In the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and the controversy surrounding her successor’s impact on the lives of everybody (most pointedly women), the surfacing of Gloria Steinem in three bio-dramatizations — on stage, television, and in film — couldn’t be timelier.
In the film, “The Glorias,” we see the feminist icon at various stages of her life and career; last year Steinem was the title figure in the Off-Broadway play, “Gloria: A Life;” and she was a featured “character” in the recent 9-part mini-series, “Mrs. America,” a biopic exploring the actions, persona and soul of anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly who was hell-bent on defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.
The Steinem bio-dramas are largely refresher courses for those who’ve either read her 2015 memoir, “My Life on the Road,” and/or viewed the 2011 HBO documentary, “Gloria in Her Own Words.” Much of the material is familiar: Steinem’s working class roots in Toledo, Ohio; her nomadic childhood with an in debt wheeler-dealer Jewish dad and WASP mom suffering from what were dubbed nervous breakdowns. Dad jumped ship and young Steinem (between the ages of 11-17) played mom’s nursemaid. She dreamed of being a Rockette, but graduated from Smith College, spending two years in India on a fellowship. Along the way she had an abortion.
With her sights set on a journalism career, she made a name for herself in 1963 writing a Show magazine expose of the wretched working conditions at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, where she herself went undercover, performing as a bunny. Early on, she was the target of sexual harassment. In one instance a New York Times editor suggested they meet in a hotel room to discuss one of her articles. “Sexual harassment isn’t even a term,” Steinem said. “It’s just called life.” Still, Steinem did not become a feminist overnight. Hers was a slow, evolving political sensibility. She was terrified of public speaking before co-founding the National Political Caucus, Women’s Media Center, Women’s Action Alliance, and a spearheading force behind Ms. Magazine.
The facts of her life are a common thread throughout the bio-dramas. Nonetheless, Steinem is filtered through the lens of the creative teams and the actors who tackle her.
“The Glorias” provides surely the most all-encompassing dramatization even if in the end the audience is left with a Gloria who is not fully realized. Written and directed by Julie Taymor (“The Tempest”) and co-written by Sarah Ruhl, the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time with four actors playing Gloria: the child, teenager, young woman and fully grown woman (Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore). Its non-linear structure underscores Taymor’s vision of a cyclical life. At differing points, the four Glorias interact, informing each other even as they remain present as separate entities (shades of Todd Hayne’s Bob Dylan biopic, “I’m Not There”).
The road trip is the overarching image. Repeatedly the Glorias travel on a dreary interstate bus (shot in black and white), staring out windows at a flat and barren landscape. Vehicles are a central metaphor. As a child, Gloria rides around in a car with her father Leo (Timothy Hutton). He’s fun, charming, and always resilient as he attempts to put his hare-brained money-making schemes into effect. Later, the car ride becomes a traumatizing experience when the family is forced to flee their home because dad cannot pay his creditors. Nonetheless, his words “Travel is the best education,” echo through the decades.
Homelessness (literal and figurative) is a reiterated conceit. When Gloria is a mature woman, her long-held apartment is unlived in, piled high with unopened cartons as if she’s in the process of moving out or moving in. Hers is a transitory existence.
It’s also an anonymous existence despite her vast reputation. An apocryphal, yet vivid touch: As Steinem considers purchasing her (hallmark) aviator sunglasses, the saleswoman says, “Those are too big! They hide your beautiful face!” to which Steinem replies, “They’re perfect!” Is she hiding her beauty from the world because she doesn’t want it to exploit her looks? Or is she hiding from the world for altogether different reasons?
The seeds of her feminism are planted early. She loves her dad (no history of hating men) even as she realizes what a poor excuse he is for a father and husband. And it’s her burdensome mother Ruth (Enid Graham) who talks about the gender inequality that has marred her life, recounting her years as a reporter, writing under a male pseudonym and then giving up her beloved career to marry Mr. Wrong.
In this film young Gloria is a quiet outlier. In one unsettling scene she unceremoniously disappears from her dependent mother to tap dance with a black friend in her father’s barbershop. It’s a rebellious act on many fronts hinting at what is to follow, most pointedly the ethnic and racial diversity of her friendships.
