There’s a scene in Gloria Steinem’s 2015 memoir My Life on the Road in which the feminist activist takes an inspiring cab ride with a young driver who has no idea who she is. Having sworn off books, TV, and the internet, he rides around with a drawing of a huge eye “to remind me to see with my own eyes.” And though that driver doesn’t show up in The Glorias, a film that often draws language and imagery from Steinem’s memoir, director Julie Taymor seems to share her protagonist’s determination to experience the world with an unmediated eye. Even as The Glorias revisits the well-trod territory of Steinem’s culture-molding achievements and the historical contexts in which they were made, this double helix of a biopic offers a twisty chronology and a slate of perspective-shifting surprises.
Throughout The Glorias, we return to Steinem riding a bus and talking to herself—that is, four versions of herself, played sequentially and sometimes simultaneously, by Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander, and Julianne Moore. The world outside the bus’s window—rivers and fields, Steinem’s roving father’s car zipping down the road, the crowded streets of Delhi and New York—shimmers with vibrant colors as she commutes back and forth within her own history. Inside the vehicle, it’s black and white.
Though the device of variously aged versions of the same person conversing with one another recalls Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, there’s no conflict between the Glorias who ride the bus. These Steinem shadows offer each other only words of regret or reassurance, as they size up the impact of the flightiness of their father, Leo (Timothy Hutton), and the mental illness of their mother, Ruth (Enid Graham), who abandoned a fledgling journalism career. But this space and its omnipresence explain how Steinem, whoever’s playing her, can be both boldly present in the moment and somehow standing at a careful distance.
The bus—along with the road that Steinem’s traveled—is what holds her back but also what steels her resolve. It’s there as Vikander’s Gloria first panics at the thought of public speaking and then becomes a leading voice of American feminism and as Moore’s Gloria stoically and sardonically absorbs the salacious, spiteful media storm after she launches Ms. magazine. When Steinem first tries on her signature sunglasses and the store clerk cautions her that they’ll hide her beautiful face, Vikander’s Gloria grins inwardly, as if sharing a sly secret with her former and future selves, before declaring, “They’re perfect.” With so many incarnations of herself to turn to, it’s easy for Gloria Steinem to keep her own counsel.
Like My Life on the Road, The Glorias takes a dogged disinterest in a romantic life much-scrutinized elsewhere, focusing instead on Steinem’s impassioned friendships with her collaborators: Flo Kennedy (played with fierce, candid warmth by Lorraine Toussaint), Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), and Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), the first woman elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. The film’s attention to Steinem’s great gift as a listener (she has been called a “celestial bartender”) more than justifies the stops along the way that focus on the diverse voices, like Mankiller’s, that Steinem helped to amplify, her activism energized always by allyship.
Experimental playwright Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play) makes her screenwriting debut here, sharing the credit with Taymor, and much of the thematic legwork has been done for them. In her memoir, Steinem psychologizes her constant travel as she draws connections between her father’s nomadic urges and her own need to be on the move. But the film weaves its own refreshingly unpredictable web as the strands of Steinem’s life spiral around each other through snippets of scenes that work efficiently and never preachily. (Only occasionally do Taymor’s tricksy fantasy sequences land on the wrong side of weird.)
The Glorias loses its balance only when Steinem’s life rushes up against history, the film’s kaleidoscopic momentum tripping toward a future that hasn’t been written yet. As the road trip whirls toward 2020, Taymor’s overreliance on documentary footage sometimes jars with the usual deliberateness of her visual storytelling. But the film’s connection with the present moment is also its greatest emotional asset. It’s difficult to separate The Glorias from the context of its release, scenes of Steinem leading rallies for reproductive freedom stretching forward to the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the present threat facing Roe v. Wade.
Whether it’s the movie or the moment, The Glorias gut-punches its way through modern American history. In one briefly animated sequence, the road itself transforms into a treadmill. Though just one striking image of many in The Glorias, it’s the shot that will linger most hauntingly. After traveling so far, how could the road ahead still look so familiar?