Gloria Steinem was a key figure in the feminist movement from the 1960s to the present. Acclaimed director Julie Taymor, director of “The Glorias” – a movie about Gloria’s life – talks about working with the iconic feminist herself and the major issues tackled by the feminist movement in our society.
Academy Award-nominated director of film “The Glorias”, also known for such films as Frida (2002) and Across the Universe (2007)
Jay Ruderman (00:13):
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and this is ALL INCLUSIVE, a podcast focused on inclusion, innovation and social justice.
Julie Taymor (00:24):
That scene of the Bunny Club is not in her book because even to this day, like in the movie, she hates it, because it became so much her emblem. It was too much. She’s a beautiful woman, Gloria. So there was always the suspicion of other women. Was she getting a voice because she was so attractive. And what I adore about Gloria is that she did it with vengeance ultra, why shouldn’t I wear mini skirts or have the streaks in my hair and be a smart woman and be able to be respected and be able to go out there and have my girlfriends and my compatriots?
Jay Ruderman (01:05):
In 1963, Gloria Steinem, then a young freelance journalist was sent by a magazine to investigate the not so glamorous working conditions at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club. Gloria’s expose of the sexist and underpaid working conditions of Bunny waitresses at the club gained her national attention and launched her career as a feminist activist. 50 years later in 2013, President Barack Obama presented her with the presidential medal of freedom. The highest civilian honor in the United States. A few years ago, filmmaker and Theater Hall of Famer, Julie Taymor most widely known for her immensely successful theater production of the Lion King, read Gloria’s biography, My Life on the Road and was inspired to turn it into a movie. The Gloria’s starring academy award winners, Julianne Moore, and Alicia Vikander tells Gloria’s story, from her unusual upbringing to her unusual career.
Jay Ruderman (02:11):
So, Julie, thank you for joining us on ALL INCLUSIVE, it’s my honor to have you as a guest, you’re an extremely accomplished individual. And as I understand the first woman to win a Tony for best director for a musical, I happen to have seen your film, Glorias at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, and was impressed with the film and the story, obviously the story that many people know of Gloria Steinem. But if I could start and ask you about the film Gloria’s, which focuses on Gloria Steinem’s life, what made you decide to turn her story into a feature film?
Julie Taymor (02:53):
Well, I had received the book, My Life on the Road, which is Gloria’s autobiography to a degree, from a friend and I read it on a beach in Mexico. And I had known Gloria. I personally had known Gloria in New York City and I knew of her, but I really didn’t know Gloria. We say, well, we know who Gloria Steinem is, but we don’t really until you read that book and you go into what made her become the activist that she is. And I found her childhood, the traveling, the incessant traveling with her family, the fact that she didn’t go to school until she was 11 or 12, that she had to bring up her own mother, that she then went on to India, which is very similar to my experience when I graduated from Oberlin College. She, when she graduated Smith, went to India on a fellowship and stayed for two years.
Julie Taymor (03:47):
I ended up staying in Indonesia for four years, but that she was taken with… This is where she was first ignited as an activist because she saw how Gandhi and the women of India would use the talking circle as a way to have a grassroots movement start. And then we follow her into all of her experience as a journalist and dealing with, of course the sexism or misogyny to a degree, but more the sexism and her really brilliant ability to connect with people. And I love the structure of her book, which was not a biography in a normal sense. It wasn’t linear, it jumped around. And it was an impossible thing to think of as a movie. And that always excites me, anything that seems like, well, how am I going to find the through line here? How am I going to make it dramatic?
Julie Taymor (04:42):
And that’s why it’s called the Glorias because Gloria Steinem is a composite from all the women that she has met, whether it’s Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Janell Monae plays that, or Bella Abzug, Bette Midler or, I mean there so many women, Black, native American, White, Indian all over the world that Gloria is, she’s so able to communicate with, that she blends with them. And I found that to be an extremely challenging but exciting thought in this time, especially when we started this film, Trump was just elected and that was the opposite. This sort of top down, this is really about movement from the bottom up. And I love that.
Jay Ruderman (05:32):
Yeah. I read an article in which you talked about… I mean, the film has different variations of Gloria, played by different actresses at different points in her life, essentially talking to each other. And I read that you had a conversation with Gloria Steinem explaining it. And I think her response was, “Well, how did you know?”
