Producers: Alex Saks, Julie Taymor and Lynn Hendee   Director: Julie Taymor   Screenplay: Sarah Rule and Julie Taymor   Cast: Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler, Timothy Hutton, Lulu Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Enid Graham, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Kimberly Guerrero, Mo Brings Plenty and Monica Sanchez Distributor: Roadshow Attractions

Grade: B

Director Julie Taymor and her co-writer Sarah Rule offer some narrative and visual flourishes in “The Glorias”—a linking device set on a bus allows four incarnations of Gloria Steinem at different ages converse with one another, for example, and one sequence in particular—a confrontation with a smug, condescending interviewer on a TV show—turns into a flamboyant fantasy inspired by “The Wizard of Oz.” 

For the most part, however, their biographical film about the women’s rights icon is relatively conventional.  True, the script does shuffle the chronology, and Rodrigo Prieto’s widescreen cinematography opts for a luminous look that suggests an aura of legend.  But Sabine Hoffman’s editing (as well as the use of the various actresses) manages to keep the track of events clear, and the treatment remains grounded in reality, even of a visually enhanced variety. 

At the same time, it’s highly laudatory, despite suggesting an occasional chink in the heroine’s armor.  One could hardly expect otherwise of a film based on the subject’s own 2015 memoir “My Life on the Road,” particularly one whose title would sound, when spoken, very much like “The Glorious.”   Male chauvinists might object to the positive characterization, but they can always make a movie called “The Schlaflys” in reply.

A good portion of the film is devoted to its subject’s early life as the daughter of Leo Steinem (Timothy Hunter), a rambunctious, free-spirited, charismatic huckster, and Ruth (Enid Graham), a physically and mentally troubled soul.  This material is an eventful, frequently moving depiction of the unorthodox fashion in which Gloria, played successively by Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Lulu Wilson, grew up, and thankfully it doesn’t try to hammer home high-minded lessons about how it affected her outlook.  It does suggest the source of the older Gloria’s expansive, rebellious attitude toward conventional norms.

That quality comes out fully when the film pivots to the “grown-up” Glorias, played successively by Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore.  There’s a telling moment when Vikander’s Gloria is called on to travel cross-country to the bedside of her father, who’s been seriously injured in a car crash, only to arrive shortly after his death, only to be berated by a male doctor for not having fulfilled her female duty to have been with him when he died.  That dovetails with scenes of her traveling to India to see first-hand the treatment of women there, and the brouhaha that occurred over her groundbreaking article on working conditions for Playboy Bunnies in Hugh Hefner’s posh clubs, which marked her emergence from being a writer of fluff pieces and marked her emergence as an activist despite the sexism still operative in the offices of magazines. 

From here the script proceeds to the more mature Steinem, played by Moore, transforming into a more confident public figure and spokeswoman for a movement.  Her involvement with (and to some extent mentoring by) such notables as Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe) and Florynce Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), as well as her entrance into the political arena—particularly through commitment to the campaign of Bella Abzug (Bette Midler)—are covered with colorful enthusiasm, as is the take-a-chance founding of “Ms.” (complete with an animated sequence involving its first cover) and the subsequent entering of that term of address into the American lexicon.  Here the juxtaposition of archival footage with recreations is cannily employed, especially in a telling montage that contrasts grumpy newsman Harry Reasoner’s peremptory dismissal of the magazine with his later apology for being so off-track. 

There are other nods to Steinem’s broad range of activity that stick in the memory.  One is her connection with the fight for farm workers’ rights, shown through her relationship with Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez).  But even more touching is the bond she develops with Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), the woman running to be elected the first female head of her Native American tribe, and Wilma’s supportive male friend—and eventual husband—Charlie Soap (Mo Brings Plenty).  What comes across in these vignettes and elsewhere is Steinem’s ability to reach across partisan lines to find—and nourish—common interests despite differences.  It’s a quality that finds expression in the creation of the National Organization of Women and the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment which, though ultimately a failure, was a milestone in her career.

At the close Taymor turns to actual footage of octogenarian Steinem still fighting for her cause, a nice cap to what is essentially a warmhearted tribute to a remarkable person.  But the tactic shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the remarkable performances of the four stand-in Glorias.  Moore and Vikander are especially important, of course, and both do excellent, soulful work, but the two younger actresses, Armstrong and Wilson, shouldn’t be overlooked either.  In the supporting cast the array of colorful women is consistently eye-catching; among what are basically cameos, Midler certainly stands out as the formidable Abzug.  The pickings are slimmer for men, but Hutton gives Leo a tone of desperate, frustrated magnetism that’s some of his best work in years.

Covering as many decades as it does, “The Glorias” was certainly a challenge to the crafts team, but production designer Kim Jennings and costumer Sandy Powell show themselves up to the challenge of recreation, though the result is compromised a bit by Prieto’s habitually glossy lensing.  Editor Sabine Hoffman manages to tie the chronological shifts together reasonably well, giving the whole a smoothness that doesn’t come naturally to it, while Elliot Goldenthal contributes an unobtrusively supportive score.

Another of Taymor’s more surrealistic is the image of Steinem on an endless treadmill, struggling to stay on track.  It’s a good symbol of her boundless commitment to the cause, but though it suggests the exhaustion that must have accompanied the effort, the film, though one senses it might have been sharper and edgier, never becomes a slog for the viewer—except, presumably, for the rabid anti-feminists who are still around in the twenty-first century, trying to maintain limits for what women can achieve, often surreptitiously but, it seems, with increasing directness nowadays.

Maybe one of them will make “The Schlaflys.”