Movie review: Acting, writing, directing make ‘The Glorias’ a superb entertainment

Ed Symkus
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Gloria Steinem (Julianne Moore) checks out the headlines with Bella Abzug (Bette Midler).

The first words in Gloria Steinem’s Website (www.gloriasteinem.com) sum her up as “a writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer.” The new film “The Glorias,” directed by Julie Taymor (“The Tempest,” “Across the Universe”) and cowritten by Taymor and newcomer Sarah Ruhl, explores and celebrates each of those sections of Steinem’s productive life, then steps beyond just showing it, and turns it into a really entertaining piece of filmmaking.

The quotes in newspaper ads and the talking heads on TV will soon be mentioning how “important” the film is, and that is an apt adjective for it. Steinem has, for decades, been an enormously influential champion of the women’s movement. And the fact that here, in 2020, the Equal Rights Amendment still hasn’t been ratified makes the struggle even more relevant.

But the reason the film is accessible and effective, is that it never screams out, “Watch me because I’m important!” Rather, it gets across everything it has to say by being dramatic, insightful, powerful, maddening, timely and, once again, entertaining.

Taymor and Ruhl start off by telling two separate stories - about Steinem and about the growth of the women’s movement - but waste no time in showing how they eventually intertwine. For her life story, Taymor and Ruhl portray Steinem at four different ages, played by four different actors.

Little girl Gloria (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) lives an itinerant life with her happy schemer and dreamer of a dad (an unrecognizable Timothy Hutton in a fantastic performance) and her frowning mom (Enid Graham). Young girl Gloria (Lulu Wilson) starts to notice the strife between her parents. Young woman Gloria (Alicia Vikander) becomes aware of women’s concerns around the world when, post-college, she goes to India to study for two years. Adult Gloria (Julianne Moore) travels that path leading her from writer to lecturer to activist to organizer.

This is a film that never stays still, an element that works mostly for, but on a few occasions, against it. There’s no problem with it jumping around in time, between “different Glorias” at different ages to show her development as a person. And Taymor’s playful side has infused the film with brief, enjoyable segments of fantasy - as in a wild nod to “The Wizard of Oz” and “Macbeth” - and of animation. She also throws in some clever edits that tie scenes together, and includes just the right amount of archival footage, ranging from Richard Nixon to Harry Reasoner, from protests to rallies.

But a recurring series of black & white episodes on moving vehicles - a metaphor for Steinem’s journey from an observer to “the increasingly visible face of the women’s movement - that features the Glorias interacting with each other, is overused, and eventually feels forced and gimmicky.

That’s a small criticism for a film that’s bursting with so many ideas and story ingredients, including Steinem’s infamous early-career exposé of what it was like to be a Playboy bunny, her reasons for buying that first pair of huge glasses frames, and how she learned to handle disrespectful treatment by clueless members of the media. Because the film always keeps Steinem at its center, not much time is given over to other activists of the day, but there are appearances by and samples of good work from Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe) and Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint).

It’s honest to say that, from an acting standpoint, the first half of the film belongs to Alicia Vikander, and the second to Julianne Moore. But it must be pointed out that for every moment of her screen time as the outspoken and outrageous Bella Abzug, Bette Midler owns it all.

Among specific events incorporated are scenes from the National Women’s Caucus at the DNC in Miami in 1972, and from the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977. Taymor and Ruhl take it right up to the publication of Steinem’s 2016 memoir “My Life on the Road” (upon which the film is based) and the Women’s March on Washington on the day after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. It’s a terrific film that looks at Steinem’s trials and tribulations, triumphs and failures, and the long road that she’s traveled, filled with obstacles that she’s climbed right over.

“The Glorias” will be available Sept. 30 on digital and streaming exclusively on Prime Video.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“The Glorias”

Written by Julie Taymor and Sarah Ruhl; directed by Julie Taymor

With Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Timothy Hutton, Bette Midler, Enid Graham

Rated R