Director Julie Taymor’s idiosyncratic adaptation of Gloria Steinem’s book “My Life on the Road,” with a star-studded cast and a sprawling running time, is visionary, inspired and bizarre. Then again, you could say the same about “Cats” — and both do have tap-dancing scenes — but, unfortunately, a hallucinatory take on Steinem’s life isn’t going to garner the same cult following as one about singing cats with a death wish.
In “The Glorias” — which premiered on Amazon Prime on Sept. 30 — Taymor sets four actresses, all playing Gloria Steinem at different pivotal moments in her iconic life, on a bus together to what turns out to be the 2017 Women’s March. The bus ride as a framing device establishes “The Glorias” as “a Female Road Picture,” as Taymor describes it in the press notes; as a counterpoint to traditionally masculine ‘70s road trip stories like “Easy Rider” or “Two-Lane Blacktop,” it had the potential to be interesting.
But the framing device is somehow both on the nose (they’re on the road!) and overly theatrical, as the movie flits between different scenes from Gloria’s life and that bus ride in monochrome where all four Glorias discuss their hopes and dreams.
In one particularly bizarre interlude, for instance, all four Glorias — which include Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore — converge on a sexist TV interviewer in a blood-red dream sequence where they channel Macbeth’s Weird Sisters and the Wicked Witch of the West. Taymor is a Tony Award-winning director, but what works on stage whiffs on screen.
“The Glorias,” then, is less a strict biography than theatrical nods to events Steinem’s life — so much so that I’m not sure it will make sense for those not already deeply familiar with the feminist icon. One standout example is when Steinem and activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes (played by Janelle Monáe) hold their fists up while the camera swirls around them and lightbulbs flash in a nod to the portrait of the two by Dan Wynn. But without any more information about why their friendship and collaboration was such a pivotal moment in the fight for civil rights, or why the photo itself and their Black Power fists were so incendiary, it robs the moment of any real power beyond the superficial.
Vikander’s Gloria, meanwhile, is especially exasperating — not so much because of her performance but because she’s portraying a formative time in Steinem’s life. She’s gracious, thoughtful and decidedly uncomfortable being the beautiful white face of a movement, all of which “The Glorias” makes stultifyingly clear. And while it’s perhaps necessary to see a young Steinem questioning her life choices and in need of her elder self’s advice or reassurance, it doesn’t make it any less jarring when Moore takes over the scene.
Like “Mrs. America,” the movie doesn’t shy away from the idea of white privilege in feminism. But while the women of color Steinem befriended throughout her life no doubt informed her broad feminism, the movie doesn’t give them enough time on screen, or air to breathe to make them more than gestures to history, teachable moments or counterpoints to Steinem’s own decisions. With a running time of over 2 hours, they probably could and should have gotten just a bit more screen time.
And, finally, maybe it’s that so much has happened this year — Trump was impeached but not convicted, the pandemic started, a whistleblower revealed mass hysterectomies at an ICE facility in Georgia, there are Black Lives Matter demonstrations happening all over the country every night, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and will likely be replaced by the final vote needed to overturn Roe v. Wade — but the Women’s March almost feels quaint, and more symbolic than rooted in the need for immediate action. As a narrative device for framing the urgency of feminism and the culmination of Steinem’s life’s work, the march of the pink pussy hats today feels a bit deflated.
It doesn’t feel great to criticize a movie about Gloria Steinem that she herself signed off on — she appears in it and is also an executive producer — or a movie made by a woman who takes bold, unapologetic artistic choices. (There’s a separate discussion to be had about tokenization and how one failure can tank a promising female director’s career while studios toss piles of money at men’s vanity projects.) But the goal of representation isn’t and can’t be the unilateral acceptance of something just because it’s made by or for disenfranchised people — whether that’s a movie like “The Glorias” or a conservative, but female, Supreme Court nominee.