Julie Taymor on her Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias: ‘It’s not a catfight like Hulu’s Mrs America’

The acclaimed Frida director talks Gloria Steinem, the #MeToo movement, and working with "monster" Harvey Weinstein.

Julie Taymor (GETTY)

Director Julie Taymor originally thought she would end The Glorias, her film biopic of feminist Gloria Steinem, with footage of Hillary Clinton winning the 2016 US election.

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“We went in with documentary cameras to shoot this night, thinking that that would be the climax of the film. That would be the, you know, glass ceiling broken, and all of that,” she says. Of course, that election’s victor was not Clinton, but Donald Trump. “I looked at the footage after, and it was so depressing that I had to throw it out.”

Instead, the film features footage of the Women’s Marches that took place the following January, with close-ups of protestors wearing knitted pink Pussyhats. Rather than ending with a female president in The White House – which might have served as a neat full-stop – the film ends with a beginning. Those worldwide marches heralded a tumultuous year for women’s rights, culminating in the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement.

It’s appropriate foreshadowing for a film directed by Taymor, who famously clashed with Weinstein while working on her Oscar-nominated biopic Frida (a topic that Taymor doesn’t shy away from later in our interview).

The film’s ending also underscores what becomes a theme during our conversation: just like the cause of women’s rights, Hollywood still has a long way to go. 

Based on Steinem’s biography My Life on the Road, The Glorias features four actresses – including Oscar winners Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander – playing feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem at various stages of her life; notably her famous, undercover stint as a Playboy Bunny in 1963, and her co-founding of the magazine ‘Ms.’.

The Glorias
The four ‘Gorias’ in a scene from Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias (courtesy of Sky)
Sky

Like much of Taymor’s work (which ranges from Broadway’s The Lion King to Across the Universe), there are nods to world cinema and to surrealism. Steinem once wrote that “each of us has an inner child of the past living with us,” a concept The Glorias takes to heart: the film begins with all four of the Glorias sat in the black-and-white interior of a Greyhound bus. We return to the bus (and the Glorias interacting with one another, staring out the window, and reminiscing) throughout the film. 

“When I told Gloria Steinem this idea about the bus, and the various Glorias talking to each other, and taking care of each other, or laughing at each other, she said, ‘How did you know?’” Taymor tells RadioTimes.con over Zoom. “I said, ‘Know what?’ She said, ‘That I often walk down the street, or I’m looking across a room, and I’ll see my other self. I’ll see my younger self. And I’ll wonder what she would think if she knew where I’d gone, or what I’m doing now, or if I were that age, would I do what I’m doing now?’”

Taymor, who has been living on the island Martha’s Vineyard since August, tells me that she was attracted to the film’s themes of travel and the road. Like Steinem, Taymor travelled extensively as a young woman. Both won travel fellowships: Steinem to India, Taymor to Indonesia, Eastern Europe, and Japan. A scene of a young Gloria Steinem (played by Vikander) journeying across India in an all-female train carriage directly mirrors Taymor’s past experiences. 

Julie Taymor (GETTY)
GETTY

“The ride on the train that’s in India, I had the exact same experience in [travelling in Java],” she says. “I was in a… like a cattle car. There were no seats. Women and their children and their goats and chicken. We were in a train car. I have a drawing that I made at the time of all the women sitting there.

“I got the same questions at age 21 – are you married? Why not? Do you have children? Blah blah blah. It was tricky.”

In fact, Taymor’s own life and experiences intersect with Steinem’s on-screen struggles at various other points during the film, including a scene where Steinem quits a writing job after rejecting her editor’s sexual advances.

“The scene that was really directly involved with #MeToo as we know it, which is sexual harassment, is when her [Steinem’s] New York Times editor gives her the letter to mail, and says, ‘Meet me at the hotel.’ She just puts the letter down, and leaves, and has an ice cream. That’s the way I did it when I was attacked at my first job in New York City. I just left. I quit. It was sort of so par for the course that it didn’t upset you. It wasn’t disturbing, you know?”

She reveals that while there are plenty of misogynistic male characters in the film, she didn’t want to make them all into straight villains, instead showing that they were “of a different time”.

Julie Taymor and Salma Hayek
Julie Taymor, Ed Norton, Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, and Geoffrey Rush at the Frida film premiere (Getty)
Getty Images

“I didn’t want to make these guys into scumbags, you know? I didn’t want to. Look, maybe it’s because I’m of my age, and I know so many of them. I know all the guys – Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose. I know them all!” She laughs, before adding: “And some are better than others. Harvey was a monster. He deserves to be in jail for the rest of his life.

