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'Great Performances' Presents the Compelling 'Gloria: A Life' With Christine Lahti
June 26, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

In some ways, a show about Gloria Steinem's life seems easy and obvious.

It's been a big, bold life, one that helped transform society. Now it shows up on stage, on TV, and, soon, in movie theaters.

"She's everywhere," said Christine Lahti, who portrayed her on stage and in Gloria: A Life, at 9 p.m. ET Friday (check local listings) on PBS. "And she needs to be everywhere."

But doing a show about her, with Steinem looking on? That's not so easy.

"Gloria said she's the...least-narcissistic person on the planet," Lahti said. And she wanted the show to match that. "She said, 'If a play is going to be written about me in the first act, that's fine. But the second act needs to be about the audience.'"

So it is. The first act rushes through that big life, with Lahti as Steinem and six actresses as everyone else. The second act simply asks people in the audience to talk.

And during the two nights taped for PBS' Great Performances, Steinem herself, now 86, was there to hear the comments. "What I noticed was how many mothers and daughters were at the performances," said David Horn, the Great Performances producer.

One woman related how her grandfather made her mother promise never to be a lawyer because women couldn't succeed in the law: "So I went on to be a lawyer – and my daughter is a lawyer."

Both generations were transformed by a movement that had Steinem at the core – despite her own reluctance. "I had a near-pathological fear of public speaking," she says (through Lahti) in the play.

Her childhood had been difficult. Her mother had dropped her career (as a newspaper reporter) to go along with her father's failed enterprises, including dealing antiques and running a dance hall in rural Michigan. "Until I was 11, I was basically home-schooled," she says through Lahti.

Her mother had a nervous breakdown, her father left, and they settled in Toledo, Ohio. Her goal was to get to New York City, but she wasn't sure how. She thought it would be as a dancer with the Rockettes. Then, after graduating from Smith College, it was as a journalist.

At first, that involved bright, cheery things. At 29, Steinem wrote The Beach Book.

Steinem made an impact. In the play, she says writer Gay Talese said in front of her: "Gloria is this year's 'pretty girl.'"

He may have meant that dismissively, but it often worked to Steinem's advantage. Television preferred to have attractive faces – Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, John Kennedy, Harry Belafonte, and more.

So she became a focus, Lahti said. "Black feminists were at the forefront (but) the media didn't cover that. They wanted to interview the pretty white lady."

And she did interviews well, propelling new generations – which are now looking back at her life.

In the Mrs. America mini-series this season, Steinem was played by Rose Byrne. In The Glorias (currently set for movie theaters on Sept. 25), she's played by Julianne Moore and two others. And in Gloria: A Life, her friend Lahti steps into a big, busy life.

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