Although she is mostly known for her visually extravagant and surreal Broadway theatrical productions and film work, Julie Taymor created a more conventionally structured biopic with her film “The Glorias” (2020). The result is one of her most emotionally resonant works of art, and a further evolution in Taymor’s increasingly accomplished cinematic projects. While Taymor’s earlier films like “Frida” and “Across The Universe” were hallucinatory fever dreams that used flamboyantly constructed set pieces to tell their stories, “The Glorias” takes a more traditional biopic approach to tell its equally fascinating narrative.

“The Glorias” is about the revered political activist and writer Gloria Steinem, an important historical figure whose life-story is even more relevant now in lieu of recent events. The film covers her youth traveling the country with her adventurous parents, along with her own journeys in India as a college student, and up through her rise as an important voice in the Women’s Rights Movement from the 1970s and into the modern era. Portrayed by Julianne Moore as the older Steinem, and Alicia Vikander and Lulu Wilson in her younger years, “The Glorias” is for the most part a conventionally constructed biography. However, Taymor still employs her more fantastical visual motifs throughout the film, creating some visually astonishing set pieces to portray the inner thoughts of Steinem throughout the years.

With its story of a Caucasian woman who is exposed to and shows genuine concern for women from other cultures beyond her own, “The Glorias” is also the story of Taymor herself. Like Steinem, Taymor is a Caucasian woman who left the United States during her youth and college years to explore and immerse herself in non-Western culture. While Steinem travelled to and lived in India as a youth, Taymor spent time during her youth in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, and Japan to study the arts and culture there, which would go on to influence her own work as an adult.

Steinem’s years in India exposed her to the inequities and prejudice in the culture towards women and members of different castes, which would inform much of her own political activism in the United States to fight for both the Women’s Rights and Civil Rights movements. However, Taymor also shows how Steinem was aware of her own privileged position as a White woman in American society. Although she still had to fight to break the glass ceiling for women in regards to reproductive issues, career prospects, and the general perceptions towards women as sex objects, Steinem was careful not be a lead spokesperson for African-Americans and other minority women in their own battles.

Taymor shows how Steinem genuinely cared for the rights of female minorities, but she wanted to let them tell their stories in their own voices, and not impose her voice as a White woman into their campaigns. This is why we see scenes of Steinem encouraging African-American, Asian-American, as well as Native-American women to fight for their own causes during the 1977 National Women’s Political Caucus. By doing this, Taymor is avoiding the trap of having a White savior in her film, a category which Steinem herself tried hard to avoid throughout her own career as a writer and political activist. For Steinem, her role was to empower others to have their own unique voices be heard.

Indeed, the subject of finding a voice is a constant theme throughout “The Glorias.” In this way, Taymor’s film recalls Jane Campion‘s “An Angel At My Table,” another searing portrait of a female artist embracing her unique talents as a writer in a patriarchal society. Taymor examines how due to male-centric prejudices about her as a woman, the young Steinem struggled to get her voice as a journalist heard. While Steinem wanted to write and report about the Civil Rights Movement, her male editor instead wanted her to write about more feminine topics like models, fashion, and dating. After Steinem finally discovers her voice as a writer, she later struggles to find her voice as a public speaker. But with the help of the African-American political activists Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae) and Florynce Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Steinem develops into a powerful orator for the rights of women and minorities.

Taymor also explores Steinem’s relationship with her parents and how they shaped her into the feminist icon she later became. Steinem’s mother Ruth Nuneviller (Enid Graham) was a former journalist who gave up her writing career to get married to Leo Steinem (Timothy Hutton) and raise Gloria. This revelation caused Steinem to avoid marriage until much later in her life, and focus on her writing and political activism career instead, as she didn’t want to fall into the same trap as her mother. Steinem was trying to redefine the role of women as the primary caregiver for their children, which oftentimes resulted in them having to sacrifice their life goals and ambitions. Throughout the film, we see male interviewers question and criticize Steinem for never getting married, but for her the more important goal was to get her voice heard as a strong and independent woman.

Steinem’s father Leo is portrayed as a hustler of sorts, who was always trying to come up with elaborate schemes to strike it rich, but more often than not his endeavors ended up as fiascos. However, Leo was also an open-minded and adventurous person, which influenced Steinem to be the courageous and strong-willed woman that she later became. Her father’s spontaneous travels across the country would encourage Steinem to explore India as a young woman, and give her the curiosity to empathize with and try to understand cultures outside her own. This is why Taymor explores the lifelong friendships Steinem had with the Mexican-American labor activist Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez) and the Cherokee activist Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero).

With “The Glorias,” Taymor has created an epic and complex portrait of an extraordinary woman. While Taymor for the most part holds back on her more extravagant cinematic techniques, the few occasions when we see the usual Taymor theatrical flair are wonders to behold, including a breathtaking sequence where we see Steinem transition from a young woman to her older self during a talk show, all against the backdrop of a “Wizard of Oz” inspired visual montage.

Like Spike Lee with “Malcolm X,” Taymor uses a more traditional narrative structure to tell Steinem’s story because she wants to emphasize the importance of Steinem as a historical figure, rather than bombard the audience with extraneous visual cues. In the process, Taymor has created one of her most dramatically powerful work of art so far, one that succeeds as both an examination of a society overcoming prejudice and hate, as well as a moving homage to a woman who changed the course of American history for the better.

  • Film Review: "The Glorias"