Julie Taymor’s crowded Gloria Steinem biopic follows the Ms. Magazine founder’s life for eighty years with four different actresses doing their best to imitate the journalist and feminist. The Glorias features more than 150 day players with speaking roles shot across numerous locations. To cover that much narrative ground, this two-and-a-half-hour movie strains to account for the enduring impact of Steinem’s epic career. The film is a sanctified, and frequently sanctimonious, highlight reel playing familiar episodes from her life.
It’s not that Taymor avoids Steinem’s flaws. But she constructs the character in a fractured mirror. This character fits the image(s) of a woman who’s been absorbed by America’s pop cultural imagination. The Glorias presents her as a myth-in-process, a four-paneled Andy Warhol portrait-in-waiting. Unfortunately, the four actresses don’t add up to complete the picture. In her attempt to glue these disparate parts together, the director invents a magic bus that transports all the Glorias to the major events of her life. From her nomadic childhood, to her undercover magazine story as a Playboy Bunny, to the National Women’s Conference of 1977, Taymor checks off each of these anecdotes as a series of Steinem’s greatest hits.
In a phone interview, the director of The Lion King on Broadway (1997) and Frida (2002) told SF Weekly why she wanted to avoid the linear conventions of a standard biopic. Following the outline of Steinem’s 2015 autobiography My Life on the Road, The Glorias momentarily lands in places like Houston, India, or New York City. But Taymor was less interested in grounding the film in an objective, journalistic reality. To show Steinem’s inner life, her subjective point of view, the director came up with several animation sequences. During a particularly sexist press interview, for example, Steinem avoids a confrontation with silence and a forced smile. Her imagination, though, is repurposing the cyclone sequence from The Wizard of Oz.
But the key special effect in the movie for Taymor is the bus. “It is the various Glorias, traveling together on this bus out of time, in black-and-white,” she says. “So the audience knows we’re in an abstract moment that is emotional, that shows her talking to herself at different ages.” In 1972, when she was a busy theater student at Oberlin College, Taymor wasn’t reading Ms. Magazine. In the intervening years, however, she has since become friends with Steinem. When Taymor presented the idea of multiple Glorias on the bus, Steinem said, “My God, how did you know? That’s what I do. I sometimes see a younger version of myself across from the room, and I have empathy for her.”
Taymor’s approach also departs from the recent Hulu TV series Mrs. America. Rose Byrne starred as a more circumspect Steinem with Cate Blanchett as her nemesis, Phyllis Schlafly, the ultra-conservative, anti-abortion activist. “Mine is about women uniting with women, which is what I think we need right now,” she explains. Taymor feels that the focus of Mrs. America was off-kilter. “It’s as if you did the civil rights movement and starred George Wallace instead of Martin Luther King Jr.”
The sense of multiple biographies colliding in The Glorias — and into Steinem’s life — is also meant as a corrective to the history of the feminist movement. “There’s a big, big mistake in theory that it was a middle-class, white woman’s movement, which it wasn’t,” Taymor says. Women of color like Wilma Mankiller, Dolores Huerta, Flo Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, the director says, provided the foundation for the second wave of feminism. “These great women of color have not gotten the attention. I’m absolutely excited about introducing some other profound women who have changed America, so that movies and books are written about them.”
On the night Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 Presidential election, Taymor was with Steinem, along with forty other women, at the home of Samantha Power (The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir). Taymor recalls that the room sank at the news — but Steinem was the last person standing. She said, “Let’s look at the upside of the downside.” The director says that she’s learned a lot from Steinem, including how to put your blinders on and keep moving forward. “Women actually can’t fail in the same way that men can,” Taymor notes. “If they do, they often don’t get second chances. So you just don’t listen. You must go on and keep doing what you do.”
Or as Flo Kennedy once put it, “Don’t agonize, organize.” The Glorias is now streaming online.