Women's empowerment is not "kicking ass in bikinis": Julie Taymor on what real feminism looks like

The Broadway trailblazer takes on the life of Gloria Steinem in her imaginative new Amazon film "The Glorias"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 1, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

Lorraine Toussaint (as Flo Kennedy) and Julianne Moore (as Gloria Steinem) in "The Glorias." (Dan McFadden/LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)
Lorraine Toussaint (as Flo Kennedy) and Julianne Moore (as Gloria Steinem) in "The Glorias." (Dan McFadden/LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)

"For me, it's the circle of life," says Julie Taymor. What else would anyone expect of her?

As the mind behind the groundbreaking, Tony-winning theatrical production of "The Lion King," as well as films like "Frida," "Across the Universe" and "The Tempest," Taymor's entire career has been steeped in storytelling.

Her new film, which she co-wrote and co-produced as well as directed, is no different. Based on Gloria Steinem's memoir "My Life on the Road," Amazon Prime's "The Glorias" depicts one remarkable life told non-linearly and through four remarkable actresses, including Oscar winners Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore. Bette Midler and Janelle Monae also star. The director appeared on "Salon Talks" recently about her latest larger than life project. You can watch the interview here or read the transcript of it below. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.



I read an interview with you from about three years ago, talking about the process of beginning this film. You said then that it was not going to have too many fantasy or artistic elements in it. The movie I saw has its fair share of fantasy elements. Did it evolve, or is this your idea of a much more cinéma vérité movie?

The main key into making this sprawling, 80-year life was not just having a 6-year-old, a 12-year-old, and Alicia plays 20 to 40, and Julianne plays 40 to 80. The key was, what is going to glue all of these various locations together? It takes place in 50 or 60 cities in America and and India.

The bus out of time, I call it. We come back and forth to this bus, which is the archetype of Greyhound bus. That's the bus that took the Freedom Riders to the South. It's the bus that takes you to just granny's house or your aunt's or your daughter's, or to the next demonstration, the next march on Washington, whatever it might be.

The idea was that I could put these four Glorias, sometimes one, sometimes two, three, four, sometimes with other women, on this bus out of time. They would be able to open up their inner landscapes — meaning talk to each other, support each other, criticize each other, reminisce with each other about their past or their future. This is what you're calling one of my surreal moments, but it's acted with reality. It's shot in a bus. It's in black and white so the audience knows, "Okay, this is not real now," because we're going to keep coming back.

Then there's the other things. I do one level of reality, the acting and the flashbacks to her life with her father and mother on the road and the house, the incredible dancing parties her father would host when she was a little girl on the Michigan lake and the troubles she had as a teenager with her mother who had real mental breakdown for lack of self fulfillment and a lot of drugs and her father leaving.

You see that. You see young Gloria off in India learning about talking circles, riding third class trains. All of this is very much drama that we know, dramatic situations at Smith, at Ms. Magazine, at conventions.

The third, the next level, is archival footage, which I knew from the beginning would be part of it. I shot, four years ago, the election night with Gloria Steinem, Madeline Albright, Samantha Power and 40 female ambassadors. I did not use it because the material was depressing. But I did find something — it's a spoiler alert so I don't want to talk about what happens — but that footage can't be replaced with acting or with drama. Our drama is interspersed with the archival footage, but you can't have a 20 million people or 20,000 people convention or the 1963 March on Washington. We found color footage. No one's ever seen color footage of that ever. Really good film quality.

And also there's many, many backgrounds in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, where they're driving in taxis and buses and cars. We had to find the footage outside the windows. But to level back to your question of surreality or flights of fancy or the many, many different names for these moments — they're not unlike the paintings coming alive in "Frida" or the musical numbers like "I Want You" or "Strawberry Fields" in "Across the Universe," where you really are telling an inner landscape in an exterior way.

What is she thinking when that interviewer is asking her, "How does it feel to be called a sex object?" Well, our young Gloria, Alicia, at age 39 is speechless. The older Gloria sits right into that seat, and you start to see what could be behind her eyes. She's got a nice Gloria Steinem smile. She's not aggressive to him. She says, "My uniform is more comfortable than that one with the pinch tie." But then you begin to see her imagination going through a whole answer that a lot of women don't give to men, including Hillary Clinton. Remember that four years ago, the debate where [Trump] was stalking her?

