By John H. Foote
20. THELMA AND LOUISE (1991)
The biggest difference in this buddy road movie was that the heroes were instead heroines, women. Wildly entertaining with spectacular performances from Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon and a very new Brad Pitt, the film was an immediate hit with audiences and critics, superbly directed by Ridley Scott. The film had been in development for a few years and Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn were set to play the characters but eventually they fell away, allowing Davis and Sarandon to step in. Kismet was immediate, their chemistry perfect, and magic was the word that described them together.
They were very much the odd couple onscreen. Thelma (Davis) a hot mess, disorganized, bullied by her knucklehead of a husband to the extent she does not even “ask” him to go away for a girls’ weekend, fearing being told no, she just goes. Bullied in her own home, Thelma has had enough and needs time away from him. Louise (Sarandon) is the epitome of order, completely organized, harboring a secret from her past that comes to light over the course of the film. The two take off, happy, thrilled to get away for a few days together. But trouble hits them in a bar when Thelma flirts a bit to aggressively with a local red neck, Harlan, known for hurting women. When he gets rough with Thelma outside the bar and insults them both vulgarly, Louise shoots him dead without hesitation. Right away we know she has been assaulted because she does not make a threat, she acts … she does it and does it to keep Thelma safe. And without apology.
Now fugitives, they hit the road, both terrified, but carefully thinking it through. In a startling change of character, Thelma rises to the occasion, taking charge of almost each situation and saving the day.
They are robbed of all their cash after picking up a hitch hiker J.D. (Brad Pitt), a boy toy for Thelma for the night who brings her to her first orgasm, and then promptly steals their money, every red cent. But her night with J.D. taught her another skill – robbing a store and she walks in and sticks up a small grocery store filled with people. Walking out with a handful of cash, they hit the road though are now fully wanted by the law and the law is in pursuit. While their husband and boyfriend try to figure out what has happened, they make their way through the Midwest into the badlands headed towards the Grand Canyon.
They are outlaws, and they begin to look the part. “You know I think I have a real knack for this shit” smiles Thelma after robbing a store.
Originally the leader, Louise now is the follower as Thelma finds her inner strength and outlaw and takes charge. When they are stopped going through the badlands by a cop, it is Thelma who takes control, pulls her gun, takes his and locks him in the trunk of his car so they can carry on. And the farther they go, close to the Mexico border, the more they realize if they are to get caught they will go to jail, despite the crimes committed against them.
The lead cop on their case, portrayed with sensitivity and warmth by Harvey Keitel, knows there is more to their story, that two decent women do not just decide to be outlaws one weekend. He digs in and finds out about the assault on Louise years earlier, and meeting Thelma’s husband just once tells him why she ran when she could.
They are chased to a massive canyon and find there is no escape. Thelma suggests they just “keep goin”, meaning drive over the cliff to their death, but at least they will be free. Gunning the car, the cops watch in horror as they fly off the edge and begin to descend, the car freeze framing, allowing us, as they did with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), to immortalize Thelma and Louise.
I love the scene as the girls drive through the badlands and Thelma says to Louise, “I am awake, like I don’t think I have ever been so awake” and that to me sums up the film. Two good women are assaulted and awakened to the world in every way. Harlan would have hurt Thelma, raped her no question and when Louise shot him, the girls became the fugitives. Does that seem fair? It seems every man they have encountered has let them down, Thelma’s lout of a husband, the man who first hurt Louise, Harlan, the foul-mouthed trucker on the road, J.D., and in their own way the police who never stop as Keitel does to add things up. What has happened? Had they looked deeper into why the girls were in flight, the ladies might have survived. Instead, they take control of their destinies and take their own lives, entirely their choice.
Geena Davis had by then won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in The Accidental Tourist (1988) and Sarandon had been nominated, but not yet won. Each was brilliant, though the greater character arc went to Davis who gave a towering performance. Now I do not wish to suggest Sarandon was any less, she is most certainly not, but Davis goes through a greater change.
The screenplay by Callie Khouri had batted around Hollywood in various stages of development with Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer at one point attached, and then Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, even Cher and Kathleen Turner, before Ridley Scott settled on Davis and Sarandon. Davis had been chasing the role for more than a year believing it to be a career changer. She was absolutely right and was thrilled when Susan Sarandon was cast as Louise. The two women hit it off at once and had a blazing chemistry onscreen as well. Director Ridley Scott stated he had to do very little with “the girls” as they were in character the first day they walked on the set.
Scott convinced his The Duelists (1978) star Harvey Keitel to take the supporting role as the sympathetic cop believing he had the humanity within to make the part work. Every young actor in Hollywood auditioned for the role of J.D., including George Clooney and Johnny Depp, but in the end the star making part went to the charismatic Brad Pitt after William Baldwin withdrew, possibly the greatest mistake of his career. Pitt was electrifying, the camera loved him and his seduction scene with Davis had every female member of the audience wishing they were her. A star was born at that moment and you could feel it in the audience.
Ridley Scott did a beautiful job capturing the intimacy of the flight of the girls, their evolving changes in personality and the depth of their friendship. Like John Ford, he did a stunning job bringing to life the beauty of the American west, especially in Monument Valley, Ford’s most famous shooting spot.
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Director for Scott, both actresses for Best Actress, the Screenplay (which won), Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Incredibly it was denied a nomination for Best Picture which it absolutely deserved in being among the year’s very best films. Critics praised the film for its validation of the feminist experience and what obscene actions women suffer at the hands of both men and society.
It remains one of the finest films about and for women ever made and was a solid hit at the box office. I remember leaving the cinema with tears in my eyes and wiping them away, unashamed. An American masterpiece.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.