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A CurtainUp Streaming Feature
By Elyse Sommer
Playwright Emily Mann managed to create a wonderfully dynamic stage script that I was lucky enough to see during New York's last normal theater season. As directed by Diane Paulus Gloria, a Life epitomized how a big story could be staged without a big cast or a lot of scenery, and yet be extraordinarily engaging. Readers following my streamed theater outings were able to see how it was done when I reviewed the filmed version that was available for streaming last June and July. The performance of Gloria, a Life that was filmed was, in fact, the very same one I attended at the Daryl Roth Theater — the one at which Steinem herself was the play's post-performance guest star.
While the Emily Mann play is no longer available to stream, another team of stage luminaries have tackled Steinem's life for a film. Naturally the camera enables us to see the narrative unfold in many, often far distant, locations. It also makes all sorts of visual tricks possible, something sure to appeal to a director like Julie Taymor who's accustomed to creating theatrical magic — as she did with The Lion King. To help her imbue the film script of Steinem's book with some wizardly tricks rather than a straightforward, chronological bio-drama, Taymor enlisted Sarah Ruhl, a playwright known for her experimental work, as her co-author.
You don't have to look beyond the title — The Glorias — to spot the biggest trick Taymor and Ruhl have come up with. They've opted to cast their page-to-screen version of Steinem's journey four differently aged Glorias. Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays her as an observant third grader, Lulu Wilson as a teenager. Alicia Vikander as a college student on a travel grant to India and as a budding journalist whose breakthrough in a male-dominated newspaper and magazine world came via her going undercover to expose poor working conditions of Playboy Bunnies. Moore plays the best known Gloria, who evolved into one of the best known champions of the woman's movement, one of the rising tide of feminists who belied their "crazy lady" label and legitamized Ms. as a new form of address as well as the title of a magazime about issues of Steinem and her co-founders' own choosing.
The tricky aspect of this is that the various Glorias appear throughout the film, not just in their chronological time frame. Often, we see them actually sitting side by side and interacting with each other. These Gloria pop-ups fit in with the overall structure being non-chronological.
If the switch between scenes in black and white and color is intended to avoid confusing the viewer, it doesn't really; nor is the casting clever enough to prevent its feeling a bit gimmicky.
Though not quite the cleverest ever film trick, the multiple casting is splendidly executed, usually taking place on a bus which is doubly effective since it echoes the title of the source book. Thanks to period perfect costumes, hairdos and style props (yes, the aviator glasses!), all look enough alike to be the same person at a particular afte and time. Most importantly, the performances are top-drawer. Even the younger thespians manage individualize their roles for the particular age of Gloria's life they're inhabiting.
Each of the many stops on Steinem's eventful journey through life is filled with her strong connection with family as well as friends. Considerable time is spent with her father (Timothy Hutton), who brought brightness to her childhood even as his harebrained career choices made for a difficult childhood. Her mother obviously served as a symbol of all the women for whom marriage and motherhood put the kabosh on fulfilling work. This depressed but loving and proud mother is movingly portrayed by Enid Graham, whose performances I've admired on and off Broadway for twenty years.
I suspect that the script spends so much time on Steinem's relationship with her parents to tap into the psyche of the public figure. But a a little less on the family would have been a good start for trimming the film by at least twenty minutes. Ditto for the lengthy scenes highlighting her connection with fellow feminists. The most fun and famous is Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, the colorful New York politician who just a year ago was the subject of her own bio-drama, this one a solo play, Bella, Bella, that that Harvey Firestone wrote for himself. To read my review when it opened at MCC Theater click here.
Some additiomal introductions of Taymor and Ruhl's penchant for magical detours from reality include sending a TV interview of Moore's Gloria by a macho male spinning into a fantastical land of Oz dreamscape. It's fun but too isolated from the overall tone.
I watched The Glorias on my laptop the night after the first chaotic Trump-Biden debate which did leave me clinging hopefully to the film's final words from Moore's Steinem: "Our constitution does not begin with 'I the President.' It begins 'We the people'. "
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Based on My Life On the Road, by Gloria Steinem
Script Writers: Julie Taymor and Sarah Ruhl
Director: Julie Taymor
Cast: Julianne Moore as Gloria Steinem, Lulu Wilson as Young Gloria Steinem, Alicia Vikander as Young Gloria Steinem, Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Young Gloria Steinem, Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Timothy Hutton as Leo Steinem, Lorraine Toussaint as Flo Kennedy, Allie McCulloch as Brenda Feigen.
Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Composer: Elliot Goldenthal Available for streaming at Amazon Prime