Thelma and Louise: 25 Years
Film has delivered few truly iconic women in pairs. Erin Brockovich, Clarice Starling, Katniss Everdeen – they acted alone. Yes, deep-rooted friendships exist in The Help and Steel Magnolias, teamship in In A League of Their Own. But only Thelma and Louise, directed by Ridley Scott, provides women with a buddy, road and revenge movie all rolled into one. Upon its release in 1991, it was immediately hailed as a classic; the late film critic Roger Ebert recalls coach loads of women from the American mid-West going to see it again and again, plus its screenwriter Callie Khouri remains one of the few females to have raised an Oscar statuette for original writing.
Thelma and Louise is now celebrating its quarter century and Louise and Thelma, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, were celebrated at Kering’s Women in Motion event at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Speaking to us at the event, Susan Sarandon reminded Electra of just how unpopular the movie was in some quarters on release:
“You should know what a backlash there was at the time. They condemned this ‘feminist’ film. Yes, it’s a feminist film but at the time people accused us of condoning suicide, that we were man-haters, that all the men in the film were negative. That’s not true.
"Yes it's a feminist film, but at the time people accused us of condoning suicided, that we were man-haters, that all the men in the film were negative. That's not true."
“And compared to what can happen to the average woman in a film, it was all slightly ridiculous. Plus, did anyone accuse Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of those things? We were a buddy movie too, but we were subjected to double standards.”
To watch the original 1991 trailer for Thelma and Louise is to think it was advertising a light-hearted gal pal weekend away road trip; otherwise would it actually have found an audience? Yet despite the trail of violence they leave from Arkansas to Mexico, Thelma and Louise are responding – certainly at first – to the sexual violence that has been meted out to them. Even blowing up the tanker of a man making obscene gestures (without the driver in it) was hailed as the ultimate female response to daily harassment.
Nothing happens in Thelma and Louise as it should – there’s no justice, no happy ending, no accepted marriage proposal and the man with whom Thelma finds sexual fulfilment (Brad Pitt in his break out role) robs her. “Ridley Scott had to assure me that I’d not end up in Club Med at the end,” Susan Sarandon adds. “He said to me, ‘don’t worry, you’ll definitely die.’ Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.”
“Ridley Scott had to assure me that I'd not end up in Club Med at the end. He said to me, 'Don't worry you'll definitely die.' Otherwise I wouldn't have done it.”
“No one had any idea at all that we were being ground-breaking,” emphasizes Geena Davis. “We were unprepared for all the negative outrage in the press, saying ‘the world is ruined.’ But that was kind of great; the way people recognized me before and after, it had changed. It was startling, and stunning too.”
Susan Sarandon agrees. “It’s meant more than we expected it to mean for sure, when we made it, it was just two great parts and the chance to work with another woman, which didn’t often happen.”
Two great parts, equal in weight. Perhaps all else is irrelevant in the continuing appeal of Thelma and Louise to both men and women. It’s not, after all, that in 1991 women were desperate for a film to answer Easy Rider or Butch Cassidy. Thelma and Louise, a thirty-something bored housewife and a forty-something waitress, have settled for less in life than they should have. How many identify with that – and their wish to live a whole life in one weekend?
When Callie Khouri – who would later create the TV series Nashville – got her Oscar, 1992 was hailed as ‘the year of the woman.’ Geena Davis, who runs a research institute for gender studies, laughs at that now.
“When Thelma and Louise was released it was said ‘this changes everything.’ They predicted so many female buddy movies but they didn’t happen. And now when Mamma Mia or Sex and the City or Bridesmaids orThe Hunger Games comes out, they say, ‘this changes everything.’ And it hasn’t yet. But I am optimistic.”
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