Julie Taymor (05:53):
Jay Ruderman (05:54):
That I actually have this conversations with myself as a person at different times in my life. And did that surprise you that the film really resonated with her on a personal level?
Julie Taymor (06:11):
Well, it pleased me more than surprised me, I had a connection with her and it’s, I don’t mean something that I was conscious of, but obviously there is in any artist’s work, there’s a level of unconscious that we operate on. And the reason that I started with this idea of the four Glorias, we have a six-year-old a twelve-year-old, Alicia Vikander plays 20 to 40 Julianne Moore 40 to 80. And then actually the real Gloria is a part of the film. Well, first of all, it’s 80 years of her life. So there isn’t going to be one actress, boom, right there, impossible. But this book was written in the first person. So she was always throughout the book, questioning her motives, questioning the events, questioning what she should have done. And I just took that literally and thought, “Well, she is really talking to herself, so why not put that right there, up on the screen, let her talk to herself, let her question, let her cajole, let her criticize.”
Julie Taymor (07:15):
So the bus out of time, which is what I like to call the ideograph of the whole thing, the Greyhound bus is an image in America of forever traveling. And anybody can travel on that bus, very few high class people, or rich people will do it, but mostly it’s the bus that takes you to freedom, it’s the bus that takes you to a match on Washington, it’s the bus that takes you to work, it’s the bus that takes you on a journey. So I have these various Gloria’s at different ages on the bus, sitting down next to each other and say, “Why didn’t you say that to your mother? Why didn’t you tell her that you should have gone out and left our father and gone to New York and become a writer.” And then the other one says, “Because if I had, she would have said to me, well, then I never would have had you.”
Julie Taymor (08:10):
Now I found that discussion in the book, but I put it into a physicalization, a dramatic, theatrical, cinematic theatrical version in the film, as opposed to a voiceover, the ubiquitous voiceover. I didn’t want to do that, hearing her speak unconnected to a physical person. And by having them talk to each other, they could then also, outside of this surreal bus out of time, which was in black and white and kept, it was the glue that kept all of these various scenes. There’s lots of scenes all over, we take place in about 50 different locations, all across America and India and in the imagination, in the dreams. So the bus out of time, this allows them to be a constant in the film so that we’re not feeling like the jumping around is confusing. There is this glue.
Julie Taymor (09:08):
And finally, the bus takes us to Washington DC to the women’s match, right after the inauguration of Trump, which was one of the biggest matches in the history of the world. And it was all over the world. And the movie ends with, we the people which seem to be very appropriate for our time when we really did get rid of Trump for the time being, let’s put it that way. The reason my face looks glum is because it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to last.
Jay Ruderman (09:38):
Now, Gloria dedicated her biography, My Life on the Road to a physician who authorized what was then an illegal abortion when she was 22 years old. Can you talk about the impact that, that had on Gloria’s decision to become an activist?
Julie Taymor (09:57):
Well, yes. I think that to dedicate your book to what we would say, the abortionist, although he’s not, he’s what you said. He was the one who, in Great Britain on her way to India as a 21 year old woman is amazing. And what she says in the book is he asked her to promise her three things, I think two or three things, if I can remember. One that she will not reveal his name. Now, she didn’t reveal it until after he passed away. Number two, that she would, or the main thing that she would promise to do what she wanted to do in her life. That was the main thing. To be basically what she needed to be in her life. And that gave her this freedom, this incredible freedom to become the woman that she became. If she had gone into a traditional marriage and had a child at that age, she wouldn’t have been able to become the activist, the times were not.
Julie Taymor (10:56):
I think women now can, they can do both, but there is always a sacrifice when women have children and then also have to go out and become full-time whatever, working in the workplace or an activist. And I think that with Gloria, her life, with her parents, where her mother and father separated, she went to live with her mother at age, I don’t exactly remember the dates, but probably around 10 or 11 years old, and her mother was falling apart mentally. And so Gloria had already been a mother, she’d already experienced what it was to take care of, not a child, but to take care of fully, full responsibility at such a young age. So she didn’t feel that desire and need to be a literal mother. She became the mother of a movement. She became the mother to many other young women guiding them. And I think that that’s an astounding freedom.
Julie Taymor (11:52):
And I went through too, in my early formation as an artist, went through the same experience in Indonesia and made a decision that allowed me to fulfill my life in a different way than the ordinary, not ordinary, but the more common or usual way of becoming a mother and a wife.
