Movie Review: It takes a lot of women to encompass Steinhem — “The Glorias”

The girl is here, as a tween and later as a teen navigating a rootless childhood with a relentlessly-upbeat dad and a mother whose ambitious spirit was broken before her mind failed her.

The young woman takes a fellowship in India, hearing the stories of lower caste women — misused, abused and raped — bearing witness and becoming “the greatest listener on the planet.” We see her journey into journalism, not finding her place in “a man’s world” but literally creating one where gender is not a liability.

And we see Gloria Steinem in her glory, leading a movement by stressing teamwork, consensus-building and articulating — in writing and in speeches — the scope of the problem and new ways of looking at it.

“The Glorias,” Julie Taymor’s adoring portrait of the feminist icon, doesn’t see young Gloria’s (Alicia Vikander) two years in India in college as mere adventure or “life experience.” She’s drawing a parallel.

This admirer of Gandhi, traveling among native women to learn how he was taught “non violent” resistance by his “mother and aunties,” and discovering women’s issues on the Subcontinent, has been no less revolutionary a figure. Championing women’s rights all her life, ahead of the curve all the way, Gloria Steinem has changed the world. Just like the Mahatma.

Taymor (“Frida,” “Across the Universe”) latches onto an image common to most of America’s civil rights movements — a bus — to tell this story with four actresses. The various Glorias are on it, staring out of its windows, criss-crossing the country to catch up with their itinerant antiques dealer dad, riding to rallies and marchers as older women.

At times, all four Glorias, from the youngest (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) to the teen (Lulu Wilson), to Vikander’s 20something student-turned-journalist, to the older, wiser and battle-scarred Gloria (Julianne Moore) are on that bus together, challenging each other on this formative memory or that future setback or triumph.

“The Glorias” tells a linear narrative with a lot of non-linear touches, skipping backward and forward in time as the story of Steinem’s life moves forward — India to the breakout “undercover” magazine article that made her (“A Bunny’s Tale,” exposing Playboy’s exploitation of its Playboy Club waitresses), the emergent feminist who hears an editor warn her that “You can’t associate yourself with those crazy women” and realizes “I AM one of those crazy women!”

The kids show the trauma of an unsettled childhood, an unhappy mother (Enid Graham) who gave up her career for this life her hustling but always-broke husband (Timothy Hutton, delightful) saddles them with.

Vikander brilliantly gives us the first taste of the Steinem burned into the public consciousness — guarded, preferring “listening” to trotting out her blunt, softspoken Ohio purr for speeches, fending off sexism on her way to older Gloria’s Big Discovery.

“Inclusion” is a byword of Taymor’s film, as we see Vikander and Moore’s version of Steinem understand the link between racial equality and gender equality in the 1963 March on Washington.

Even today, we don’t think of that landmark event in terms of how sexist it was. Steinem, standing with generations of black women telling her stories of the genocidal origins of the sexism they still faced, did.

We see Steinem connect the struggle for women’s rights to Latino farm workers’ rights and the Native American rights movement via meeting and listening to women involved.

Taymor’s survey of Gloria’s Greatest Hits accounts for “The Glorias” running time. You can’t leave out “A Bunny’s Tale” or campaigning with Bella Abzug (Bette Midler, a hoot) or the mid-ERA fight 1977 National Women’s Conference. But you shouldn’t leave out activist Dorothy Pittman Hughes (Janelle Monáe) or brash civil rights activist lawyer Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint in fine spitfire mode), farm workers activist Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez, earthy and imposing) or Native Rights advocate Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero) and how they shaped Steinem’s thinking, politics and activism.”

That inclusion, with lots of names that might not spring instantly to mind if you’re not old enough to remember them or haven’t immersed yourself in this history, isn’t so much a failing as a burden “The Glorias” carries willingly.

Steinem’s participation ensures a certain level of flattery in the portrait, as does an insistence on all those other figures being named or shown — Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm among them. Still, the film never feels as though attendance is being taken.

Was Steinem really this concerned that she, a former dancer beautiful enough to sneak into a job as a Playboy bunny, not be “the face” of the movement? Probably. There’s plenty of footage of her using “we” and “us” (something we see her “learn” to do) when speaking of the movement, with microphones constantly shoved in her “cover girl” face.

Taymor, the genius stage director who turned “The Lion King” into a Broadway sensation, reminds us she’s behind the camera in the film’s visual grace notes — older Gloria (Moore) dozing off on teen Gloria’s shoulder in black and white scenes on that bus — and in one surreal crimson hell free-association inspired by a particularly sexist TV interview showing how misogynistic men prefer their women in “uniform” gender roles — bunny or nun.

The performances range from impressive to stunning, with Oscar winners Moore (unflappable, reserved) and Vikander (inscrutable and cool) in top form. Toussaint and Hutton are terrific in large supporting parts, and Tom Nowicki (“The Blind Side”) gives heart to a single scene, playing the sympathetic British doctor young Gloria sees about an abortion.

I found two and a half hours skimming by, inspiring and touching, occasionally on the cusp of epic. Taymor wanted to give Steinem the “Gandhi” treatment, but there’s nothing stately or dull in this biography, even if it approaches its heroine with an eye for saintly self-sacrifice.

Pre-pandemic, there were harbingers of 2020 being a year of unprecedented female influence on American politics. That’s why pop culture is revisiting the history of the slow moving tsunami of feminism this year. “The Vote” was on PBS’s “American Experience,” the gloriously acrid “Mrs. America” on Hulu and the sweet Helen Reddy biopic “I Am Woman” came to theaters and streaming.

“The Glorias” rides the crest of that wave, the best project of the lot, and quite possibly the film of the year.

MPAA Rating: R for some language and brief lewd images

Cast: Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Janelle Monae, Bette Midler, Lulu Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Monica Snachez, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Tom Nowicki and Timothy Hutton.

Credits: Directed by Julie Taymor, script by Julie Taymor and Sarah Ruhl, based on the Gloria Steinem memoir. An LD/Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 2:27

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