‘The Glorias’ is glorious

New film about Gloria Steinem will screen here next week.

Viewers of a certain age, men and women, will get their memories jogged next week when director Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias” screens at both the MVFF drive-in at the Ice Arena and at the M.V. Film Society’s outdoor movie theater at Featherstone. The film is an adaptation of journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem’s book “My Life on the Road.” Taymor has come to the Island since she was a child, and said she’s happy this newest film, slated for release this fall, will have an early screening here. She will be on hand to introduce the film at both screenings.

Watching “The Glorias” is like traveling through time, not only because it revisits pivotal moments in Steinem’s decades-long activism but also because Taymor manages to bridge gaps as she captures the vulnerable 6-year-old little girl Steinem, as well as the 12-year-old Gloria, the college-age Gloria, the journalist in her 20s, 30s, and 40s, and the 85-year-old Steinem. The characters move back and forth over decades, at times having conversations with each other. Taymor uses movement — in cars, Greyhound buses, taxis, and airplanes — to depict Steinem always on the go, and to represent her journey. Little-known aspects of Steinem’s life are brought to light, and there are surprises along the way that viewers may have never known before watching the film. There are also playful, fantastical scenes reminiscent of Taymor’s work in “Across the Universe” and her Broadway adaptation of “The Lion King.” Steinem collaborated with Taymor on the authenticity of “The Glorias,” and the result is a film that can be shown as a testament to the history of women’s rights.

The Times talked with Taymor last week about making the film and its relevance today, especially during the Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movements.

“I think it’s like Shakespeare, it’s relevant for all time,” Taymor said. “Gender issues are as old as human beings.”

“The Glorias” introduces viewers to Steinem’s parents, a father she understood and loved who was a wandering antiques salesman and a mother who struggled with psychological issues. Her parents separated when she was around 10 years old, and Gloria continued to live in Toledo, Ohio, with her mother. At one point in the film, Gloria’s father says that travel is the best form of education, and you watch how that plays out in Gloria’s life as she travels around the world and the country, never truly settling anyplace until much later in her life. The college-age Gloria spends time in India, where women on a train ask her why she isn’t married yet. She moves to New York as a young woman and begins her writing career at a time when men ran publications. She is hit on by her male superiors, and has the self-awareness to turn them down and carry on. Steinem is told by one of her editors: Men write, women do research.

In a scene from the mid-1960s, she’s in the back of a taxi sitting between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. Talese leans across Gloria and says to Bellow, “Every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer before she gets married.” The younger Gloria doesn’t respond in the moment, but the 50-year-old Gloria appears and says, “You can say what you want, but some of us are actually becoming the men we thought we wanted to marry.”

A welcome revelation and almost another character entirely in “The Glorias” is the relationships she has with other women. “In the film, I have a lot of particular women who are so critical in who Gloria is,” Taymor said.

Women of color who were also activists, co-founder of Ms. magazine with Steinem, Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), attorney Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), and one of Gloria’s closest friends, Wilma Man Killer (Kimberly Guerrero), first female chief of the Cherokee nation, are key characters in the film, as is Bette Midler as Bella Abzug. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is of Steinem as she covers the 1963 March on Washington. She has a brief conversation with an African American woman she’s standing next to in the crowd and the woman says, “You white women … if you don’t stand up for yourself, how are you going to stand up for anybody else?”

We see Steinem speaking from the pulpit of St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church in Minneapolis, where she was invited by a priest in the late 1970s. Steinem spoke from the pulpit about women taking control of their own bodies, how we’re addicted to an authoritarian system, and how the male church or state or family or tribe dictates the decision of whether a woman can or cannot have children.

There is no one defining moment in “The Glorias,” no one “aha” moment, because the entire film is powerful. Steinem’s relationships with other women, showing the respect and understanding they share as well as the humor and joy captured in victories, is a switch from the “buddy movies” we’re used to watching with male characters. There are men in the film, and they’re not all presented as macho, but rather men of the times. Taymor said she didn’t choose to depict the men in the film as villains, but rather that they were “limited by their life view and landscape.” She could have called them out in the film to a much larger degree, but that clearly wasn’t the filmmaker’s intent. “I worked with Harvey Weinstein,” Taymor said in the interview with The Times, “I know sleazebags.”

“She loved men,” Taymor says of Steinem, “there are men in the film, but the real relationships in the book were not the men … the true love is between these incredibly passionate activists. That’s what I wanted to show.” The real, true deep political relationships that moved Steinem as a social being are the women, Taymor explained. “I hope that women don’t have to define themselves over and over again by the men they work with.”

“The Glorias” shows Steinem as a reluctant speaker at first, but Hughes bolsters her nerves and she overcomes anxiety and goes on to speak all over the world. There are historical scenes throughout the film, both those filmed on a set and some portrayed using archival footage taken at the time. Viewers see the wisdom in Steinem’s ability to listen carefully to all sides of a conversation and the way she can address criticism quickly with candor and sometimes humor. You can’t help but feel unsettled watching scenes where television commentators and interviewers clearly treat her as a sex object. Women who have abortions are called “crazy,” and when Hughes and Steinem travel in an airplane and Hughes breastfeeds her daughter, a fellow female passenger calls her “disgusting.” It’s uncomfortable to remember these attitudes and scenarios, but it’s important to watch them. We don’t always think about what women had to go through then, and unfortunately sometimes still do.

“I read the book and said, This is not a movie but this has to be put out there,” Taymor said. “It’s not cinematic, but this childhood story that I hadn’t known was so moving, and it was dramatic.” Taymor said she didn’t know about those parts of Steinem’s life, and she wanted other women to be introduced to the whole person. She wanted viewers to remember all the other women who were so integral to the women’s movement. Taymor gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the National Women’s Conference in 1977, where First Ladies Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Lady Bird Johnson join the activists on stage, and where they talk about lesbian rights, abortion, and the struggles of Native American women and all women of color.

It’s the director’s hope, though, that the timely film jogs more than memories. Taymor says it’s important to see where we were then and to measure where we have come to at this point in time. Unfortunately, by the end of the film viewers might realize we haven’t come as far as we should.

“The Glorias” is an important biopic about a living, breathing person who is not just an icon from a movement in the past but someone to understand and learn from now.

The M.V. Film Society screens “The Glorias” on Tuesday, August 18, at 8 pm on the Featherstone campus. The MVFF shows the film on Saturday, August 22, at 8:15 pm at its summer drive-in location at the M.V. Ice Arena.