The Gloria Steinem biopic and its ideological ambitions are constrained by its cinematic format
Gloria Steinem has involuntarily become a cultural icon in the United States, specifically thanks to her feminist activism from the 1970s onwards. It’s curious that it’s taken Hollywood forty years since her peak activism to make a film about her; though it might well be that Steinem herself didn’t want to become a poster figure. 2020 has seen two visual media projects that explored the icon’s societal impact, the great limited series Mrs. America (2020) and the film The Glorias (2020), which just came out on Amazon Video.
The Glorias is essentially a by-the-numbers biopic. We follow Steinem and her upbringing as a little girl (Lulu Wilson), with an unreliable yet positive father (Timothy Hutton), to her introduction into the journalism world as a young woman (Alicia Vikander), to her shift to help lead the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment as matured woman (Julianne Moore).
The film is directed by Julie Traymor, who has unjustly found it too hard to fund her films; despite having produced the likes of Frida (2002) and her succinct Shakespeare adaptations such as Titus (1999). Traymor tries to infuse The Glorias with something different for biopic viewers; she centers the narrative around a surreal bus ride through time, where all the different iterations of Gloria interact, advising each other. The film also has little bouts of surrealism in its narrative, such as Gloria literally becoming a little girl when she feels vulnerable, bizarre scene transitions akin to a stage play, or the visually desired response Gloria imagines to a sexist comment. This proves to keep the 2hr and 19min film alive and maintains viewers slightly on their toes. Traymor also understands that the majority of biopics told in a chronological fashion prove to be boring in the beginning with childhood being summarized; this is slightly amended by Traymor by intercutting young Gloria with an adult one traveling through India. This choice ends up being slightly disorienting, however, as scenes are be placed incongruously to the natural flow of the narrative, confusing viewers as to which point in time they’re in.
Despite much effort on Traymor’s part, the actual narrative doesn’t escape the summary-like-tone that mainstream biopics have. Due to the constraints of time, the development of ideology and politics in Gloria’s mind is demonstrated messily with characters spewing clunky exposition. The film never seems to settle too long in any scene or location either, causing Gloria’s life to feel skimmed rather than understood. In fact, when The Glorias reach the 1970s and the fight for the ERA, viewers who’ve seen Mrs. America will no doubt find it difficult not to compare them and conclude that the limited series did it better. The Glorias simply doesn’t have time to dive into the rivalries, complexities, and contradictions that the 70s feminist movement grew to have, many specifically with Gloria at its center.
The Glorias is able to provide a view at the evolution that Gloria has from little skeptical girl to the potent public speaker. This is largely thanks to incredible performances, ranging from the young Lulu Wilson to the veteran Julianne Moore. However, I was much more impressed with Vikander’s portrayal, as she has to navigate the hard “transition” period of Gloria’s life, and she was always able to maintain a familiarity to viewers so that we aren’t alienated by the eventual icon Gloria became. This becomes crucial to the objective of the film, at trying to humanize a seemingly divine celebrity, and is all thanks to detailed nuances Vikander brings to her performance.
In the end, The Glorias proves to be a respectable biopic covering an essential character in the American feminist movement. The film does seem to hold its subject in too high esteem, however, not diving into the contradictions or backtracking that Steinem went through, which would have proven to be intriguing character explorations. Instead we are left with a typical skimmed resumé of her life, thankfully spruced up with strong performances and honorable stylistic efforts from Traymor.