Jay Ruderman (12:16):
I want to go back to Gloria Steinem and something that launched her as a feminist in the expose she did on the Playboy Clubs and being photographed and in a bunny suit. How did that impact her perception among the feminist community at the time?
Julie Taymor (12:37):
Well, that scene of the Bunny Club is not in her book. And I asked her and I said, look, because even to this day, like in the movie, she hates it. Because it became so much her emblem, it was too much. She’s a beautiful woman, Gloria, so there was always the suspicion of other women. Was she getting a voice because she was so attractive? And what I adore about Gloria is that she did it with vengeance ultra, why shouldn’t I wear mini skirts or have the streaks in my hair and be a smart woman and be able to be respected and be able to go out there and have my girlfriends and my compatriots? So she was testing those waters because there was a cliche that feminists were ugly or lesbian ugly, or all of these horrible things that they would throw into male haters and all, and Gloria was absolutely, she had many boyfriends. She loved men, she loved good men and she had many good male friends. So she was really challenging, what does a feminist mean?
Julie Taymor (13:43):
And I think many women got on the boat with her and then other women were suspicious and competitive and would play it against each other, women were played against each other, even including Phyllis Schlafly. I mean, Gloria said publicly in an article that she wrote for the LA Times, that Phyllis Schlafly was just used. She wasn’t really her movement. She was used by them, the insurance companies. And again, I’m not the person to represent that argument, but it was pitting women, which we still do in TV. That’s why these shows that whether they’re, FX or whatever, have Mommie Dearest pitted against the Joan Crawford against Betty Davis and the cat fight, the eternal cat fight. That’s what the American, what was the thing that was with Phyllis Schlafly was not accurate-
Jay Ruderman (14:38):
Julie Taymor (14:39):
Yeah. It was not accurate to what I have read and what Gloria has told me. And Gloria is the living feminist in that group and says it was absolutely not accurate. And it really made its drama on the drama between women, which it made up to a degree, much too much. And what I wanted to show in the Glorias is the love affair, not sexual, but the love and support that these women have for each other and for all women. So you see that Ms. Magazine scene, where they’re all there together, having a great time coming up with the ideas for the articles, speaking their passions about all kinds of things. And then the women’s conference where you had three first ladies up there on the stage, whether they were Republican or Democrat or whatever, up there, talking about the important issues that are for not just women, but for men. We look at that 20,000 people in that incredible Houston arena talking about, back there in 1977, about immigration and families. I mean the issues and homosexuality and all of these things that were so important and how they were together.
Julie Taymor (15:52):
This fight just doesn’t seem to end whether it’s about freedom of choice, all of these things. I think that her book and this film really touches on all these various aspects, but one of the biggest is women supporting women.
Jay Ruderman (16:10):
I think one of the things the movie does very well, which is based on what happened in reality is to focus on the intersectionality issues and how the feminist movement worked really hard to ensure diversity during the birth of the movement.
Julie Taymor (16:27):
Well, that’s the other thing that Mrs. America got wrong. I mean, anybody Gloria Steinem from the very early age was traveling across racial borders and her best friends, or people that she was dealing with were not little White girls, as you see in the film. And then obviously her experience in India and then always, and you saw this, she went out with African-American women as her speaking partners, because together they could reach a wider audience. And Gloria was not, I mean, yes, there were in the early women’s movements, as we saw in the suffrage movement where Black women were at the lead of a lot of this, seriously at the lead, but they were denied equal opportunity with their White female partners. Many of the White female leaders felt that they would not get ahead if they were mixed racially, it’s a terrible, absolutely terrible history. But that was more back in the 20s, 30s than in the time, in the second wave of feminism, which is what this movie is about.
Julie Taymor (17:33):
And these women were incredibly, whether it was Shirley Chisholm or many of them were at the forefront of not just Black movements but feminist movements. And I wanted to have that Flo Kennedy is one of the great characters in our film, Lorraine Tucson’s, genius. And Flo and Gloria after Dorothy Pittman, couldn’t be on the circuit any longer. Flo was her major partner, speaking partner, and a better speaking partner, frankly, and a tremendous presence of lawyer, a huge, just full of extraordinary humor edge like Lenny Bruce she’s just genius. So we’re very excited that we introduced them. Wilma Mankiller the native American was the first female chief of the Cherokee nation. She was Gloria’s best friend for years and years. And you have these scenes where she opened Gloria up to understanding that it was the native Americans who taught Benjamin Franklin about democracy, who were there.