We never knew what the movie was inside her head, because she knew that she couldn't say it. A lot of women can't say what they're thinking. They know that they'll lose their job. They know that a man will think that they're aggressive. They might even think they're a bitch. Look what happened to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on the steps about a month ago, wasn't the B word used? I wanted to play with this scene where I got to flesh out in a whimsical, imaginative menace, but it's not really happening.

The way that I do things, that's a dreamlike thing. And then there are numbers of others. Like the little girl wanted to go to Hollywood. So as she is being brought home in a police car — because her mother thinks that she's been abducted or run away — she looks out the window of her very dark and very depressed and poor East Toledo neighborhood, and she sees the lights of Hollywood in a very, surrealistic, painterly way. And there's Fred Astaire leaping off of a marquee and dancing on the frame of her window.

It's really about what's in our minds. I firmly believe that too many films have become very grounded in kind of a, as you said, cinéma vérité . But even more than that, just we're showing what we see as opposed to what we don't see. I think that the tools of theater, the tools of cinema, are there via animation, CGI. I used a lot of in camera techniques for what I do. It's meant to look false. It's not meant to look like, "Oh no, they're now in a real tornado." No, no, no. That's why I color the whole thing red and play around with all kinds of layering, and then Elliot Goldenthal's music just whoops it up to another level, another heightened level of reality.

When we come back, we drop to, "Oh, she didn't say anything." She was just there for two or three silent seconds looking at that man. In that moment, I transitioned from Alicia to Julianne, the bulk of the movie turns to Julianne Moore as Gloria. It's also a very major, halfway through the movie transition piece.

The story is very much about her in conversation with herself, but it is also about her relationships with other women. There's a moment where she says, "I am not going to contribute to this falsehood that women can't get along with each other."

That's important. We see too many movies where women are at each other's throats. The cat fight, mean girls, even "Mrs. America" was really about competition. It wasn't really truthful in that sense. The fact is that this is a love story of women supporting women. It's not about sex. It's about women who love to work and argue occasionally. As Bette Midler says as Bella Abzug, "Of course we fight; we don't always get along." But if they're on the same trajectory and they're after the same objective, they work together. What I learned from [Steinem's] book, and then what I wanted to share with everybody, was the women of color who are at the forefront of the woman's movement.

Even if you go and watch on PBS, that extraordinary documentary on the vote, you're going to watch how Black women [like] Ida B. Wells were right there. Yes, to a degree because of the hideous racism, they were disenfranchised for a moment when they shouldn't have been. But now in a second wave of feminism, whether it's Dorothy Pitman Hughes, who is played by Janelle Monae, or Flo Kennedy, who is played by Lorraine Toussaint, or Wilma Mankiller, the first elected female Cherokee chief of that Cherokee Nation, played by Kimberly Guerrero, and Dolores Huerta and Bella Abzug, who is of course Bette Midler. You see all these astounding women.

I was really amazed how, even at a young age, in that East Toledo neighborhood, Gloria told me about how the barber shop was where she would go when she'd get away from a very unpleasant home, a sad home, a mother who let her do what she wanted, but was so depressed all the time. Gloria tap danced with this other young African-American girl with great Black music playing in the barbershop, and nobody closed the door on her. From a very young age, she crossed over racial and cultural boundary lines. Then at age 20, she got a fellowship after Smith to go to India. I did too. When I was 21, I went to Indonesia for three months and stayed four years. I identify with this: Let's leave our comfort zone. Let's go out and really challenge our thoughts, our culture. Look at us from abroad.

From Gloria's standpoint, she learned about the talking circles. She learned about listening. She couldn't speak the language, number one, but also these women, these followers of Gandhi who say they taught Gandhi everything that he knew, they brought her to villages that had just had recent caste riots. She saw these women organize the village women around a fire and coax them to tell their stories. By telling their stories, they learned that they weren't alone and they learned that they could make change. This has been Gloria's emblem or motto or from the time she was in India, which is to listen and take in what people are saying. She is a grassroots organizer.

