When the buddy-movie-cum-feminist classic Thelma & Louise opened in 1991, it inspired countless thinkpieces and parodies, was nominated for six Oscars (and won one for Best Original Screenplay), and, as star Susan Sarandon said at the film’s 25th anniversary last year, “made a lot of f-cking money.” And yet six major studios—including Disney, Universal and Warner Bros.—took a hard pass on the future-Oscar-winning script. “[Studios] were completely open about saying, ‘We can’t make this; there are two women in it!'” author and journalist Becky Aikman says of the Geena Davis/Susan Sarandon rebel road-trip movie.
In her new book, Off the Cliff: How The Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge (Penguin, $37), Aikman reports that much of Thelma & Louise, including the double suicide ending, was considered unfilmable. A British producer who read the script suggested softening Louise’s vigilante murder of Thelma’s attempted rapist by having her shoot him in the leg instead (meanwhile, action stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were considered movie gods in the ’90s for slaughtering dozens of men per movie). Even feminist icon Meryl Streep, then in the running to play the role of Louise (which ultimately went to Sarandon), suggested Louise push Thelma out of the car to save her at the last second.
How times have… kinda stayed the same. The year Thelma & Louise was released, four of Box Office Mojo’s top 50 movies of the year were directed by women. Twenty-five years later, in 2016, there was only one—Thea Sharrock’s Me Before You. A study published in 2016 by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles found that women consistently get about a third of speaking parts in films every year. Nine main characters in the top 50 films of 1991 were women while 25 years later, there were just 13, as per a study commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The same study found that even crowd scenes are comprised of just 17 percent women.
In her book, Aikman uses less-than-encouraging data like this—and over 150 interviews with the cast, director, studios and producers of the now-classic film—to contextualize Hollywood’s sexist culture, now and then. FLARE spoke to the BusinessWeek and Newsday reporter about the history of Thelma & Louise, how your fave movie was almost *never* made and why, despite succeeding spectacularly, it would be just as daunting to green light in 2017.
Geena Davis was 33 when she first started chasing the role of Thelma, and your sources describe her as ambitious and enthusiastic then. Did you sense she had changed by the time you interviewed her two decades later?
She said to me that at the time the film was made, she just assumed that she was going to have a great career, and she assumed she would be the exception to the rule [that there are less roles for actresses as they age]. And she was pretty shocked when she hit 40 and the opportunities started to dry up. She’s older and wiser now but she is still a very dynamic person. She threw all this into her foundation, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, to fight for more women in movies and television.
Thelma & Louise was almost never made because producer Ridley Scott couldn’t find a director (he would eventually agree to direct the film himself). He did not consider any female directors because, as he told Empire magazine, “if a woman directs it, she may go into overkill and, you know, get into some kind of vendetta.” Did you have any reflections on that?
I thought that interview was revealing. I don’t know if Ridley Scott would have felt like that if it was a movie about two men. Maybe now he would be more thoughtful about it. They talked to so many directors about directing the movie and they didn’t meet with any female directors. And there were some female directors out there that might have worked.
What do you think would be different if Thelma & Louise’s screenwriter, Callie Khouri, were shopping her script today?
I would hope that they would say, This is a great script, women do go to the movies, let’s do it. But there is still a possibility that everyone would say, Wow, great script! Too bad there are women in it. If you look down the list of the top box office movies for any given year it’s guys, guys, guys, guys, guys and one or two with women.
I couldn’t help but think about the Hollywood gender dynamics in the FX show Feud when I was reading this book. Do you feel like there were significant cultural changes in how women were treated in Hollywood between the ’60s (when Feud is set) and the ’90s?
I honestly have to say no. In some ways, it was almost worse. I think in the ’80s Hollywood got very caught up in the action-blockbuster genre. There was so little respect for the idea that there were women out there that might want to see a different kind of story.
This year three of the top-10 highest-earning wide-release movies so far are lead by women: Hidden Figures, Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman. Does this suggest that what audiences want to see is changing?
There is some recognition in Hollywood that the young teenage male audience that they used to count on [as viewers] is slipping away. They are going to other forms of entertainment, things like video games. So I think there is some acknowledgment that the movie industry has got to start reaching out [to other audiences] if they want to survive and thrive.
Have you seen Wonder Woman and if so, what were your thoughts on the film?
I don’t usually like comic book action movies because I don’t relate to them, but I found it a very powerful emotional experience to see the woman take charge. And I typically hate fighting scenes but I was welling up because I realize I never get to see it this way.
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