What to Watch Verdict
The Glorias is a bloated exploration of one woman’s fragmented life.
✨Neat conceptual framing device.
✨Great performances, especially by Bette Midler.
✨Unwieldy, bloated screenplay.
✨Really feels its length at two-and-a-half hours.
✨Undermines the universality of its message by filtering it through one white woman.
The inherent problem of telling anyone’s life story is that lives, in and of themselves, are not stories. The entirety of one’s life does not fit into the mold of a three-act structure. The victories and failures of a life are moments in an ever-evolving interconnected tapestry where none of us is the main character and character growth is not developed in arcs, but in stops and starts, fits and spurts. This is a quandary that has long plagued the biopic movie formula — as films generally require a neat structure while life's events rarely do. Writer-director Julie Taymor and co-writer Sarah Ruhl seem to think they have handily solved this problem in their Gloria Steinem biopic, The Glorias, by deciding that structure is almost entirely unnecessary. However, such a solution is a double-edged sword that only further exposes the conceptual flaws of their work.
The Glorias runs with the main conceit of using four actresses to portray Gloria Steinem's rise to prominence as a women’s liberation activist and her evolution as an anti-racist ally. The film spans her childhood (played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Lulu Wilson), her days as a university student and investigative journalist (Alicia Vikander), to her role as one of the founders (Julianne Moore) of the radical feminist magazine Ms. These characters are shown on a bus traveling to an unknown destination, poring over remembrances and what-ifs, in a surrealist substitute for an explanatory voiceover. Conceptually, this is an interesting idea, exploring the various points of one's life as effectively different people who are all connected by shared experience, but the film goes one step farther by equating this multiplicity with the universally shared experience of lived-in womanhood, which seems disingenuous to the woman it portrays at its center.
If The Glorias and by extension, Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road is to be believed, Steinem was not chasing a place in the spotlight. She spent much of her career elevating and supporting other women like Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), and Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), and she only became a public speaker out of necessity, after being forced out of journalism due to her gender. So if Steinem herself and the film about her are constantly proclaiming that the individual is less important than the movement she represented, then why focus so much on the minutiae of her life?
Julie Taymor never really searches for or discovers the answer to this quandary, instead dramatizing Steinem’s father’s (Timothy Hutton) irresponsible wanderlust, her mother’s (Enid Graham) battle with depression, her travels through India on a university fellowship, her undercover exposé on the working conditions of Playboy bunnies, her involvement in civil rights protests, her abortion, her participation in the Democratic Women’s Caucus and on and on and on. Though the film does place these events in roughly chronological order, it still abruptly jumps back and forth through time and the final destination aims for inspirational but lands on trite. The film has a rambling, stream-of-consciousness pace that really makes the film feel like every minute of its punishing 2.5-hour length, all for a narrative that has been running in circles.
There’s an attempt to break up the grounded nature of Steinem’s memories with bits of surreal fancy, like a sequence where a television interview morphs into a Wizard of Oz pastiche that confronts the sexism of the host’s questions. But these snippets are just infrequent enough where their inclusion in the film feels jarring, both tonally and visually, and they add nothing but a wake-up call to the already scattered malaise of scenes that can hardly even be considered vignettes.
The Glorias is not completely devoid of value. As a history lesson on Gloria Steinem’s impact on feminism and the popular culture, it’s an effective enough primer, although it portrays Steinem with such hero worship that it lacks introspection of her flaws. The performances are also genuinely good across the board, from a criminally underutilized Janelle Monáe to a show-stealing Bette Midler to each of the effectively disillusioned incarnations of Gloria herself.
There are elements at play that could have been great if molded into a tighter, more character-driven screenplay that could have benefited from the unique framing and absurdist digressions. Unfortunately, The Glorias is a bloated exploration of one woman’s fragmented life, operating under the well-meaning but reductive platitude that her experiences are representative of all women’s continuing fight for liberation.
Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.