Thursday, October 1, 2020

film review: The Glorias


Directed by Julie Taymor

Written by Julie Taymor and Sarah Ruhl, based on My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

ChinoKino score: B-

Review by Allan Tong

Feminist pioneer, Gloria Steinem, receives the overdue biopic treatment at the hands of one of the most imaginative directors around, Julie Taymor. Taymor takes an unconventional approach, bouncing between Steinem travels as a university students through impoverished India to her pivotal role in launching the feminist movement and to her struggles against sexism as a young journalist in 1960s New York. The effect, unfortunately, is uneven. It's like a cinematic triptych where we view various Glorias juxtaposed and in parallel which is both dazzling, but confusing.

Young Gloria grows up in Depression-era Ohio where young Gloria is haunted by her mother who plunges into melancholy. Her mother was a journalist, but had to hide behind a man's byline. Glorias learns that it's a man's world and women take a back seat. Gloria's father (played by a scene-stealing Timothy Hutton) is lovable sort of schemer, always looking for ways to turn a quick buck, but ultimately he looks out for his little girl. 

Flashforward about a dozen years, and Gloria is traveling on her own through India, paid by a fellowship. She sets out to listen to the plight of lower-caste women. She hears of young girls being raped and abused in a society that ignores their plight. Her consciousness, born in her mother's house, matures here.


The core of the film follows Gloria through the 1960s as she endures constant sexism at several New York magazines. She tries to break out of the female ghetto of writing about dating and fashion, and tries instead to pitch stories to her condescending male editors about abortion and civil rights. It's an uphill battle, but she she endures. Her expose of the Playboy Club's exploitative labour practices make her enemies, but raise her profile. Still, no magazine would print her stories about women's rights, so Gloria goes on to co-found the legendary Ms. magazine. 

The constant shifting in time is a cinematic convention, but it's overdone here. Juxtaposing young Gloria listening to the woes of suppressed Indian women with, say, black women in racist 1960s America, makes a point. But the constant bouncing around is too often meaningless and, worse, throws off the viewer. Where is this film going?

This structure also robs the film of building any momentum as Gloria helps launch the American feminist moment, one whose ripples are felt today. This should be an exciting, triumphant part of the movie. Instead, it feels strangely flat.

There's no denying that many scenes and sequences are dazzling. No one can fill a screen with colour and movement like Taymor. Her marvelous eye is at work here. True, some scenes look stagey, as in theatrical stagey, and this inconsistency makes the film meander even further, but these are exceptions.

Steinem is played by several fine actresses, starting with Alicia Vikander who portrays the key period in her life in New York, and Julianne Moore who is a dead ringer for the later Steinem. (Steinem herself cameos.) Janelle Monae makes a notable appearance as Black activist, Dorothy Pitman Hughes.

So, The Glorias, succeeds in telling Steinem's story and celebrates her triumphs, but does so in a flawed way. A more conventional storytelling structure and a shorter film would have made more impact on audiences. Still, Gloria's story is still worth telling here.

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