“Some of them just shouldn’t have done what they did. But some of them don’t even know, because they’re of a different time. I think if you’re a younger woman, and you haven’t gone through the change of all society, it’s hard to quite imagine that, you know? It’s hard to feel that.”

Taymor worked with Harvey Weinstein back in the early Noughties when she was directing Frida, the Frida Kahlo biopic starring Salma Hayek. Taymor’s on-set clashes with Weinstein are well-documented, while Hayek has since alleged sexual harassment by the disgraced media mogul, describing him as a “monster” in a New York Times op-ed. Weinstein is currently serving a 23-year prison sentence after he was convicted of sexual assault and rape in the third degree.

“Harvey was a bully – he is a bully – but with me, he was a real bully. The thing is, I was – 20 years ago – in my 40s,” Taymor tells me. “I was past the prime for someone like Harvey. Also, I was too powerful – meaning that I’m the director. I think some female directors had problems, but not really – not in the same way an actor does. They really are at the mercy of this monster, someone like Salma.

“I knew right off the bat his history, but I didn’t know it like we know it now. I had no idea. I mean, not to the degree. Not that he was a rapist and not that he— But we knew that women slept with him, they did – famous ladies, famous actresses – to stay in his good graces, you know? But Salma, no. And Salma – he was very brutal to Salma. And he was brutal to me as a bully. He really was mean.”

Taymor’s final cut of Frida was eventually accepted at the Venice Film Festival, winning rave reviews and later multiple Oscar nods (it won two). But she says that Weinstein didn’t back the film when it came to the 2003 awards season, which hurt its chances at the Oscars.

“We had some famous shouting matches which ended up with me falling down and breaking my wrist. I was so rattled. But he just was brutal with women. Brutal. Screaming. Bossy. Bullying. And then they did not support the movie for the Academy Awards.”

The Glorias
Julianne Moore as Gloria Steinem in The Glorias (courtesy of Sky)
Sky

Salma Hayek once said of Frida that “Hollywood doesn’t make stories about an overweight man and a hairy cripple”. 20 years ago, it might be argued that that sentiment could easily have extended to female-driven stories more generally. I ask Taymor whether she thinks, pre-#MeToo, a film like The Glorias would have been an equally tough sell. Her answer proves unexpected — and depressing. 

“Oh, we didn’t sell this to— this is not a Hollywood film. I couldn’t get the money for The Glorias, even with Gloria Steinem, a bestseller; Julianne Moore; and myself. We didn’t get the money in Hollywood to make this movie,” she says, revealing that an anonymous philanthropist swept in to finance the project. In many ways, Hollywood hasn’t really changed.

“We’re very happy that the movie is made, and that people will get to see it. But no, this movie was no better 20 years later, trying to get money for a film that doesn’t have tonnes of violence, where women aren’t at each other’s throat. It’s not a catfight. You’ve seen Mrs America, the Hulu thing?”

Mrs America, which also came out last year, is the elephant in the room. The series, which stars Cate Blanchett as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, also closely follows Gloria Steinem (played by Rose Byrne) and various other prominent feminists in the 1970s. There are significant crossovers with The Glorias, but Taymor dismisses the series as “women hating women”.

“[Mrs America] is not even remotely truthful. Gloria has absolutely no – what do you call it? She never owned it, but she says it’s just full of lies. It’s completely trumped up – that’s a perfect word for it, right?

“It’s not that it isn’t well-acted in places and this and that. But it’s really about women at each other’s throats. That’s what that [series] is. That’s a classic TV FX kind of… or whatever. I guess it’s Hulu. That’s what we see: women hating women.”

In the UK, The Glorias is set to air on Sky Cinema in early March, just in time for International Women’s Day. Some consider the concept of a women’s day (like women’s awards) to be condescending, but Taymor has a more positive attitude towards it. After all, as illustrated by Hillary Clinton’s election defeat, there’s always progress to be made. 

“All of the issues with women, they’re there forever, you know?” Taymor says. “And I think that women supporting women, which is what The Glorias has really got in spades – it’s really about that – until there is a parity of equality, you’re always going to have it.”

The Glorias, a Sky Original film, will be streaming only on Sky Cinema from 7th March 2021 for UK viewers.

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