And, indeed, it’s her fellow-feminists who most define her: Congresswoman Bella Abzug (a good-hearted, aggressive yenta Bette Midler), activist lawyer Flo Kennedy (a wonderfully over the top Lorraine Toussaint in cowboy outfits), and especially Wilma Makiller (Kimberly Guerrero), the first woman elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, who became Steinem’s close personal friend, mentor and spiritual guide. When Steinem got married late in life to David Bale (Christian Bale’s father) Wilma performed the service.
All the actors playing Gloria give fine performances: Armstrong is a trusting and sometimes lonely child; Wilson is a dutiful but blankly angry teenager; Vikander is a thoughtful and compassionate Steinem on the cusp of personal and political evolution; Moore, in particular, makes palpable a woman who boasts a keen intelligence and the understated wit that comes from having lived a full life.
She doesn’t have to say a word, her slight non-committal smile says it all and she employs it to full advantage when a slick and obnoxious talk show host feels free to ask why she is not married. It’s one fraught pivotal scene; as if her marital status is his business; as if any woman would choose to be single if she’s attractive (and Steinem was surely that) and had the choice. There is no shortage of men in Steinem’s life but as presented here they are not all that important to her. Today it’s inconceivable to envision any TV personality pitching questions like that to a woman guest. It was offensive back in the day and to teach him a lesson Taymor indulges in a flight of fancy in which the sexist interviewer is sucked up out of his studio into a “Wizard of Oz” tornado as the four Glorias, who have now morphed into witches on broomsticks, encircle him. There are psychedelic flourishes elsewhere in the film that are equally intrusive.
Though Taymor has re-created a historical moment and a seminal personality that emerged from it, her film feels long and without ever bordering on hagiography, it’s relentlessly earnest.
The Steinem who emerges in “Mrs. America” is viewed through a slightly ironic filter. But then a dark, sardonic tone pervades the entertaining series, not coincidentally created by Dahvi Waller of “Mad Men” fame.
Brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett, Schlafly is the ultimate anti-feminist, yet she is simultaneously determined, aggressive and competitive. She is at once brittle and charming. Similarly, her adversaries are complex and unexpected. Each episode is dedicated to one of these warriors, who include Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), a feminist with right wing political leanings.
And then there’s Steinem (Rose Byrne), who, at times, suggests a pouting starlet who would like to be taken seriously. We are introduced to her at a star-studded Guggenheim opening as she mingles with the trendiest of the trendy. Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” comes to mind. Byrne’s Steinem evokes pathos; she is the lost soul celebrity who in her private moments is tap dancing away, fantasizing about who knows what: being somewhere else or more probably being someone else. It’s a brave interpretation though it certainly does not summon up the Steinem we know or think we know.
In 1985, Steinem was the star of another TV-movie, “A Bunny’s Tale,” a generic biopic if ever there was one. Yet it’s worth mentioning not simply because of its dated storytelling structure — television writing has undoubtedly come a long way — but more important, because of its one-dimensional understanding of how and why Steinem would become a feminist.
Centering on her undercover work at Hugh Hefner’s Manhattan Playboy Club, the film dramatizes Steinem’s first major consciousness-raising experience: The economic and sexual exploitation she observed and the dawning realization that “all women are bunnies.”
Here, 28-year-old Gloria (a sincere Kirstie Alley) faces a life-altering conflict: Should she meet the demands of her self-indulgent, talent-free playwright boyfriend Ned Holcolm (Cotter Smith) or help her bunny colleagues who are underpaid and demeaned at every turn. Their bras are stuffed with plastic bags to enhance their breasts; they sport three-inch spiked heels; and they are forced to fork up their own money to pay for their costumes’ cleaning bills. The girls spend much time practicing the “bunny dip” — bending backwards and exposing cleavage as they serve male customers. Some of the women support useless and/or abusive husbands. One wife is physically battered. So what’s Gloria to do? Where does morality lie and what will it cost her? It’s a no-brainer how this one will turn out.
