Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A hit-and-miss portrait of Gloria Steinem

      Few would argue that Gloria Steinem -- one of the founders of Ms. magazine and a leading voice in the latter-day feminist movement -- helped transform American life. Fair to say, then, that Steinem deserves a biopic. 
    I'm not sure that The Glorias, which was directed by Julie Taymor, qualifies as that movie. The Glorias proves sweeping and general, often outlining the social and personal parameters that defined Steinem's life.
    Perhaps Taymor was trying for a biopic-plus, a movie about a woman and also about a movement from which her life proves inseparable. 
    But at two hours and 17 minutes, the resultant film often outsmarts itself by juggling time and by including embellishments such as scenes of Steinem in dialogue with herself: the older Steinem talking to the younger Steinem, for example.
     Four actresses play Steinem at different ages. Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays Gloria as a child. Lulu Wilson handles the teen-age years. Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore take over adulthood.
     The most developed relationship in the film involves Gloria and her father (Timothy Hutton). Hutton's Leo Steinem moved the family around as he drifted from one scheme to another. His instability and hucksterism may have helped drive Steinem's mother (Enid Graham) into extended bouts of depression and anxiety.
    At the same time, Steinem shows affection for her often-absentee father whose unbridled -- if unjustified -- optimism is not without charm. He's one of those men who insist on improvising their way through life.
     A post-college trip to India seems illustrative of what keeps The Glorias from soaring. Traveling alone in India, the adventurous Steinem mingles with the poor, honing her social conscience. 
      But the trip to India, like other of the movie's segments,  feels as if it were designed to display one of Steinem's many admirable traits, in this case, her concern for lower-caste women.
    Put another way, too much of what happens in The Glorias feels pre-programmed rather than discovered. We're making stops at key biographical points rather than leaping into an unfolding world of possibility.
    Maybe because the journalism in the late '50s and '60s was such a far cry from the journalism of the 21st century, I was most interested in Steinem's life as a young woman newly arrived in New York. 
     An aspiring writer and recent Smith graduate, Steinem -- played by Vikander at this point -- lands a series of jobs with various organizations, The New York Times among them. Editors persistently try to push her into the world of soft features. She wants her work to hit harder.
    One of her articles, a 1963 expose of what it's like to work as a bunny at a Playboy Club, attracts significant attention but threatens to typecast her. Her male editors want more of the same.
    By the time, Moore becomes Steinem in the movie's final going, The Glorias seems less a biopic than a look at a burgeoning movement with strong contributions from Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, Janelle Monae as Dorothy Pitman Luge, and Lorraine Toussaint as activist Flo Kennedy. 
    Taymor the keeps touching movement signposts,  perhaps because Steinem is wary about not turning herself into an icon. She wants the movement to get top billing.
    Steinem's transition from journalist to activist hardly coms as a surprise. Throughout Taymor's collage of a biography, Steinem remains a woman of courage and conviction.  She seems to have been born "woke." 
    Taymor has directed films (Titus, Frida, A Midsummer Night's Dream) and also is known for adventurous theater,  most prominently, The Lion King.  Here, she adds theatrical flourishes, self-conscious flights into surrealism that break the biopic mold but disrupt as much as they illuminate. 
     She also uses real news footage and shows the real Steinem at the 2017 Women's March in Washington, DC.  
    Steinem, who's now 86, has lived through many stages  of the women's movement. That means the movie serves as an important reminder of what life was like prior to the 1970s, prior to Roe v. Wade and prior to the arrival of women in important roles in business and public life.
    Many rightly will view The Glorias as call to take heed at a time when such gains are being threatened. Sexism and misogyny are still with us, of course, but that doesn't mean The Glorias couldn't have been better.
     The Glorias isn't a bad movie, but it teases us into wondering what might have been. 

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