There is perhaps no other woman who is more easily identified to the burgeoning feminist movement of the late ’60s and ’70s than Gloria Steinem. Vocal, intelligent and yes, very beautiful (even now at 77 she looks remarkable), Steinem galvanized women across the country, and over the years, has tackled topics both taboo and controversial ranging from abortion to female genital mutilation, while becoming a public figure for feminism like no one else has since. But in turn, she has also become a figure of criticism and ridicule from those both inside and outside feminist circles for a variety of reason. And thus, it’s a shame that the life of such a powerful, passionate, divisive and fascinating woman is given such a perfunctory portrait with the documentary “Gloria: In Her Own Words.”
Directed by Peter Kunhardt, who specializes in this sort of format having previously helmed “JFK: In His Own Words” and “Teddy: In His Own Words,” the film simply cuts together an interview with Gloria Steinem with archival footage from throughout her life. That’s it. With a running time of about an hour, the end result is a glossy and rosy overview of Steinem’s life with absolutely no context or input from anybody else. The film feels like a premature obituary or simply a half formed film, one that failed to get much needed context from both supporters and detractors, or investigate further the many issues that Steinem championed or rallied against during her life and career.
Divided into multiple, very brief chapters each titled by a quote from Steinem, the film kicks off with her pre-activist days as a journalist, and it’s not long before she would become the center of attention. “I learned what’s it’s like to be hung on a meat hook,” she famously wrote in a damning expose of Hugh Hefner‘s Playboy Clubs, using her undercover experience working as a bunny to investigate and explore the claims that the work was both empowering and financially lucrative (and indeed, she’s keeping that stand today, calling for a boycott of NBC‘s forthcoming TV series “The Playboy Club“). And it would be her assignment to cover an abortion hearing in which women shared their harrowing experiences in trying to obtain the procedure that would fuel Steinem’s fervor, leading to her become a central figure in the movement that was picking up steam. From here, the film begins to race through her career and accomplishments at such a rate that it’s difficult to feel the impact of the social change she brought forth or for any of the issues to be truly explored. From the founding of Ms. magazine to the role her beauty played in her media, everything begs for further analysis that it never receives.
To give you an idea of Kunhardt’s weightless approach, more time in the film is spent talking about how Steinem’s hairstyle and thoughts on marriage were influenced by Holly Golightly in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” then her opposition to pornography (which was coming into its own right in the midst of the increasing feminist tide sweeping the country). Not to mention that her complex observations on transsexualism or her dismissal of feminism in academia isn’t mentioned at all. Most disappointingly, Steinem is either not asked (or doesn’t comment) on the state of feminism today, a particularly galling omission considering the term is viewed by some young women as a epithet or outdated notion. Oh but don’t worry, there is enough time to show Steinem tap dancing during an interview with Barbara Walters who is singing along. But that picture of Steinem, Bella Abzug and a super young Jesse Jackson? Don’t ask (nor expect any talk about the common goals that united the feminist and civil rights movements).
However, to give Kunhardt some credit, he is a master of compiling footage and witnessing the feminist movement as it moved from the streets, to become talking points on major networks and even on daily talk shows — with pretty priceless clips of Steinem on “The Phil Donahue Show” and “Larry King Live” — and it’s a bracing reminder that less than a generation ago women moved mountains to get their voices heard loud and clear. And even without frames of reference or a pretense of investigative work, Steinem herself still makes ‘In Her Words’ interesting viewing even if that feeling is continually coupled with frustration. Those unfamiliar with Steinem will be lost for some segments of the film, while those are deeply versed will likely find the whole effort uncharacteristically toothless. Kunhardt clearly admires Steinem but it comes at a cost where all objectivity is put aside for what is a chummy documentary and a glossy retrospective that doesn’t carry the weight of importance that Steinem deserves. [B-]
“Gloria: In Her Own Words” premieres tonight at 9 PM on HBO.