What’s interesting here is the presence of a steady boyfriend, though it’s unclear who he was in real life or if in fact he’s a fictional figure created to anoint Gloria with normalcy and legitimacy. Hey, it’s a 1985 TV flick depicting life in the early 60s. No matter. He starts as the significant other who in the end serves as the necessary contrast to Steinem’s female colleagues in arms with whom she has a far stronger bond. In this universe, choosing women friends over “the boyfriend” is revolutionary and, in Gloria’s case, a step towards political activism.
In Emily Mann’s play “Gloria: A Life,” directed by Tony-winning Diane Paulus and telecast on PBS, men are virtually non-existent and Steinem herself (Christine Lahti) is already in her 50s. Romance does not play any role, short of her marriage to David Bale that lasted for only three yeas until he died. Steinem explains that by the time she tied the knot in her late 60s, marriage was okay because married women could keep their own names and have their own credit cards. She married him for his convenience — to give him a green card, she says. Yet she seems to have loved him.
As is the case with Taymor’s film, women are her significant others and her informing connections starting with her troubled mother (Joanna Glushak) for whom she feels compassion and repulsion. She views her as a constant reminder of what a woman should never become.
Steinem’s friendships with Florence Kennedy (Patrena Murray), Bella Abzug (Glushak) and especially Wilma Mankiller (Delanna Studi) are depicted as bedrock. But the ethnic and racial diversity of Steinem’s coterie is emphasized even more strongly just in case anyone might think that the liberation movement was fundamentally for rich white women.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the creative team is made up of women and the drama features no male actors. Even the few men who appear in the story are played by six female actors.
Sporting black slacks, black top and Steinem’s oversized signature belt and silver jewelry, Lahti’s Gloria is a gracious, generous and somewhat self-effacing woman with a subtle humor (more genial than Moore’s). At the opening and close, she plays host to the audience, (sitting in the round), as if they were her house guests. She puts the drama in context, referencing the current political scene with nods to the #metoo and “Time’s Up” movements.
Told chronologically, the play begins when Steinem is in her early 20s, a recent Smith College graduate, and moves up to the present. It’s a largely episodic retelling, interspersed with archival footage projected on the back wall underscored by pop music of the passing eras.
The play concludes with a “talking circle” that includes a Q & A with the audience, mostly women, who comment on how their lives have improved or not. Throughout the run of the play, guest stars appeared to participate in the conversation, including Steinem herself who was featured on the PBS broadcast.
Dressed just like Lahti, Steinem bowed to the actress who in turn bowed to her, each expressing mutual gratitude and acknowledgement. Steinem presents a more reserved patrician figure than Lahti even at her most emotional. She takes a moment to celebrate the British gynecologist who performed her abortion when she was still in her 20s. He asked for two things she recalls: to never tell anyone his name and then to go and live her life. Since he has been dead for decades Steinem feels comfortable letting everyone know it was “Dr. John Sharpe.” The audience applauds. It’s a moving moment. One wonders if Lahti could have done it better. In the end, it’s hard to gauge who played Steinem more truthfully, Lahti or Steinem herself.
The core of who Steinem is and what made (makes) her tick remains elusive in each of the four bio-dramas. To what degree it’s a failure of imagination on the part of the creative teams or a potential stumbling block in any bio-dramatization is arguable. Documentarians face challenges too, but they’re far more complex in dramatizations that scream out for new insights without violating the truth of their subjects, especially if the subject is alive and internationally known. There’s little wiggle room.
A larger issue, though, is Steinem’s relevance. Given the current climate it would seem she’s right of the moment. So, why do all the bio-dramas appear historical, almost nostalgic? Even Steinem herself — in the most recent clips and stranger still, onstage in person — is oddly spectral. The implicit and explicit call to action, at an urgent time like this, feels been-there-done-that. It’s regrettable and perhaps inevitable. Pity.
Simi Horwitz won a 2018 Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her Forward story, “Ruchie Freier: Hasidic Judge, American Trailblazer.” In 2019, she received a first place prize from the Los Angeles Press Club for “Reviews-TV/Film, All Platforms,” at the Southern California Journalism Awards. Most recently she received two 2020 New York Press Club Awards.