Director Julie Taymor, known for such lauded features as Frida and Across The Universe as well as the stage adaptation of The Lion King, now brings her discerning storytelling eye to the life of journalist, feminist and activist Gloria Steinem in The Glorias (Roadside Attractions, LD Entertainment). The film continues Taymor’s artful breakthrough work in the biopic genre as reflected most famously in Frida, which took us into the professional and private life of the surrealist Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. That film garnered six Oscar nominations, including Best Lead Actress recognition for Salma Hayek in the title role. (Frida won two Academy Awards--for Best Original Score and Makeup; Taymor herself was nominated for her lyrics to “Burn It Blue,” which was up for Best Original Song.)
Fast forward from that 2002 film to the recent release of The Glorias, the biopic of another bold, fiercely independent woman--which Taymor directed, produced and co-wrote. Four actresses--Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson and Ryan Kiera Armstrong--portray Steinem at different stages of her life, spanning the decades. Taymor brings these four Glorias together in an inspired way. As we see formative experiences in each respective stage of Steinem’s life, at times the four Glorias are united and talking with each other on a Greyhound bus, a mode of transportation taking us through different eras. It brings a new dimension to Steinem’s travels--the film is based on her memoir “My Life on the Road”--as we see her evolve from a girl to a young woman experiencing the beauty and injustices of India, struggling to gain traction as a serious journalist, later founding Ms. Magazine, and rising to prominence in the women’s right movement. During her travels, Steinem is informed by others, listening to their concerns, plights and aspirations. And in the context of Taymor’s inventive film, Steinem listens to herself in these different stages of her life. Each Gloria informs and stirs the other, in the process sharing insights into a remarkable life while breathing fresh new life into the biopic form.
Simpatico with the film’s themes and the life’s work of Steinem, gender parity on screen and behind the camera were paramount in The Glorias. Women artisans contributed greatly to the movie from the ground up.
The Glorias made its world premiere back in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Originally slated to hit theaters on September 25, The Glorias had to adapt to the pandemic. It became available on electronic platforms and began streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime in North America on September 30.
The cast also includes Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Lorraine Toussaint as Flo Kennedy, Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, Kimberly Guerrero as Wilma Mankiller, and Monica Sanchez as Dolores Huerta.
The Glorias builds upon a body of work for Taymor that has broken barriers. Her stage adaptation of The Lion King, for example, set box office records with 24 global productions seen by more than 90 million people in 100-plus cities in 19 countries. And like Steinem, Taymor knows the value of being on the road. Taymor created the Taymor World Theater Fellowship in 2016 to provide opportunities for aspiring young theater directors to push their boundaries through travel, exposure to new experiences, and experimentation inspired by her own educational journey.
SHOOT caught up with Taymor who reflected on The Glorias. Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
SHOOT: Provide some backstory. How did the opportunity emerge for you to direct and co-write The Glorias? What drew you to Steinem’s story?
Taymor: I had known Gloria superficially really. I knew her in New York City. I was so taken by her book “My Life on the Road.” It goes to the heart of who she is, an extraordinary person. It’s a non-cinematic book, though. I didn’t think about it as a movie but it didn’t leave me. Four or five years ago, before the 2016 (presidential) election, I felt I have to find a way to do this movie. I called up Gloria and she was shocked. “How are you going to make a movie out of this book?” I said, “I want to do this. Let me figure it out.”
As a director, writer and designer, you try to find the story structure. You try to abstract a story down to its most essential image or concept. For The Lion King, it was the circle of life...In The Glorias, the connecting device, the glue that would hold it all together, this unstructured road picture that’s all over the place, was a bus. In America when you think of a bus, it’s a Greyhound, an archetypal image of cross-country travel.
Then I had to span 80 years of Gloria’s life--age 6 to 85. There was no way one or two people could play that span of life. I decided to commit to four Glorias, including a six and a 12-year old, ages that are worlds apart. Then I saw these multiple Glorias interacting with one another, talking about different stages of their lives--with the bus traversing these different times and stages of life, transporting us between eras. Her book was first person narrative, commenting on things that happened in her life. She criticized herself. For the movie, instead of a voiceover or narrator, we would have the different Glorias talk to each other. The older Gloria can look at the younger Gloria and laugh at her, knowing the younger Gloria will get through whatever she’s dealing with. They could reflect on their mother’s choice not to pursue her own career (as a writer-journalist). At age 20 and 40, the Glorias could discuss what would have happened if their mother had gone after a career.
And the girls could add a reality. Yes, there was this historic conference (the 1977 National women’s Conference) but Gloria as a girl asks, “Did the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) pass?
When I told Gloria about his structure, she said, “How did you know? I often look back on my life and see my younger self.” She describes it as “Russian nesting dolls,” one egg within another. She was pleased with this concept on how to do a road movie.
SHOOT: This is very much a film about female friendships, the bonds between women that were created and grew over the years.
Taymor: Yes, I call it a love story. How many movies about women don’t have a love interest--there’s always a man. Gloria has men who were friends for life. But I decided very early on that this was about the women in her life. How many times do we see women buddy films?
So many films involve drama between men. The woman is secondary. I’m not saying that in an angry way. This is a story about women who have ideals and the ability to put out their message and help other people, not just women.
I want people to bring their daughters and sons to see this movie. Boys need to see this. Men don’t get to see a whole women’s point of view, to be in a work room with women who aren’t competing with each other, who are not at each other’s throats.
I also hope the movie inspires people to get involved. As Gloria said four years ago, “Pressing the send button is not enough.” We have to get involved or we’ll lose it all.
SHOOT: Would you talk about several of your collaborators on The Glorias--some you’ve worked with before such as cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, others for the first time like editor Sabine Hoffman?
Taymor: Rodrigo (who shot Frida as well as Taymor’s filmed version of her live theatrical adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is a superb DP. He has the ability to be fast, rough and ready yet elegant. I wanted the security of someone I’ve worked with and love to work with.
I also worked with (costume designer) Sandy Powell on The Tempest and got her for The Glorias. She’s a genius.
Kim Jennings was my production designer (on The Glorias). I had worked with (production designer) Mark Friedberg who did Across The Universe and The Tempest for me--with Kim as his art director. I asked Mark if he was available (for The Glorias). He wasn’t. He said, “Use Kim, she’s ready (for production design).” She did a genius job on The Glorias.
I wanted to make an attempt to hire as many women in key positions as possible. Sabine (Hoffman) is a New Yorker, a fantastic editor who wove documentary footage into the film, did a great job of balancing color and texture between documentary and original footage. She really gets story and performance.