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Killing Them Softly

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Pitt ends up Killing Them Softly

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Julie Taymor turns Gloria Steinem’s life story into a moving work of art.

The Celestial Bartender

Gloria (Alicia Vikander) and Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae)
Gloria (Alicia Vikander) and Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae)

Some movie directors are simply a joy to follow and to watch their latest work unfold onscreen, even if the end results don’t always add up perfectly. Typically, it’s a short, male-heavy list of directors with an established track record: Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Damien Chazelle, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese. But Julie Taymor has also secured a spot on the list. Her movies are every bit “Taymor,” just as those other directors leave an indelible, personal mark on their projects.

In The Glorias, no less than five people portray Gloria Steinem, including the real-life Gloria, who’s shown speaking at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017. It’s a biographical account that is artfully told and so uniquely Taymor. Look back on her other features, including the stylish bio-pic Frida (with Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo), the brutality of Shakespeare’s Titus and her gender swap in The Tempest, along with the Beatles lovefest, Across the Universe. This one ranks right at the top among the best of her filmed works.

One of the coolest scenes in a movie this year is in The Glorias; it’s a single take moving from the back of a bus — where the youngest versions of Gloria (Ryan Kiera Armstrong  and Lulu Wilson) are seated — up the rows. Along the way, there’s Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore as generational variants of Gloria. Then there’s a blink-and-miss-it cameo by Taymor. Finally, the real-life Steinem is seen riding at the front of the bus. She’s now 86 years old and looking remarkably healthy, itself seemingly an act of defiance against the discriminatory limitations imposed by aging.

That bus is jam-packed with symbolism and artistic flairs. A black-and-white interior paired with a Technicolor world outside. It’s a movie about one person’s journey that can be shared — and appreciated — by all.

The Tap-Dancing Journalist

In this period of COVID-19 lockdowns — and with some 30% of movie theatres still closed in the U.S. — many movies have been forced to take the direct-to-streaming route. Under normal circumstances, in a previous age (go all the way back to February 2020), that would’ve been a sign the movie was a dud. Sure. Some releases have been less than even modestly good (The High Note comes to mind). But, in the case of The Glorias, it’s a shame this one’s taken that step. It’s terrific filmmaking on all levels — including loads of fantastic visual touches that were intended to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

Bundled with the visuals, though, The Glorias tells a deeply personal story that benefits from the close-in comforts of the home screen. Taymor and co-writer Sarah Ruhl have taken Steinem’s autobiography, My Life on the Road, and hit virtually the complete range of emotions. Remarkably, they’ve done it without turning The Glorias into an angry movie or a depressing experience. If anything, the theme of the movie — and, by extension, Steinem’s life — is “hope.”

What does it take to make a world-changing influencer like Gloria Steinem? Well, at least as told here, it takes a forever-optimistic father (Timothy Hutton, All the Money in the World) who fancies calling himself Leo “Steinemite” (and whose penchant for wit extends out to naming the family dog “Dammit”). It also takes a forever-pessimistic mother (Enid Graham, The Rewrite), who Gloria reflects on as having lived most of her life with a broken spirit.

Gloria (Alicia Vikander)
Gloria (Alicia Vikander)

It’s interesting to see the parental influences loom so large in Steinem’s life. They aren’t a source of conflict, but mostly an inspiration for so much that follows. A major factor is her father advising that travel is the best education (which leads her to a two-year fellowship studying in India, which in turn raises Steinem’s awareness of the inequities and injustices of the caste system as well as Gandhi’s peaceful protest strategy of Ahimsa).

But this isn’t a whimsical story of fate and life’s pieces magically falling into place. Steinem’s story simply makes a lot of sense as she attempts to balance family loyalty with personal ambition. Her mom was — back before the family life — a journalist. But she had to use a male pseudonym in those days. The sacrifices of her mother weigh heavily on Gloria as she watches her decline, exacerbated by a nervous breakdown before Gloria was even born. As for Dad, well, he died alone — and also in despair — following an accident; Gloria was unable to be at his side.

The Bunny Dip

Naturally, The Glorias puts Steinem in a positive light and — as with any autobiographical account — there’s likely a personal bias to one degree or another. Nonetheless, what’s here makes for a great movie that eloquently handles the material at hand.

Think about those early days of “women’s lib.” There’s Gloria working as a Playboy bunny and learning the “bunny dip” at one of the mansions as part of an undercover expose. Equal rights, racial injustices. It’s still timely material all these decades later.

But also consider how far things have come. Consider the societal norms — not even going back through centuries of historical baggage spanning the world, but simply during the course of Steinem’s life.

Consider the 1950s and the financial and professional shackles Lucy and Ethel endured in I Love Lucy. Sure, the show’s a comedy/fantasy, but there were very real societal restrictions that colored more than Lucy’s hair. People easily lose sight of that, and current events indicate people have lost that insight. Even worse, there was The Honeymooners. Today, that show’s pretty hard to watch — and the problem extends well beyond the fuzzy black-and-white imagery. Even more recently, Star Trek was all about traveling where “no man has gone before” for more than 20 years, until The Next Generation adjusted the verbiage to the all-inclusive “no one” in 1987.

The Life on the Road

Gloria (Julianne Moore)
Gloria (Julianne Moore)

Taymor understands movies as an art form and as a storytelling medium. Here, Steinem’s life unfolds in a non-linear fashion that smoothly moves around based on thematic elements. It’s rather breathtaking to step back and consider this one key tenet of storytelling: the character arc.

Vikander’s Gloria stumbles while giving her first public speech and she goes on to ask an audience how many of those in attendance have a fear of public speaking. By movie’s end, the real Steinem is standing strong and speaking forcefully in front of the masses, presenting an agenda that is most definitely as liberal as ever.

There are also the little moments, as when a reporter questions Gloria on a new term, “sexual harassment,” and what it means. Men aren’t particularly demonized here, at least not any more so than bad actors should be demonized. That’s not the focus of this movie and it wouldn’t be all that helpful if it were. Instead, it rather cheekily simply asks the question, “Why is that?” As the movie weaves a generations-spanning conversation between the Glorias, it’s clear the life the adult Gloria is thrust into isn’t the life the tweenage Gloria had in mind.

In many respects it all boils down to a conversation college-age Gloria has with a British doctor. It’s about having an abortion — an act illegal both in England and the U.S. He tells her she must do two things: never share his name with others and — to justify the risks — do you what you want to do with your life.


Five Glorias and a Julie

Photos: Roadside Attractions and LD Entertainment