“The Glorias,” which tracks the life of feminist writer Gloria Steinem, isn’t you standard biographical movie. It covers eight decades in her life, with four different actors playing her at different stages: Ryan Kiera Armstrong as the 7-year-old; Lulu Wilson as the 12-year-old; Alicia Vikander as Gloria at ages 20 to 40; and Julianne Moore as the Gloria from 40 on up.
Based on the Steinem autobiography “My Life of the Road,” the new movie takes creative license to tell the story of a young girl dealing with an ill mother and an often-absent father (Timothy Hutton); of a young woman who graduates from Smith College and gets a two-year-fellowship in India; to the journalist who went on to found Ms. Magazine and become one of the leaders of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
At times, director Julie Taymor — who brought us the inventive staging of Disney’s “The Lion King” on Broadway as well as the critically acclaimed movie “Frida” — uses surrealistic scenes to describe how Steinem feels when a TV interviewer calls her a sex object, with a red tornado overtaking the sexist broadcaster. At other times, Taymor uses what she calls “the bus out of time” to let one Gloria talk to another and reflect on the past. Those scenes are in black and white, with sepia-toned views of the world beyond the bus windows.
But the heart of the movie isn’t just about Steinem and her relationships with her family. Instead, it’s about the remarkable friendships Steinem established with a spirited array of noisemakers, like U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug (the irrepressible Bette Midler); Dorothy Pittman Hughes (Janelle Monae); cowboy hat-wearer and rabble-rouser Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint); and Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero).
As you can see from that list, the movie stresses that women of color were big leaders in the feminist movement, countering a narrative that White women were at the forefront. And Steinem, in her biography, makes that point repeatedly. In fact, Hughes and Kennedy played crucial roles in helping Steinem gain her speaking voice. Abzug, of course, needed no help in public speaking.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be Steinem — to understand the hatred and condescension and sexism that she faced. Taymor, through her unique visual style, tries to get to the loneliness, to the drudgery of being on the road all the time. But it’s not clear that any movie would ever be able to capture the complexity of emotions that Steinem had to stifle in order to navigate the political and social backlash that she faced.
To add a sense of history to the tale, Taymor uses actual footage from some of the historic scenes, such as the 1963 March on Washington or the 1977 Houston Women’s Conference. Those were such large events that it would have been extremely expensive to re-create for a movie, of course, but the archival footage is more thrilling than any Hollywood digital wizardry could be.
One scene in the movie provides an interesting point about the development of Steinem’s philosophy. It comes while she is in India, and she attends what’s called “a talking circle,” where various female villagers sit around a fire and talk about the horrors and violence that they have faced, especially involving caste riots. It’s a grassroots organizing principle that Steinem used for the rest of her life, in the role of what she was sometimes affectionately called: the celestial bartender.
It’s a good reminder that we all should probably talk less and listen more.
“The Glorias” is available for purchase digitally or via streaming on Prime Video. Roadside Attractions is the U.S. distributor.