'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 philosophical quandary that has long plagued biopic movie formula, as films generally require structure while true events rarely adhere to such artifice. 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 the women’s liberation activist's rise to prominence and evolution as anti-racist ally. From two distinct eras of her childhood (played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Lulu Wilson), to her young adult days as a university student and investigative journalist (Alicia Vikander), to her role as one of the founders of radical feminist magazine Ms. (Julianne Moore), the film loosely frames the film having these personas relate with one another 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 pursuing a place in the spotlight as the face of feminist advocacy. She spent much of her career elevating and supporting other women like Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), and Bella Azbug (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 to adhere to theme more than causality, and the final destination of this diatribe aims for inspirational but falls into triteness. This gives the film a rambling stream-of-consciousness pace that really makes the film feel like every minute of its punishing two-and-a-half-hour length, all for a narrative that a late line of dialogue all but admits 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 in feminism and the popular culture, it’s an effective enough primer, even as it portrays Steinem with such hero worship that it completely lacks introspection as to the woman’s 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, even though some of their dialogue can’t seem to escape the pull of explaining sociopolitical truths of the era through ham-fisted exposition.
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. With all respect to the place Steinem holds in the annals of history, her experiences are not universal, and I don’t need her life’s non-story to tell me otherwise.
The Glorias will be available on VOD and Amazon Prime on September 30, 2020.
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