The Glorias Puts Feminist Strength on a Proper Pillar

Photo Credit: Dan McFadden - Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

In one of her many quotable soundbites throughout her storied career, Gloria Steinem once said, “Women have two choices: Either she’s a feminist or a masochist.” You’re either for social equality of the sexes or you take pleasure in pain and suffering. The slivers of gray area between those two titles do not exist for her. Committing to such a stance is valiant. There are not enough cinematic examples of genuine female personas living on that kind of edge to the fullest and truest. The Glorias aims to give that edge the highest possible pillar using one of history’s best examples. This fine film is available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.

Virtuoso director of stage and screen Julie Taymor (Frida, Broadway’s The Lion King) pays homage to the 86-year-old feminist idol with an emblematic travelogue of a film. Four different actresses, including two top-billed Academy Award winners Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander, chronicle the formative and influential decision points from the prime of Steinem’s life. Adapted from Steinem’s 2015 autobiography My Life on the Road by Taymor and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist playwright Sarah Ruhl, The Glorias veers in and out of linearity across the span of performance ages.

We meet a young Gloria (Ryan Kira Armstrong), born during The Great Depression to a swindler and showman of a father named Leo (a plum part for long-lost Oscar winner Timothy Hutton) who she adores. It all may be a doting adventure for her, but his uprooted ways of migrating away from trouble and towards the next scam drained her mother Ruth (Enid Graham) for years. Gloria grew to become a bohemian teenager (recent Becky star Lulu Wilson) who learned her father’s tricks while becoming an anchored caregiver to Ruth.

The dishonesty of Leo’s schemes was not lost on Gloria as she aged, nor was the inequity bestowed upon her mother. Knowing how to self-manage and scrounge for your own bootstraps over being handed things fills bellies, wallets, and spirits. Her dad’s signature mantra was, “If you don’t know what happens tomorrow, it could be wonderful.” There was an enterprising chestnut view of the world that was impressed upon her in this way. That gypsy-like cleverness and appliance would go on to serve her well as an unflappable presence that rolls with any high, lows, or manner of resistance.

Gloria and Dorothy talk to a stewardess on an airplane.
Photo Credit: Dan McFadden – Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

Adulthood took the 20-something Gloria (Vikander) on a sojourn to India, where she traveled by train to see the caste lifestyle of local women and collect their stories transitioning in culture and politics in the wake of Gandhi. Enlightened and emboldened by that experience, Gloria pursued her storied New York City career in journalism. Adorned with dynamic costumes from three-time Oscar-winner Sandy Powell and navigating period-perfect setting recreations from art director Kim Jennings stepping into the higher production designer seat, Vikander’s section of the 1950s and 1960s becomes the meaty middle of Taymor’s drama that rescues the earlier childhood drag that balloons this film’s 147-minute running time.

Stuck with puff pieces and chick assignments of weak material, Steinem’s improving professional voice would battle constant workplace patriarchism that prevented promotion and ascension matching her acumen and value. Instead, all the inappropriate menial tasks, gazing eyes, and snide put-downs occupy this chauvinistic era. The Glorias would overflow in hours if every incident she lived made the dramatized screenplay. What’s here is plenty damning and more than enough severity to infuriate.

The fascinating stalwartness of Gloria Steinem comes from her responses of fighting the restrictions and barriers of inequality with liberation and revolution. One of her lines says it all: “When you avoid conflict, conflict will seek you out.” Meet it and beat it with superior substance. Pick the right battles to enact change. Stand for the right principles that can convince minds and hearts. Gloria and her followers were willing to put their bodies where their beliefs were. That’s liberation and revolutions with stances instead of soldiers.

Gloria, Delores, and Dorothy raise their fists during a protest
Photo Credit: Dan McFadden – Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

In gaining an affluence built on work ethic, it is during her 30s that she would find kindred spirits like Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Antebellum’s Janelle Monae), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint of Middle of Nowhere), and Bella Abzug (Bette Midler) and start the successful Ms. magazine focused on female perspectives. As circulation grew, a shared female experience emerged. The stumps got taller, the crowds got larger, the marches got longer, the boundaries got wider, and the collective voices got louder. By the time Gloria ages past 40, the biography is absorbed by Julianne Moore’s glare behind those signature hued sunglasses, by-lines, flashbulbs, and television cameras.

Too many conservative folks point straight to the maligned pro-choice horrors of abortion when they finger-point negatively towards feminism. It has been and always will be more facets than that and vain moments of fist-shaking applause. At its peak, the women’s liberation movement argued multiple facets of sexual discrimination and called for social, economic, and psychological freedoms and reforms. Their unified platform became not just women’s rights, but universal human rights. Steinem once said of the issues in an interview, “Surely if we just explain them, they would fix them.” If it could only be that easy. You have so much homework to do if you cannot understand, empathize, or embrace the full range of these necessary equalities. 

The women’s lib plight expanded to diverse groups and racial minorities with the same battles, and Steinem traveled to wherever the fight was. In addition to Hughes and Kennedy, The Glorias includes excellent sidebar chapters on Steinem’s involvement with Hispanic leader Delores Huerta (Monica Sanchez) and Native American politician Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero). As a female parallel to Aaron Sorkin’s all-male ensemble in The Trial of the Chicago 7 playing in the same digital pond, this is another award-worthy collection of stage presence and talent. All of these supporting actresses are boisterous treats to accompany the main character and amplify the larger messages. Touissant’s loose-cannon lecturer is the top scene-stealer.

Flo and Gloria share a smile as they plan their magazine
Photo Credit: Dan McFadden – Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

These memories and accomplishments from younger days are being reminisced all film by Moore’s oldest guise of Gloria as she travels by bus in the American West. Taymor created unique and intriguing transitional pauses by having Moore share seats and conversations with the three generations of actresses playing her younger self. They observe parts of the unattainable world from their moving windows. Shot in graceful black-and-white by three-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Silence), the segments represent a touch of a simpler form of playful macabre (some will say not enough) that comes with this storied director. 

These asides are the emotional connective tissue of the entire film. Unfiltered regrets, debated wisdom, and long-held dreams replace the microphone soundbites and the picket signs. Those scenes carry genuinely serene and affecting moments of reflection. They may be shot to look whimsical, but they reach to gild exposed and admitted personal flaws within the central figure. Call this respectful hero worship and the most traditional or packaged film Taymor’s ever made if you must. However, what’s left (political pun intended) is well-earned pride.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive and his own website Every Movie Has a Lesson. He contributes as a Content Supervisor and Assistant Editor on Film Obsessive. Don is also one of the hosts of the 25YL Media-backed Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Hollywood Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Independent Film Critics of America, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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