Julie Taymor (18:35):
And I really, when I read this book and learned about all these extraordinary women who were so important to Gloria’s life, I went, oh my God, that’s the Glorias. I mean, it’s not that they’re Gloria Steinem, but that Gloria is them. That they are why she is who she is. And as you said, this intersectionality of the film is the most important thing about it. I think that there were these voices that Gloria really heard and expressed what she felt about life as well.
Jay Ruderman (19:05):
I think the actresses in the film, Bette Midler and Julianne Moore and Janell Monae and so many others, how did this story, I mean, obviously they’re actors and they’re used to playing roles, but it had to resonate with them on a personal level also, did you experience that?
Julie Taymor (19:26):
Oh, absolutely. I mean, Julianne Moore signed on before we had a screenplay, she was in Washington. She believes she’s an activist, she’s involved with gun laws and all kinds of things. So totally. And she was thrilled to finally meet Gloria, go to her apartment. We sat down in my apartment, Alicia, Julianne, Gloria, myself, and they were allowed to ask her anything. She brought them to her apartment, showed her her jewelry, her clothes, her posters, things that she loves. And Alicia was the same. Alicia was, she’s Swedish and I had to take a chance that she would be able to nail Gloria’s accent, not just an American, because she’d never played a large full-out American role. Her English is fluent, but it’s accented. And so we had dialect coaches that work with both women because Gloria has, as she says, this flat Toledo, Ohio accent, but this meant a lot to Alicia as well, her mother is an activist or a feminist.
Julie Taymor (20:26):
And so they were both drawn to this, not just because they loved the book that they read, but the issues were of paramount importance to them. And Janell Monae was also at the woman’s match. I mean, she’s a very important activist and I knew this would resonate with her. I wish she could put a bit more in the film, but she’s still where she, and what she does is brilliant and same with Lorraine Tucson, Bette Midler. I mean, Bette Midler, sang, was the entertainment at Gloria Steinem’s 50th birthday party. So she goes way back. And then Lorraine didn’t know who Flo Kennedy was. And has really thanked us for turning her on to the power of this extraordinary woman. Kimberly Guerrero, who played Wilma Mankiller is an activist. She’s, I think she’s, I’m not sure what she is. She’s Cherokee or Osage, maybe she’s Osage, because I think she’s from Oklahoma, but she had played Wilma Mankiller in another movie that Wilma’s husband, Charlie Soap had directed, both of them. The wonderful actor who played the husband, they had both played Wilma and Charlie at younger ages.
Julie Taymor (21:45):
And I thought they were wonderful in his film, so I asked them, which was great because they’re not huge parts, but they’d already lived that experience of living the younger Charlie and Wilma, so that they were able to bring that to our film.
Jay Ruderman (22:01):
I want to touch on one thing that you brought up before about Gloria’s father and her relationship with her father who was a salesman and had left the family when, I think you said she was 10 years old. He abandoned her yet Gloria has said that he helped shape and encourage her activism. Can you maybe elaborate on that?
Julie Taymor (22:25):
Well, I think that he always supported her to make her own decisions and to be the woman or the young female woman that she wanted to be. He never treated her as a child. And I think that theirs was a friendship like in the car when you see them traveling from California to New York there was a real comradery. And he had a freedom about him. He never wore a hat, as she said, he never had a job. His was, travel is the best education. So she saw that he was a sad sack in a certain way and he failed as a husband, but as an individual and with an incredible sense of humor and freedom, he inspired her. When she said, “Pap, I’m not getting married.” And she thought that he would be disappointed, he was thrilled. He said, “Oh, you can get married anytime.”
Julie Taymor (23:24):
The fact that she was going to go off to India, his thing was, “India, wow, that’s fantastic. When would you have an opportunity to do that?” So it wasn’t specifically that he encouraged her activism no, I don’t think so. I think that his inspiration of do what your heart and your mind says to do, go in that direction. That’s what inspired her. And seeing her mother unfulfilled as a result of a husband who did not let her mother become the full woman that she wanted to be. I mean, it’s ironic there. So it’s complicated, the mother and father relationship, and both of them added to the reason that Gloria became the activist that she is.
