally, the “lines” are blurred and a differently aged Steinem will chime in on the recollection of another.

Steinem is primarily played as a young woman by Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) and as an older woman by Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right). Steinem is also played as a teen by Lulu Wilson and as a child by Ryan Keira Armstrong.  Not for one moment in the film’s run time did the gimmick work for me. The obvious purpose is to allow the other Steinems, especially the elder Moore version, to provide perspective on how life events would later come to matter in the bigger picture. But here? The insights are tepid and better shown through actual scenes of the woman’s evolution. For example, one scene sees the Vikander Steinem upset that she failed to speak up at the crass language of a male colleague, and the Moore Steinem chimes in that she certainly will speak up many times but often to her detriment. The film goes through the effort to show us a similar scenario later in the film, as the Moore Steinem calls out the racist vitriol of a cab driver. The old screen writing maxim is to show, not tell, and writer Julie Taymor has shown and told.

It’s this failure of concision that sees the film run for an indulgent, and unnecessary, two and a half hours.  Director Julie Taymor (Across the Universe) brings her trademark fantastical flourishes to the film, including a bonkers sequence that calls back to The Wizard of Oz and an animated sequence that brings to life the first issue of Steinem’s magazine “Ms.” Sometimes Taymor’s surrealist touch can make for an effective device, like in The Beatles musical Across the Universe, but here the flourishes feel like navel-gazing – little more than a tip of the hat to Taymor’s usual aesthete. It recalls a band who keeps making diminished versions of their greatest hits, unable to evolve.

Julianne Moore (as Gloria Steinem) in THE GLORIAS
Julianne Moore (as Gloria Steinem) in THE GLORIAS (Dan McFadden/Courtesy of LD Entertainment & Roadside Attractions)

The actors are a bit all over the map. Julianne Moore, per the norm, is the film’s standout playing Steinem as something akin to omniscient.  I’m not sure it’s a realistic performance sure, but it is an interesting one to watch. Alicia Vikander, despite having one of the film’s standout sequences where she goes undercover at the Playboy Mansion in order to write an expose, seems a bit overwhelmed by the accent and simply does not appear to be playing the same person as the other actors. Timothy Hutton gives a delightfully hammy performance as Steinem’s father, but others like Janelle Monae and Bette Midler seem a bit lost in the film’s construction.

I recently watched Mrs. America and I cannot help but think how much faster and livelier the miniseries feels, despite a 5 hour longer running time.  I texted a few friends after I finished The Glorias that “Rose Byrne is my Gloria Steinem!” because Mrs. America weighs so strongly on my mind. Each point of comparison between the two seems to fall in the miniseries’ favor. One stark example: Bella Abzug comes off as daffy in Bette Midler’s performance, here, as opposed to Margo Martindale’s sharp edged, grittier performance.  The real Abzug litigated civil rights cases in the South and ran for elected office on the slogan that “A Woman’s Place is in the House… the House of Representatives.” Abzug is many things, but daffy is not one of them.  The film goes out of its way to set up an apparent rivalry between Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, but does not even bother to cast the role. More telling without showing from The Glorias.

The Glorias’ greatest virtue is that it gives the wonderful Julianne Moore another excellent performance on her resume, but most of the film around her is a scattershot misfire which is left exposed by the better miniseries released between this film’s premiere at Sundance and its streaming debut this weekend. There’s simply little reason to watch The Glorias when Mrs. America is out there.

The Glorias: Trailer (Roadside Attractions)

The Glorias will be released in Digital and Streaming, exclusively on Prime Video, on September 30th, 2020.

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