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VOD Review: The Glorias

October 1, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

How much you enjoy The Glorias, director Julie Taymor’s highly stylized biopic of the trailblazing women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, will partially depend on how much you enjoy Taymor’s other work.

As someone who generally admires her audacious theatrical impulses, as bold as they may sometimes be, (I’ve got a particular soft spot for her psychedelic Beatles jukebox musical Across the Universe), I have to say that I enjoyed The Glorias in all of its sprawling glory.

The film uses its “greatest hits” biopic structure to its advantage, by casting four actors in the role of Steinem. They are Ryan Kiera Armstrong as a little girl, Lulu Wilson as an adolescent, Alicia Vikander as a young woman, and Julianne Moore as the middle aged to present day Gloria.

But instead of keeping these four actors separate, Taymor instead brings them all together through a fractured narrative approach. The through-line of Taymor’s film finds all four Glorias together on a bus, in a nod to the title of Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road, which provided the inspiration for the film. The screenplay, which was co-written by Taymor and Sarah Ruhl, cross-crosses back and forth between different points in time to show the defining moments in Steinem’s life, and it’s a narrative choice that is mostly effective.

From here, The Glorias documents Steinem’s time spent travelling through India on a train in the midst of caste riots, which led to her growing involvement in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Rights movement of the 1970s, fighting for reproductive rights and equal treatment in the workplace. We see the sexism that she faced from editors and fellow journalists while writing for a magazine, as Vikander’s Gloria takes on the assignment of going undercover as a Playboy Bunny. This all led to Steinem launching her own publication, Ms. Magazine, pushing her message into the mainstream.

But the film also acknowledges the important fact that Steinem’s voice did not exist in a vacuum, by introducing a myriad of other prominent figures from the era. This includes Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), a Jewish lawyer from the Bronx whom she helped get elected to Congress; labor activist Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez); the Black feminist activists Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint) and Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae); and Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), the first woman to be elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

On the personal side, we see the close bond that Steinem had with her father Leo (Timothy Hutton), and how she cared for her mother Ruth (Enid Graham) until the end. The four Glorias come together on the bus to reflect on these moments, and ask each other if they have any regrets. The film does cover a lot of ground, and never really stops in one place for too long, glossing over a few things that perhaps should have been fleshed out more. But this rambling approach is also sort of indicative of the propulsive, forward motion of a life on the road.

As much as The Glorias feels like a by the numbers biopic at times, it also serves a sincere tribute to Steinem and her life’s work, that is infused with Taymor’s characteristic stylistic touches. The film’s greatest strength lies in how it embraces the casting of four different actors in the central role. Each of these women are given a chance to shine and carve out their own unique space within the film, with the official transition from Vikander to Moore memorably taking place during a TV interview that segues into a Wizard of Oz-inspired fantasy sequence.

Despite running for nearly two and a half hours, The Glorias held my interest from start to finish, as it speeds through a half-century of history before connecting it to right now in the final moments. Held together by four very good performances in the title role, Taymor’s film ultimately functions as a biopic that is just unique enough in its approach to remain interesting.

The Glorias is being released tomorrow, October 2nd, on a variety of VOD and digital platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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