Courtesy of Joan Marcus/PBS
En español | Hollywood has a new star: Gloria Steinem, 86, who launched Ms. magazine 48 years ago. Six actresses will portray her on-screen this year: Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson and Ryan Kiera Armstrong in the film The Glorias (Sept. 25); Rose Byrne in Hulu's series Mrs. America; and Christine Lahti, 70, in Gloria: A Life (PBS, June 26). Lahti plays Steinem telling her life story to a women's group, then Steinem joins her onstage.
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Professionally and personally, Lahti is perfect for the part: an ERA Coalition advisory council member who got an Oscar nomination for 1984's feminist World War II drama Swing Shift and an Emmy for Chicago Hope, on which she played a heart surgeon trying to break the glass ceiling in a man's world. “My daughter used to put Barbie clothes on the Emmy and Ken-doll clothes on the Oscar,” Lahti says.
In real life the actress is pals with Steinem. “One reason we're such close friends is that we both felt we were living the unlived lives of our mothers.” Getting to know the icon gave Lahti insights into Steinem's formative experience with her mom, who gave up a successful journalism career to raise kids and suffered mental illness and poverty. After her parents split, when she was 11, Steinem became her mother's caregiver.
"Gloria saw her mother was turned into sort of an invisible crazy person and had no power,” says Lahti, “and she herself had no power as a little girl — her needs were not met. She became determined to spend the rest of her life making sure every woman on the planet was visible and valued."
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Steinem changed Lahti's life. “They threw me this life jacket, Gloria and other feminists like Robin Morgan and Betty Friedan. Without them, when I was in college, my life might have gone a very different way. They helped me navigate a world that I found did not like or respect women very much. When we go out, often people come up to Gloria and say, ‘Oh, you saved my life!’ “
While developing Gloria, the actress reveals, she discovered some painful new details about her friend's life: “We were determined to show the underbelly of this icon. I said, ‘Gloria, tell me more about the worst things you did to your mother. If I'm cutting too close to the bone, tell me.’ She said, ‘Look, if it's not honest, it won't be helpful.’ “