Film & Television

‘The Glorias’ — “Are We There Yet?”

“Are we there yet?”

On a Greyhound bus, in the vintage black and white of memory, a little girl asks this simple question of her companions. Anyone who has ever had the joy (or frustration) of traveling with a child has heard this question ad nauseum. The meaning here is deeper. But the answer — as it almost always is — is “No.”

Julie Taymor (Frida, Across the Universe, Broadway’s Lion King, and the Met’s Magic Flute) is a theatrical creator of boundless energy and imagination. Here, she’s put this specific little girl on this particular forward-moving metaphorical bus with three other females of different ages, insights, and road-weariness. They are all named Gloria. Gloria Steinem.

The Glorias, an ambitious biopic, should have enjoyed a fruitful art house run, but like so many titles this year has just launched via video on demand. It’s based on Steinem’s 2015 bestselling memoir, My Life on the Road. The quintessential feminist is played at different ages by 10-year old Ryan Kiera Armstrong, 15-year old Lulu Wilson, and Academy Award winners Alicia Vikander (age 32) and Julianne Moore (age 60). 

The film moves chronologically, for the most part, so we meet young Gloria while she’s still very much under the influence of her father, Leo (Timothy Hutton), a charismatic intinerant con man, and mother, Ruth (Enid Graham), an anxious and deflated woman who once worked as a journalist under a male pseudonym, “because that’s what we did back then.” Gloria’s colorful childhood includes the joys of the open road alongside the shame of unpaid bills, the exhilaration of dancing to the Andrews Sisters in the rain and the insecurity of wondering how they will pay for enough gas to get to their next destination.

As a teen, Gloria becomes her mother’s caregiver, forgoing her love of dance to dispense remedies and tuck her mother into bed. Ruth is eventually diagnosed with mental illness and institutionalized. Gloria eventually graduates from Smith magna cum laude and earns a fellowship to study for two years in India. Her father continues to drift (and grift) but remains a presence in her life via phone, postcard, and the occasional scheme. He wires money to her at the end of her India trip so she can bring home a star sapphire for him to sell at an outrageous profit.

By now, the young-adult Gloria is played by Vikander (The Danish Girl), who is superb despite slight traces of her native Swedish accent. She moves to New York to pursue a career in journalism, but soon finds that being the only woman means being consigned to stories about fashion or profiles of the mayor’s wife — and that’s only when she isn’t being asked to make coffee or dodging the unwanted sexual advances of her boss. Her first claim to fame, which for a time is as much an albatross as a breakthrough, is her undercover work as a Playboy bunny for an exposé. 

Meanwhile, the women’s movement is gaining momentum and Gloria longs to cover the fight for reproductive rights. Her editor refuses, dissuading her that, as journalists, they would have to present both sides of the issue. Gloria decides that if she isn’t allowed a written voice, she’ll become a spokeswoman — courageous, given her near-paralyzing fear of public speaking. Her induction into women’s liberation introduces us to a powerful supporting cast of characters, each a luminary in her own right. Dorothy Pitman Hughes, advocate and Ms. magazine co-founder (and the woman next to Steinem in the familiar photo of fist-raised solidarity) is lovingly portrayed by Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures). Outrageous activist Flo Kennedy is played by the equally outrageous (and always excellent) Lorraine Toussaint (Orange is the New Black).  Monica Sanchez portrays farmworkers advocate Dolores Huerta, and Kimberly Guerrero is Indian rights activist and Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller. “How did you get the name ‘Mankiller?’” a heckler asks. Wilma doesn’t miss a beat. “I earned it.”

Of course, the supporting player who steals every scene she’s in is Bette Midler as Bella Abzug. The distractions she forces upon us aren’t unwelcome, however. The real congresswoman was always larger than life. As are some of the film’s scenes. 

This being a Taymor production, there are surreal, show-stopping sequences, including an elaborate take on a real-life Steinem interview. A smug talk show host tries to get Gloria (Vikander at this point) to admit that she’s a seductress if not a downright fraud. Her outfit — she’s already wearing what becomes her de facto uniform: black jeans, boots, and long-sleeved top, hip-hugging silver belt — he tells her, makes her a “stunning sex object.” The young woman doesn’t respond but lets him sit in awkward silence. Taymor, however, takes revenge.

The lascivious host is suddenly caught in a multimedia vortex, confronted by Steinem as a nun, as a Playboy bunny (“Squeeze my tail; that’s what it’s there for”), an innocent child, and a wicked witch. “How would you rather see me?” she challenges him, lifting him up into the eye of a storm of fiery female archetypes. The scene is gorgeous and terrifying, and a satisfying counterpoint to every time Gloria (or any woman) has been forced to grin and bear the inappropriate and condescending attentions of the opposite sex.

Somewhere along the way, Vikander evolves into Moore (Gloria Bell), excellent as always, who makes a more contemporary and confident Steinem. A reluctant icon, she becomes the face of feminism. Mainstream magazines literally refuse to run stories about the movement unless she agrees to be their cover girl. Meanwhile, she’s vilified by everyone from conservative figurehead Phyllis Schlafly to Screw magazine, which publishes an illustrated but explicit nude centerfold of Steinem with the headline ‘Pin the Cock on the Feminist.’ “They used my face,” Steinem laments. “Yeah,” Abzug crassly counters, “But they used my labia!”

The Glorias, which runs about two and a half hours (and in truth, although I loved it, is probably a bit longer than it needs to be) moves quickly from the 1977 National Women’s Conference to the disappointing presidential election of 2016 and the worldwide marches for women that followed. At this point, our final Gloria is portrayed by the woman herself. In footage from her moving speech at the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington, she thanks the crowd. 

“Sometimes we must put our bodies where our beliefs are. Sometimes, pressing ‘send’ is not enough … I’ve been thinking about the uses of a long life, and one of them is that you remember when things were worse … Remember, the Constitution does not begin with ‘I the President;’ it begins with ‘We the People.’”

Although even a few minutes with Steinem feel like a revelation, the filmic conceit writer/director Taymor returns to again and again, the bus scenes, resonates most — especially if, like me, you have ever wished you could go back to your younger self with a warning, a bit of advice, or simply an assurance that things will work out in the end. 

We haven’t reached the end yet, as the final scenes of the real and glorious Gloria resignedly reinforce.

“Are we there yet?” No. 

But The Glorias and Gloria give us hope.

The Glorias is available to stream on Amazon Prime.


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