Based on Gloria Steinem’s own memoir My Life on the Road, The Glorias painstakingly covers the feminist icon’s life from her childhood in the 1940s to the Women’s March in January 2016. That span of time feels as long as it sounds as portrayed in this biopic, which seems to be simultaneously worshipful, deferential, and cryptically evasive of its subject.
A lot of time is spent on her younger years, focusing on her relationships with her always traveling grifter father (Timothy Hutton) and sickly mother (Enid Graham). To cover so much ground, she is portrayed by four different actresses, with Oscar winners Alicia Vikander as young woman Gloria, and Julianne Moore as middle, older, and senior Gloria being the marquee names. The thing is, none of the actresses look remotely alike, making especially Alicia/Julianne’s long parted-down-the-middle hippie-hair-plus-tinted-big-glasses seem like a lazy costume designer’s only attempt at continuity for the second half of the film. To remind us that these girls and women are stages of the same character, transitions show them traveling and often interacting together on a vintage bus, with a destination of anticipation, mystery, and sometimes dread. But the bus thing gets overplayed quickly and seems more like a gimmick than something symbolic and meaningful.
Steinem’s start in journalism, with her groundbreaking exposé about being a Playboy Bunny, is a fascinating reflection of her own workplace of rampant good-old-boy sexism at magazines and newspapers. I also enjoyed the scenes portraying the birth of Ms. magazine, with the magazine’s main players brainstorming story ideas and pitches (including what would still be a shocking feature of what famous women admitted to having an abortion). Where the story gets squishy is Steinem’s own role in the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.
The story seems to want to humbly downplay Steinem’s own role in the scene. Sure, she is the photogenic white lady voice of the revolution, but she is also repeatedly shown supporting other lesser-known groups and names. Here she is serving as the scribe at a meeting of Asian-American women. Here she is in the gathering where Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero) was elected first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. Here she is stepping back to learn from black women leaders like Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe) and Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint). By melting into the background (by choice, it would seem), Gloria, with her thin smile and big glasses, becomes the least interesting person in the room. Considering the movie is about Gloria Steinem and not all these other women, that may not have been the best dramatic choice for a film then starts to quickly feel over long.
Why is it that she (fairly or not) is the enduring symbol of the feminist movement and not these other players? A glimpse of that answer is teased at in the final moments of the film, which shows the real-life Gloria Steinem speaking at the Women’s March on Washington, the day after Trump’s inauguration. In her 80s, she is a commanding, eloquent presence whose empowering words are still rousing. Unfortunately, The Glorias’ dramatizations only hint at why and how she became such an icon.