That doesn't mean she isn't a shining beacon for all of us, and it's not like she's passing a torch. She's going to keep her torch, but she's also going to light a whole lot of other torches. That is kind of the opposite of what she would say is the patriarchal style where the big leader is at the top saying, "I can fix it. I, and only I." That's not who fixes it. It's the people themselves. We the people — as you've been hearing over and over again — of course, is a big part of our film.

I think that these women not only bring tremendous gravitas, but humor. The humor. Gloria is one of the funniest persons. She's sort of dry funny. Just like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a sort of this dry wit. She's not unlike Ruth in that I will call her a quiet, fierce warrior. With what's happened with the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it's even more important that these voices are louder, because if it Ruth hadn't heard the voices, she couldn't have made the laws. She didn't pull it out of whole cloth. She heard the people. Then she looked at what was going on. She heard it from the women and she heard it from the men who said, "Listen, I'm a father who has a child, but I'm not having equal support by the government."

Gloria is exactly the same. I must stress, this movie is for men, if not more so than for women. How often do men get to see women in the workforce where they're not revolving around men or a movie that's not revolving around men? Many men who've seen it have told me, they never understood what it felt like. This movie is an insight to that for men and for young people, if they don't know what it took to get Roe v Wade, what it took to get equality, what it took for women to have their own bankbook and their own name and their own ability to be free and be able to have a job without having to be just a housewife. This is not anti-women at home at all. It's just about choice. Choice is the big word. This is not pro-abortion, this is about pro-choice. People need to see the distinction. 

"Mrs. America" came out earlier this year. We've also had the PBS adaptation of the play about Gloria Steinem. It feels like Gloria is so of this moment right now. She is obviously very mediagenic, very charismatic. She never goes out of style. But she feels particularly resonant right now, Julie. What do you think she means to us culturally, where we are literally talking about what's going to happen to Roe v Wade?

I think she has perspective because of her age. At the women's march, she said, "One good thing about being older is that you remember when things were worse." I don't know if she'd say that four years later, because I'm not sure that we aren't at rock bottom with the Make America Hate Again motto, MAHA. It's not MAGA, because it had great aspirations and great things written in our Constitution and great ideas and great people, but not for everybody. I think that if you're of the mind of, "Let's make America be what it's supposed to be, let's really do that," then you understand what "great" could be. I think that she has perspective. I think she's able to have distance and having gone through it, she can help us through these things.

The hope-aholic aspect of her is truly inspiring. "Always," she'll say, "let's look for the upside of the downside." She is about "don't give up." If you give up, you lose. It's like if you don't vote, you vote for Trump, basically. If that's what you want, don't vote. Or if you really aren't into Biden, I say, "That's not who you're voting for. You're voting for his cabinet. You're voting for the environment, for equality, racial equality, gender equality, you're voting for clean air. You're voting for COVID to be really handled properly with science. These are the things you're voting for now. You're not voting for that man, but that man who's smart enough, decent enough. He will put the people out there. He's not going to say, 'I can do it all.'"

Obviously Mr. I Can Do It All couldn't do any of it. It's very tragic right now that there is a cult hero out there for 30% of the population. But she will remind you that that's only 30%. Let's get those 70% to use their voice. The only thing we really, really do have in an equal way is the right to vote. If you support it, get rid of voter suppression.

I think Gloria knows all this. She's tremendous at putting it out there. She has a manner that I'm trying to do now, which is to talk quieter, slower. Lower your voice so that people can hear. She says something beautiful. She says, "You don't learn when you're speaking, you learn when you're listening."

I don't think that women show they're empowered by kicking ass and using weapons in bikinis, which I see all the time. I don't think that's women's empowerment. I think that they've been duped. Seriously duped to think that just being able to do your karate and your slicing and your dicing is equality.

No, equality is the prime minister of New Zealand. Angela Merkel is another one. All the women who run the countries in Scandinavia. There are a number of women who are leaders of their countries who have managed the COVID better than any other country. It's because they don't take it personally. It's not a reflection of their ego or narcissism. That's a huge difference in style.

