”The Glorias” is an offbeat biographical tribute that feels like it wants to be offbeater.
It’s about Gloria Steinem and, as the title hints, we get multiple versions of her. One appears to be about 9. One is closer to 14. One is around 30 and played by Alicia Vikander, with a wobbly accent and aviator glasses that overwhelm her performance. And another, the most interesting one, takes Steinem from about 40 to the present. She’s played by Julianne Moore, and the movie could use a lot more of her.
The script by director Julie Taymor and co-writer Sarah Ruhl skips around in time, peeking in on vignettes from throughout the icon’s life. Those color scenes are united by a black-and-white framing device: On a bus trip, the four Glorias meet and discuss her life, as if trying to help each other figure out who Steinem is while the movie helps us do the same.
It’s initially off-putting but it’s as good a way as any for a movie to acknowledge that it’s impossible to cram a big life into a couple of hours and, at the conclusion, it pays off in a very satisfying way.
Still, and maybe this is just because I’ve been watching two 30-something women brilliantly play adolescents in “PEN15,” I kind of wish Moore had played Steinem at all ages. That surreal touch might fit better with the bus scenes and make the biographical bits feel less stodgy. Moore’s Steinem is direct, funny, compassionate and collaborative and the movie is at its best when she and other women are, for instance, brainstorming a magazine that will become Ms., or figuring out how to get the Democratic Party to make women’s rights part of its platform.
In those scenes, I wondered if the movie’s title might refer not just to the four Steinems who are depicted but also to Steinem’s fellow activists: Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), who proposes the magazine; Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez), who forces Steinem to realize that not all feminists want the same things; and an unnamed woman at the March on Washington who reminds Steinem — and us — that the Women’s Movement owes its beginnings to Black trailblazers such as Fannie Lou Hamer.
“The Glorias” isn’t the most nuanced portrait of Steinem. If she ever told a mean joke or disrespected her mother, we don’t find out in this admiring film. What we do get, though, is the context for Steinem’s achievements: how her precarious childhood gave her resolve, how experiencing sexism hands-on (literally) made her a fighter and how working with dozens of other women (many of them also depicted in Hulu’s recent “Mrs. America” series) helped her see herself as part of something bigger.
That hits home when Steinem, already a famous journalist and activist, grabs a notepad to record minutes at a minor caucus meeting, or when she takes a back seat to more gifted orators. (Margo Moorer, who starred in “Trouble in Mind” at the Guthrie Theater, only has one scene as Rep. Barbara Jordan, but she is titanic.)
As the movie ends, Taymor floods the screen with images of real women throughout history, which could mean that anyone who fights for a better, fairer world is a Gloria. Maybe we all are Glorias.