Jay Ruderman (24:07):
So watching the movie at Sundance, at the end, when Gloria appears as herself was such an emotional moment for the audience. After seeing the film and so many different actresses portraying her, and then to see her herself, you talked a little bit about it, but what was it like working with her?
Julie Taymor (24:31):
Oh, well, I mean, working with her starts years before I read her book, she’s just a generous human being in every way, just easy, regular and generous. And then she’s a star. But working with her on this, she wanted me to do, she loved my work, she adored Across the Universe and Frida and the Lion King. And she just basically said, “This is yours. I don’t know how the hell you’re going to make this book into a movie, but if you want to do it, you’re the only person I want to do it.” She understood that I was going to be looking for multiple levels of reality because there are also these moments that are not part of her book, like the big tornado sequence, which takes a while to describe, or the running on the conveyor belt, which I took from another book of hers that described her midlife crisis, as you would say, where she felt that she couldn’t get off the running machine.
Julie Taymor (25:29):
And so I took it literally and put her on a treadmill, that her life was on a treadmill. So she was completely, absolutely open to me interpreting her book the way that I wanted. And as you said, when I had the idea to have the multiple Glorias speaking to each other, that just blew her mind. I mean, she just loved the idea of the bus out of time.
Jay Ruderman (25:54):
Well, the movie is such an important, first of all, the feminist movement was such an important movement in terms of American history and is continuing and the movie’s done so creatively. I know that COVID changed plans for Glorias along with many movies, but have enough people seen it, is it getting out there?
Julie Taymor (26:20):
I don’t know. We don’t know how to judge who watches movies on Amazon because it wasn’t an Amazon original, it didn’t get advertisement. And because it didn’t go into the movie theaters, our film distributors, didn’t put any money into it. So, it’s lack of presence in the academy season has to do with money. They didn’t have the money to do what you have to do. You have to buy those awards, you have to spend. I don’t think people understand this, but we looked into it, it’s at least $200,000 you have to put into wanting your film to get that kind of recognition. And because it wasn’t in movie theaters, it wasn’t worth it to try and raise that money for the film distributors. And watch when Amazon puts their money into or puts their advertising, it’s Amazon originals. We were supposed to be in movie theaters first and then go on streaming, not the other way around. So has it been out there enough? No, I don’t think Gloria and my producers and I feel in any way, has it gotten out in the way it should.
Jay Ruderman (27:29):
Will it, post COVID start appearing in theaters?
Julie Taymor (27:34):
No, it costs money. I can’t imagine, I think it’s there and accessible for anybody who wants to have it and show screenings or get it, but is it going to be put out now? I doubt it, it’s just not the way the American marketplace works. I think even as it goes around the world and it’s being put on television, streaming in the other countries and not in the movie theaters yet, because it requires so much money to advertise films. Even if it’s something like Nomadland, it had to go to the festivals, the festival route is what brought Nomadland to the attention that it got finally in the United States, it went from one festival to another and garnered many awards. And it was one star. One thing that’s tricky about promoting a film that’s multiple people is that the lead actress was shared between Julianne and Alicia. And that’s tough. It wasn’t like we could take one, we couldn’t.
Julie Taymor (28:39):
It’s sort of what happened to the fabulous movie Judas and the Black Messiah. They didn’t know who was the lead. And so they split the supporting actor. These guys were lead actors. The two of them were lead actors, but we don’t have a method for sharing. And therefore it becomes hard, it just becomes hard. And also because we came out so early, the distributors wanted us to wait, but Gloria and all of us felt we have to be used, maybe it was helpful, we don’t know, but we have to be used prior to the election. We just didn’t feel like we could take that film and wait until, it was too dangerous, until after the most recent election. Will it come in movie theaters? You can help with that. Everybody who’s seen it can say bring it to my local movie theater when people go back. But it’s a marketing issue.
Jay Ruderman (29:33):
Well, I didn’t know. I mean, we are an activist in the entertainment world, but we are not of the entertainment world. I wish we had had a conversation because I didn’t know. I mean, for that amount of money, it would have been worth investing. It’s such an impactful movie and getting it more attention to potentially position it in the awards. But I hope a lot of people see it. I think it’s, as I said, a very important part of American history that needs to be told and is told very well, and I really enjoyed it, and I’ve enjoyed our conversation. I really appreciate the time that you’ve given me an all inclusive. Well, thank you so much.
Julie Taymor (30:22):
You’re very welcome. Thank you.
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