I think Gloria has learned so much from Native Americans, from Indians, from India. She's learned about the circle, not just the talking circle. For me, it's the circle of life, which hearkens back to a piece I did 25 years ago. This movie, even if you just listen to how she speaks in some of the speeches, whether it's to the Harvard Law School or to the Catholic church, she says things and she says them with humor, which I adore, but I've never heard anybody say these things. was very aware as a film director and as a dramatist that, okay it doesn't have the normal three act structure.

It's a road picture. That means it's on a journey. Just get on the bus with her. I know many men, for instance, love the beginning. They love the relationship of her with her father and mother, which is fascinating. That's what Gloria loves as well, because she really seeing her mother dramatized really got to her through that great actress, Enid Graham, who I did "M. Butterfly" with on Broadway with Clive Owen. It's amazing how these different aspects of her life hit different viewers. A lot of people, "Who cares about the early life? I want to see the warrior. I want to see Ms. magazine. I want to see the icon I know." A friend of mine, a filmmaker said, "You create an elevator with 16 floors, but the audience can get off on any floor."

If you say, "I didn't go past the sixth floor, I wasn't interested. I really just liked the Bunny story," fine. I don't care. It's just like "The Lion King." If you just liked the costumes or the masks or you only liked the South African music and hated the Elton John, that's all right. Four-year-olds can see it. People who hate Broadway can see it. I believe it's just a Shakespearian worldview. I think I was brought up with Shakespeare. The groundlings, they love the body humor, they love the clowns, they love the love stories and the battles. And then the philosophers and kings and psychologists can talk about the poetry all they want and talk about the social philosophical ramifications.

I feel like if you watch "The Glorias" more than once, you're going to keep getting more and more things because you don't get everything. A good work of art should entertain you. I want people to have a good time and I want them to be moved.

Elliot, my other half, is the composer who did the score. I listened to the music without picture, and I burst into tears on about a three minute cue that I couldn't even quite remember. And then I went, oh yeah, it's around the death of Leo, her father.

There are melodies that you will hear played slow, fast. The one that's for the father and the daughter in the beginning is the same music when Gloria is 50 and is dancing with her men. He slows it down into a slow saxophone jazz piece, but it's the daddy's melody.

I did not pick up on that.

Nobody's going to, but now you get to go hear the score and you go, holy s*it, this guy. I'm amazed. But then that's why I love him. I had a reason to fall in love. We've been together 35 happily unmarried years. I'm very proud of him. We fell in love working together.

This is a movie about collaboration and it's also a product of collaboration. Julie, you are such an iconic figure in the theater. I can't imagine what it feels like for you at this moment when the houselights are dim all over the world.

The world. I'm working on some screenplays now, but one of the screenplays I really would rather do is theater, but I'm not sure.

I was on my way to a reading in London for a musical that I was going to do in Germany at just the end of February, beginning of March. We canceled. They were going to build a theater for us in Germany, a special new kind of theater. Four months later. they called and said, "Will you do it when we have our vaccines and everything, but do it on a proscenium?" I declined because I really, firmly believe we need new kinds of theater experiences, new kinds of theaters.  

I want to create new experiences, more immersive and also where theater and film combine. Our whole way of sitting and being entertained is going to have to change. I'd love to be at the forefront of building new kinds of architectural spaces, where film and theater are not just using film as projections for scenery replacement, but really moving in and out of stuff and making it in a safe environment, but also an environment where you feel the presence of other human beings. Because just streaming at home, I'm so sad with "The Glorias."

We saw it with a thousand people at Sundance. Screaming, cheering, applauding, standing ovations. We did it one more time in LA, right before COVID, with five hundred women at the Makers Conference, and they went nuts. I encourage people, see it with families. See it with your 10-year-old daughter too. The rating we got is nonsense. There's no sex, no nudity. I don't think the F-word is really a problem for children. I don't know why they did that because this movie should be seen by 10-year-olds. It's really important, actually.

"The Glorias" is available on Amazon Prime.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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