Used to be that, once an actress aged out of being able to play ingenues, there followed a long dry spell before she could get work again as some matriarch or harridan. Major roles on both stage and screen for women in their 40s or 50s were frustratingly scarce, reflecting the real-world experience of many that menopause meant the onset of the Age of Invisibility.
Ironically, just at a point in history where some women are beginning to view invisibility (when not mandated by race or class) as liberating, that situation has changed. In the movie industry, more and more meaty parts – often lead roles – are being written for mature women. In many cases, this is a direct result of more women who have already succeeded in acting or other media fields taking up the reins as producers, directors and screenwriters. It’s especially gratifying for viewers who are themselves Women of a Certain Age to see more characters up on the big screen to whom we can personally relate.
Among those 50ish actresses who have established a bankable track record and can now call some shots on the production end is Julianne Moore, 2015 Best Actress Oscar-winner for her searing portrayal of an academic with early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. Moore has the luxury now of picking the roles she wants to play. She found herself blown away by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s much-awarded 2013 film Gloria, and in particular by Paulina García’s terrific performance in the title role of a long-divorced woman putting a toe back in the dating waters.
It was a part that Moore wished she could have played herself. So she did something audacious: called Lelio up and asked him to do an English-language remake of the movie, set in the US, with Moore herself playing Gloria. Lelio and his production partners Pablo and Juan de Dios Larraín were riding high on the success of their 2017 project, A Fantastic Woman, and feeling ready to move some of their product out of the Best Foreign Language Film category. A deal was struck. “As one of the greatest actresses in the world, Julianne giving her interpretation of the character is not only a huge honor, it’s irresistible,” Lelio told The Hollywood Reporter.
The results are far better than anyone might have imagined who cringes to remember all the wan Hollywood remakes of delightful French farces back in the 1980s (Cousins, The Man with One Red Shoe, Three Men and a Baby and so on). While Gloria Bell is nearly a scene-by-scene reconstruction of Gloria, the transposition to Southern California works very well. The story of a woman on the downslope of middle age trying to reinvent herself and being repeatedly disappointed by her romantic prospects is a classic scenario that bears multiple reinterpretations. And, without throwing the slightest bit of shade on García, Moore totally makes the title character her own. It’s a tour de force performance.
Where García conveyed most of Gloria’s emotions via facial expressions, Moore makes the role considerably more verbal – often to the character’s detriment. The actress has a formidable reputation for taking on risky parts, and here again she allows her character to come across as less-than-likable at times. Like a real person (as opposed to a sitcom character who always has the perfect witty rejoinder locked and loaded), Gloria sometimes sticks her foot in her mouth. She may have a heart of gold, but she always has to fight her tendency to hover too much in the lives of her two grown children, Peter (Michael Cera) and Anne (Caren Pistorius). Both kids face their own relationship woes, but don’t necessarily welcome their mom’s well-meaning interference.
The relationships with her offspring receive somewhat more development here than in the Chilean original – enough to make us wish we could follow their separate stories without distracting too much from the main narrative. Gloria’s 70-something mother Hillary (Holland Taylor) is also more of a character, taking on some of the plot-moving actions of Gloria’s overly devout housekeeper from the original, who has been dropped. One nod to Latino culture that gets retained is a scene where South American love poems are being fervently read aloud – this time in English translation.
John Turturro is an interesting choice to portray the more-recently-divorced man with whom Gloria gets romantically involved, Arnold. He’s quite effective as a guy who thinks he adores his new flame but just can’t manage to extricate himself from codependent interactions with his ex-wife and grown daughters. Arnold and Gloria’s cellphones never stop ringing; the decision of whether and when to answer them is a test of character for both.
One big difference between the two versions of the story lies in the political landscapes in which the stories are set. A pivotal scene involves Arnold walking out of a birthday party for Peter, the first time that Gloria introduces him to her family. Peter’s father Dustin (Brad Garrett) is present (accompanied by his second wife), and gets progressively more nostalgic about his former marriage to Gloria the more wine he drinks. It’s awkward for all. Arnold takes offense at his own invisibility in the face of this family with a lot of shared history. But in the original, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández) gets a blatant cold shoulder once he drops the truth bomb that his first career was in the Chilean Navy – during the Pinochet regime. Here, revealing a military background doesn’t deliver quite the same chilling punch of unacceptability to a liberal family, and it becomes almost a throwaway line, with no further consequences.
So some of the context and subtext of the original Gloria gets lost here. The universalities of the aging human condition, with all its attendant relationship baggage, still hold true, however. Thanks mostly to Moore’s fine performance, Gloria Bell is a remake that amply justifies its own existence.