When a film is criticized by male right-wing reporters as ‘degrading to men’, you know it’s a feminist masterpiece. Known for its uniquely strong and unapologetic voice, outstanding performances, the beginning of Brad Pitt’s career, and possibly one of the most iconic endings in modern cinema, THELMA AND LOUISE (1991) is an incredibly powerful film even now, almost 30 years later.
THELMA AND LOUISE follows two women, a sassy, confident waitress (Louise) and an oppressed housewife (Thelma), as they take a road trip for the weekend to a friend’s fishing cabin. Everything goes wrong however, when Louise kills a man who is attempting to rape Thelma at a bar their first night out.
Directed by visionary BLADE RUNNER (1982) and ALIEN (1979) filmmaker, Ridley Scott, and starring legendary and downright bad-ass Hollywood stars Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, and Brad Pitt, THELMA AND LOUISE is unique in the way it challenged the cinematic landscape of the time.
“You never get to be in a film with another woman, hardly ever and you never get to be friends with the woman. If you are in a film with another woman, then you’re automatically competitive and hate each other for whatever reason, she’s young, you’re old, anything they can figure out…so to even get a shot to do a movie with another woman was a big deal.” Susan Sarandon told Entertainment Weekly in 2016.
The journey of THELMA AND LOUISE started when screenwriter Callie Khouri was driving home in the early morning in the spring of 1988. Khouri had never written a screenplay before but all of a sudden she saw the whole thing in her head. She’d studied acting and theatre before but was still working odd jobs to make ends meet. Within 6 months however, using inspiration from her friendship with country star Pam Tillis and her personal violent encounters with men (including a mugging she experienced alongside Larry David), Khouri finished a rather serious and poignant script. Later on in the production process, the script would become more of a comedy while still maintaining the power of the original draft, and perhaps becoming more powerful with the use of humour to discuss more serious underlying themes.
Originally, Khouri herself wanted to direct the film with Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand as the leads. Her friend, Amanda Temple wanted to produce the picture but they were having a hard time getting funding. Fortunately, Temple was friends with Mimi Polk Gitlin who managed Ridley Scott’s production company. Originally Mimi was sent the script for feedback but ended up falling in love with it. When she gave it to Ridley Scott, he agreed that they should produce it and decided to buy it from Khouri. Because it was a story about powerful women fighting against a wildly sexist society under the guise of a fun road-trip gal pal picture, it took a lot of hard work and luck to get the film made. Many directors refused the job because they never thought an audience would be interested in seeing a story like this one that was so openly critical and (literally) female driven. One director even said to Scott after reading the script, “‘Listen, dude, it’s two bitches in a car.’ Scott defended the project and eventually talked himself into directing it instead.
When it came time to cast, almost every big female star wanted the part. They were excited by this opportunity. Many talented actresses were auditioned, including Meryl Streep, but eventually the producers decided on Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. Geena Davis had wanted the part so badly that she asked her agent to call the filmmakers every week for almost a year to ensure she was considered. Though the pair were ten years apart in age, they got along marvelously and their chemistry on screen created a truly memorable pair of characters. To prepare for the role, both received extensive driving and shooting lessons.
While both the female stars were already established with films like BEETLEJUICE (1988, Geena Davis) and THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975, Susan Sarandon), the character of JD was to be played by a complete unknown, Brad Pitt. Originally, Billy Baldwin got the part but dropped out of the project after production was postponed. Many now famous actors auditioned for the role including George Clooney, Mark Ruffalo, Dermot Mulroney, and Robert Downey Jr. (who didn’t get an audition but was willing to take a pay cut for the role). However, when Brad Pitt walked in and began to read lines with Geena Davis, she was so taken with him that she started to fumble her lines, appearing flustered. Because of this, the producers were ready to choose a different actor but Davis stuck up for him, telling them that he was perfect to play the cute, gentlemanly outlaw JD. In addition to Pitt, Christopher McDonald, who plays Thelma’s husband Darryl, also has Geena Davis to thank for his role. The two dated and broke up yet Davis recommended him for the role, thinking he’d be a perfect fit.
Once production began, Ridley Scott used the paintings of John Register as inspiration for the aesthetic he wanted. He also let the cool, southern, score by Hans Zimmer, and several improvised moments by the actors help him to create an atmosphere that was fun yet still thought-provoking.
With a budget of about 16.5 million dollars and gross profit of about 45 million domestically, the film was a surprise hit. It was screened at Canne as an out of competition film in 1991 yet didn’t get a lot of attention from big film festivals. However, Callie Khouri received an Oscar and a Golden Globe for screenwriting and the film got several more nominations from the academy. In addition, Khouri, Scott, and Sarandon all received awards from the London Film Critics’ Circle. The film also received nominations from BAFTA, the Director’s Guild of America, and the David Di Donatello awards.
Audiences everywhere fell in love with the film. Women especially were very excited to see such empowered characters in an action film. They felt that it would change the roles offered to women in Hollywood. This did happen but not on the scale that people expected. While it is certainly true that the landscape of roles for women has greatly broadened with the MeToo movement and the growing awareness from the industry, the US still has problems with representation. In a study by ‘the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’ about the top grossing films of 2019, 37 % of major characters and just 34% of all speaking roles were played by women. In addition, of the top 100 most profitable films in the US in 2017, only 12 % were directed by women. Ironically, in a study done by Creative Artists Agency and Tech-Focused Firm Shift7 with assistance by Times Up it was discovered that female-lead films are more profitable at the box office worldwide than male-lead films.
While raising her daughter, Geena Davis noticed this inequality, especially in children’s media. So, in 2004, Davis has been running a research foundation called the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. This non-profit organization aims to increase representation for women and minorities in children’s media and raise awareness of the issues in media today. Davis has also co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival, a non-profit festival that aims to support minority creators. This year, Geena Davis told the Guardian
“We want to change the world! Our goal is very simple: the storytellers and people on screen should reflect the population, which is half female and incredibly diverse. It’s not like: ‘Wow, what a far-fetched idea!’ It just makes total sense.”
The filmmakers of THELMA AND LOUISE couldn’t agree more. That is why they started this project and why it still resonates with audiences today. As Becky Aikman, author of Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma and Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge, puts it:
“The whole story arises out of the kinds of things that drive women crazy in real life. The disrespect, the sexism, the sexual assault, being harassed by the truck driver on the road. These are all things that women faced then and still face now all the time and watching two characters fight back against that is immensely satisfying for the audience.” This film is not only a fun watch but also a story that highlights the underlying sexism in our culture and after watching it, it is impossible not to feel, as Thelma puts it “awake”.