Sundance 2020: The Glorias, by David Bax
Right from the opening sequence, in which Gloria Steinem (Julianne Moore) rides a bus in black and white as the world outside becomes colorized bit by bit, Pleasantville-style, it’s apparent that Julie Taymor’s The Glorias is going to be very much a Julie Taymor movie. Later, Taymor’s camera swirls around young Gloria Steinem (Lulu Wilson) and a friend (Olivia Jordan) as they tap-dance their way through a barber shop with mirrored walls (proving that Taymor is as much a Robert Zemeckis-style technological show-off as she is a fantasist). As The Glorias goes on, though, these outbursts, from animated sections to flights of wish-fulfillment fancy, lose their power to delight or to distract from the lazy mess that is the rest of the movie.
Taymor and Sarah Ruhl adapted the screenplay from Steinem’s autobiography. Four actors (in addition to Moore and Wilson, there’s also Alicia Vikander and young Ryan Kiera Armstrong) play Steinem at different ages in scenes told roughly chronologically. Taymor and Ruhl’s conceit is to bookmark each chapter with scenes of the four of them riding a bus together, often in conversation. These scenes work–illustrating how a person’s priorities and desires can be changed by life experience–as often as they don’t–groaning metaphors about where the bus is headed and how long it will take them to get there.
Before we jump into the story proper, though, we get a scene of roughly modern-day Steinem (Moore) being approached by a female biker. Just when you think things are going to get confrontational, though, it turns out the woman just wants to thank Steinem for giving her the confidence to buy her own motorcycle instead of riding behind her husband. This kind of bullshit, faux-empowerment mythmaking persists throughout The Glorias. Otherwise, the film consists largely of either lame biopic tendencies like an A-to-B connection from her parents to her personal beliefs later in life or of a parade of the women’s rights all-stars with whom Steinem has worked, from Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe) to Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez) to Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint) to Bella Abzug (Bette Midler) to Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), which would be welcome if the screenplay showed them doing more than spouting catchphrases like walking Twitter accounts.
The Glorias‘ best moments come in the period in which Vikander plays Steinem because these are the years she spent writing for newspapers and magazines, not only making her name but also enduring firsthand the experience and sharp frustrations of a woman in a “man’s world.” Here we actually see Steinem growing as a character based on what’s happening to and around her instead of becoming who she is because of armchair psychology. Unfortunately, the Vikander section also includes Steinem’s years traveling through India. Thankfully, The Glorias avoids white savior tropes but can’t manage to sidestep a case of patronizing class tourism.
Maybe even more insulting, though, is a scene in which Steinem (Moore now) easily convinces the devoutly Catholic, anti-abortion Huerta of the rightness of the pro-choice cause in just a few sentences. If things were that simple, we wouldn’t still be fighting for women’s reproductive rights today. If things were that simple, we wouldn’t even need Gloria Steinem.