Worth the struggle: The Glorias takes a long look at Steinem’s stalwart activism

The Glorias tells the life story of activist, journalist, and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem through four periods of her life, during which she is portrayed by Julianne Moore (above), Ryan Kira Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, and Alicia Vikander. Image: Roadside Attractions The Glorias tells the life story of activist, journalist, and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem through four periods of her life, during which she is portrayed by Julianne Moore (above), Ryan Kira Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, and Alicia Vikander. Image: Roadside Attractions

Like the movement it depicts, The Glorias cares so deeply for its subject that it persists through all obstacles and missteps, because where it’s going is worth the struggle. It’s overlong but it’s passionate. It’s uneven but it’s determined. It ultimately ties itself too neatly to a specific moment in recent history, but it’s a moment worth remembering. And like its protagonist, The Glorias is less interested in being admired than it is in being right.

The Glorias, directed by Julie Taymor from a script by Taymor and Sarah Ruhl, tells the story of activist, journalist, and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem. The film credits Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road, and is structured as a dialogue between Steinem at four periods of her life: childhood (Ryan Kira Armstrong), adolescence (Lulu Wilson), young adulthood (Alicia Vikander), and today (Julianne Moore). It is very much a collaboration between the three, with Taymor’s heightened yet emotionally rooted reality, Ruhl’s skillful weaving of how one’s immediate actions impact the bigger picture, and Steinem’s fundamental belief in listening to the unheard.

Steinem’s story is inseparable from the story of the political movements most closely associated with her. It’s in many of these sequences that the The Glorias truly shines, whether as fantastical vignettes or stirring historical procedurals. One of the greatest moments comes when a talk show host piggishly calls her a “sex object” on live television, and the film becomes a fever dream of sometimes humorous, always confrontational imagery before Steinem decides not to tear him a new one. On a realistic side, the events leading up to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment are exhilarating. Most films tell the collapse of hopeful momentum as a tragedy, but that’s not how it feels to be in that room, believing that history was being written in real time.

Between moments like these, there is an uneasy relationship between layered political biography and hagiography. The first 30 minutes of the film—it must be said, even by someone who enjoyed it quite a bit—felt interminable, a mishmash of too-familiar biographic tropes and thin characterizations. For too long, The Glorias seems like it might veer into the slick yet hollow mold of musical biographies propelled only by good performances (Ray, Bohemian Rhapsody). We spend a great deal of time with young Gloria and her parents (Timothy Hutton, Enid Graham), and it’s not clear until nearly an hour later why. Younger viewers, who may know Steinem’s name but not her achievements, will start to wonder who this person is and why we need to know all of this. Older viewers who know Steinem better will worry that such an iconic individual who led an exciting and varied life is getting such a conventional movie.

Though The Glorias occasionally relies on familiar biopic moments with pat conclusions, once the concept of the bus containing the four Steinems congeals, so does the rest of film. We know her as one thing, but her life has been one of constant movement and reflection. She is fiercely intelligent, but the film credits her wisdom to her willingness to listen to those who have suffered—and unwillingness to grant injustice any leeway. She will put herself on the frontlines to draw attention to the issues, but places the interests of the movement before herself. One could argue that she is fulfilling the destiny of her mother, a talented journalist who never got the credit she deserved, with the tenacity of her wheeling-and-dealing father who never stayed in one place very long—but the film doesn’t reduce her to such a two-dimensional figure. Even when it is formulaic in structure, the biopic is in service to condensing complicated issues and making them accessible, a cause that the famously straightforward Steinem herself advocates.

There is a lot to love in The Glorias: terrific performances, much of the visuals, and the filmmakers’ understanding that no part of Steinem’s life is apolitical. There is no facade to deconstruct, no underlying reason for her beliefs to unpack. We are challenged to accept that she is who she is, not because of any outside force that molded her. Though sometimes similar in form to other biopics, The Glorias stands apart for respecting the independence of Steinem’s character.

Many influential figures like Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), and Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez) make appearances, which is a great addition for those who may be less familiar with their legacies. The famous image of Steinem and Hughes with fists raised has been reproduced by Vikander and Monáe for the promotional art, though when these characters’ narrative role is finished, we do not see them again. There may be no better way to involve these individuals from marginalized groups, particularly in a film based on an individual’s memoir, but their political contributions are respected on their own terms, not just how they affected the white protagonist. Steinem’s politics are intersectional, and so are the film’s.

The Glorias / R, 139 minutes

Streaming (Amazon Prime)

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