There’s a scene early in The Glorias when one Indian woman explains to another woman in India that Gloria Steinem has to travel third class while touring the country because she isn’t a man. The second woman doesn’t reply, “I know, you idiot. I live in India.” Instead, the two women go back to staring in adoration at the brave budding journalist in their midst.
This pretty much sets the tone for Julie Taymor’s plodding biopic of the pioneering feminist author, with the usually flashy director reduced to attempting a few visual moments already done better by B-movie hacks. At least Taymor does an admirable job of shooting Julianne Moore like Jean Claude Van Damme when Steinem walks into a bar during the Annual Black Hills Bike Rally to run into even more fans.
She’s one of four Glorias to admire here – with Ryan Kiera Armstrong playing girl Gloria, Lulu Wilson stepping in as a teen, Alicia Vikander in young adulthood, and Moore from middle age to the Wise Elder days. In typical Vikander style, that means Steinem spends her early adulthood slipping into a Swedish accent. The two latter Glorias will spend most of the film bravely facing down Aaron Sorkin-styled straw men and straw women.
There’s a brief exciting moment around the 90-minute mark when it appears all of Steinem’s glorification has set up a big finish at the 1977 National Women’s Conference. Instead, the event is just another bus stop in Gloria’s travel to glory. The only real tension is waiting to see how many of Steinem’s pioneering African-American cohorts briefly show up to keep the production from being a White Savior story. (Her rich boyfriend Mort Zuckerman is safely exiled from scenes where the women ponder how to fund Ms. magazine.)
There are also strange misfires such as Gloria literally reduced to being a frightened child when facing angry protesters, or Taymor recreating a perfect racist fantasy of Shirley Temple discovering black folk when young Gloria goes tapdancing in a barbershop. Of course, the true Glorias should be the fellow strong women that Steinem meets along the way. The script, however, can’t really be bothered with such things. It’s more important for the audience to get the superhero origin story behind Steinem’s iconic eyeglasses.