Gender equity for directors has been a cause for decades but it’s only in the past five years that Hollywood studios and institutions like the National Film Board have really increased the number of films being made by women. Veterans Miranda July and Julie Taymor have taken advantage of the new environment to make two fine new feature films. It’s great to see movies made by women like July and Taylor and others hitting not just the film festival circuit but in theatres and on video-on-demand as true commercial enterprises. It’s appropriate that Miranda July’s Kajillionaire and Julie Taymor’s The Glorias have moved from January’s Sundance festival to North American releases this week.
Julie Taymor, director and co-script with Sarah Ruhl
Based on the memoir My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
Starring: Julian Moore (adult Gloria Steinem), Alicia Vikander (Steinem aged 20-40), Lulu Wilson (teenaged Gloria), Ryan Kira Armstrong (young Gloria), Timothy Hutton (Leo Steinem), Enid Graham (Ruth), Bette Midler (Bella Abzug), Janelle Monae (Dorothy Pitman Hughes), Lorraine Toussaint (Florynce Kennedy), Kimberly Guerrero (Wilma Mankiller)
Gloria Steinem is a living icon of the second wave feminist movement that sprang up in 1960 with the discovery and wide dissemination of “The (contraceptive) Pill” and continued through the legalization of abortion and the international passing of equal rights acts, especially in the workforce, over the next two decades. A brilliant journalist, Steinem’s 1963 article on working at a New York Playboy club, “A Bunny’s Tale,” exposed sexism in a fresh funny way while showing how the young female workers were being exploited not just by the customers but by the male owners who underpaid them and placed them in appalling working conditions. Hugely popular, it established Steinem as a major voice in the movement. Nine years later, she was the key figure in creating Ms. Magazine, a runaway success, which promulgated the women’s cause in households in North America and beyond.
Steinem’s life is a perfect subject for Taymor, the innovative choreographer and theatre director–the Broadway production of The Lion King is her most iconic–who has been making films since the ‘90s and is perhaps most famous in cinema for the Salma Hayek starring biopic Frida (Kahlo).
Always innovative, Taymor and her co-script writer Sarah Ruhl have come up with a unique structure to dramatize Gloria Steinem. There are four versions of her: a young Gloria in love with her daddy and his crazy dreams; a teen obsessed with dance; an ambitious researcher and journalist young adult (played with a shy charm by Alicia Vikander) trying to understand India and Manhattan and the famous feminist spokesperson, confident and articulate (played perfectly by Julianne Moore). Taymor has these four iterations play their scenes but she also puts them on a metaphoric bus (there are also images of trains and cars mixed into this “on the road” biopic) where they can interact. The four Glorias ask each other about romance and men and having babies as the viewer realizes how much Steinem was affected by the movement and the remarkable women she met along the way: African-American activists Florynce Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Indigenous leader Wilma Mankiller, Jewish politician Bella Abzug and so many others. True, she never had a child, didn’t write many books and only married in her sixties but Steinem’s speeches, organizational abilities and huge empathy for women who are part of what we now call BIPOC culture, is indisputably important.
Taymor’s film is particularly effective in depicting Steinem in her youth, dancing in the rain to the Andrews Sisters on a jukebox with her feet on her dad’s shoes; tap-dancing in a barbershop with a young Black friend; having fun with women in India in a third-class car on a very long train trip; trying to fit in with girls in the Playboy club. When Steinem’s narrative becomes one of being a triumphant feminist iconoclast, events prove less consequential on a personal basis and Julianne Moore’s charismatic performance has to be used to the utmost to keep the narrative flowing.
The Glorias isn’t a complete triumph despite its brilliant cast and innovative direction. But it certainly tells us more about Ms. Steinem and her career than any film has done before. This is a film that deserves to have been made and it’s quite enjoyable. Not everyone’s life can be a masterpiece but Gloria Steinem may have crafted one with her far-flung adventures on the road.
Miranda July, director and script
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood (Old Dolio Dyne), Richard Jenkins (Robert Dyne), Debra Winger (Theresa Dyne), Gina Rodriquez (Melanie), Mark Ivanir (Stovik)
Who doesn’t want to be a kajillionaire especially in these times of no-holds-barred capitalism inextricably mixed with corrupt politics and pandemic induced despair? Certainly not the Dynes, a bizarre family of terminally unsuccessful con artists, who are the main protagonists of Miranda July’s latest quirky film, Kajillionaire. The three, mother Theresa, dad Robert and daughter Old Dolio (explanation later) live in a bubble factory, which pours out pink fluid on their walls and down onto the floors of the organization’s long abandoned office and supply room at 5pm each evening. This paradise of an apartment is where the Dynes live. They’re $1500 in arrears on the rent, which is supposed to be collected by the landlord Stovik, who reacts to the family’s poverty with tears of overwhelming emotion rather than physical threats. Perhaps he’ll guilt them into paying their rent.
It’s up to Old Dolio, named for a long deceased homeless lottery winner who never gave the Dynes a penny for calling their daughter after him, to come up with a scheme to handle the money on their very odd home. She proposes flying from California to New York and back with insurance and then conveniently losing Old Dolio’s luggage on the return trip by having someone steal her bags, which are insured for $1500. That someone turns out to be Melissa, an upbeat optician’s assistant who loves the idea of being a con artist. The scheme comes off but Old Dolio becomes angry at her parents who treat Melissa with the affection she has been denied all her life.
A word or two about July’s actors, who are compulsively watchable, and make July’s film successful. Richard Jenkins, a brilliant character actor most famous for playing Sally Hawkins’ gay best friend in The Shape of Water and the ghostly family patriarch in the cult TV hit Six Feet Under, is an absolutely scary father to Old Dolio, unutterably charming while pulling a scam but totally narcissistic otherwise. 80s superstar Debra Winger is repellent as the mother to Old Dolio and wife to Robert: she seems to be running on fumes, barely surviving. The effervescent Melissa, who is the subject of the Dynes’ next scheme, turns out to be stronger and smarter than expected. She’s played by the attractive Gina Rodriquez, who was the titular character in the TV hit Jane the Virgin, and parodies that character in this film. And then there’s Old Dolio, the focus of what appears to be an ensemble comedy. Evan Rachel Wood, who is currently the big star in the TV hit Westworld, throws herself into Miranda July’s vision of Old Dolio, an abused child who is so used to being treated badly that she finds it hard to understand that Melissa actually likes her.
It’s the relationship between Old Dolio and Melissa that turns July’s film into something quite tender and romantic. Wood’s performance as Old Dolio is so disturbing—she’s beyond neurotic, finding it impossible to show any kind of emotion—that the film turns into an investigation of her identity. For once, July has taken the idea of being quirky and actually examined it. Being a Dyne wouldn’t be funny, she suggests, if you have true feelings.
Kajillionaire is built around a song, with brief instrumental asides occurring throughout the film. The song we hear at the end—Old Dolio’s motif—is Bobby Vinton’s inescapably sad “Mr. Lonely.” Just as David Lynch did decades ago with Blue Velvet, July has taken a culturally disreputable tune and made it work wonderfully well. A strange film, Kajillionaire is another success for Miranda July.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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