#559) Thelma & Louise (1991)

#559) Thelma & Louise (1991)

OR “Weekend Getaway”

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by Callie Khouri

Class of 2016

The Plot: Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) are two friends in Arkansas who take a long weekend up to an acquaintance’s fishing cabin. While stopping at a roadhouse, Thelma spends the night flirting with a stranger (Timothy Carhart), who later attempts to rape her in the parking lot. Louise stops him before anything happens, then fatally shoots him. Thelma & Louise spend the rest of the trip driving across country in Louise’s Ford Thunderbird convertible evading the police, led by Det. Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel). Along the way, Thelma has a dalliance with charming robber J.D. (Brad Pitt), Louise has a surprise encounter with her boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen), and the two women finally free themselves from their trapped lives and significant others to become truly independent.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a feminist manifesto and a cultural flashpoint”, praising Sarandon, Davis, and the film’s “unforgettable climax”.

But Does It Really?: Oh yes. Having been whelmed (neither over nor under) with Ridley Scott’s other NFR entries (“Alien” and “Blade Runner“), I’m happy to say I thoroughly enjoyed “Thelma & Louise”. Some will argue if the lead characters’ actions do more harm than help for the women’s movement, but honestly I just enjoyed spending time with these two. Davis and Sarandon give such dimensional, entertaining performance I was rooting for these two from frame one. Mixed with a fine supporting cast, a fun script, and confident direction, you get a Ridley Scott movie so good there’s no need for any alternate cuts. “Thelma & Louise” is an important film in the history of women in the movies, and a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: In the late 1980s, Callie Khouri was working as a music video producer, and had just started considering writing when she was struck by the idea of “two women going on a crime spree”. Khouri initially intended to direct “Thelma & Louise” herself as a small indie movie, but the script found its way to Mimi Polk Gitlin at Ridley Scott’s production company, and eventually to Ridley Scott himself, who bought the script for $500,000. This is also the only NFR movie for actors Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, and most surprisingly, Brad Pitt.

Wow, That’s Dated: “Thelma & Louise” contains such now-dated bits of Americana as pay phones, having to wire for money, and smoking in restaurants. Plus a quick reference to Geraldo Rivera’s long-gone daytime talk show.

Seriously, Oscars?: The surprise hit of summer 1991, “Thelma & Louise” missed out on a Best Picture nomination, but still received six Oscar nods (including Ridley Scott’s first Best Director nod!). The big winner that night was “The Silence of the Lambs“, but Callie Khouri took home the prize for Best Original Screenplay.

Other notes 

  • As with many a classic, neither Geena Davis nor Susan Sarandon were the first choices for Thelma or Louise. Khouri wrote the script with Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand in mind, but Ridley Scott initially cast Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster, who both eventually bowed out after production delays. Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn considered taking over, but chose to make “Death Becomes Her” instead. Geena Davis was cast as Thelma after lobbying for almost a year, and Susan Sarandon was cast late in pre-production.
  • I do not envy 1992 Oscar voters and the “Sophie’s Choice” of voting for either Geena Davis or Susan Sarandon (with Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling also in the mix). Who can truly say that one is better than the other? They’re both perfect. Davis has the flashier role with the more prominent character arc, but Sarandon grounds the movie with her performance. Even in the film’s darker moments, you can see these two actors really enjoying their time as these characters. Damn you, vote splitting!
  • This is one of the quickest Chekhov’s gun payoffs in film history; it’s fired 20 minutes after its reveal. The attempted rape scene leading up to it is uncomfortable, but that’s the point. And Louise quickly becomes my favorite movie character.
  • My one question about this movie: Why didn’t they ditch the Thunderbird for a less conspicuous car, like Marion in “Psycho“? Even Louise points out that the car makes them stand out.
  • Of course the main thing this movie has going for it is the complex female relationship at its center, and the fact that you have two female lead characters with strong arcs. Some critics dismissed the film as a form of wish fulfillment feminism, but if Stallone and Schwarzenegger could shoot the bad guy and sleep with a sexy young model, surely there can be a movie where women do the same. ….oh right, double standards.
  • Also coming under fire when this film came out: its one-dimensional portrayal of the male characters. Oh boo hoo. Not so fun on this side, is it? That being said, I’ll argue that Keitel is adding some shading to Hal, already subverting tropes by being sympathetic towards the criminals he’s trying to catch.
  • Both Harvey Keitel and Michael Madsen were less than a year away from “Reservoir Dogs”, where Madsen would achieve his most iconic film moment: slicing a guy’s ear off while dancing to Stealers Wheel.
  • This is one of three movies on the NFR to feature Stephen Tobolowsky. Bing!
  • 27 year old unknown Brad Pitt got the role of J.D. when practically every other Hollywood pretty boy turned it down. It’s his breakout performance, and I suspect we will see more of Mr. Pitt on this list in the coming years.
  • The scene in the motel diner is great, and the subsequent discovery in the hotel room is gut-wrenching. If you didn’t feel for either Thelma or Louise up to this point, this scene will hook you. This leads to the fun dynamic shift where Thelma becomes the more assertive leader of the two and Louise becomes the follower.
  • It’s so interesting to watch this movie 30 years later, when the conversation about sexual assault and its survivors has evolved quite a bit. The fact that both Thelma and Louise know that no one will believe their story about attempted rape is a gut-punch, and I wish I could say it still wasn’t an up-hill battle today.
  • On top of its entertainment value, “Thelma & Louise” is a very cathartic movie. It’s satisfying to watch these two forge their own path, especially in the scene where they blow up a trucker’s fuel tanker.
  • For those of you disappointed in seeing a “chick flick”, hang on until the third act when there’s car chases and ‘splosions and other cool stuff.
  • Wow, what an ending. Given its iconic nature, this ending was spoiled for me a long time ago, but it still holds up in its original context. Just don’t think about what happens after the fade to white.

Legacy 

  • “Thelma & Louise” was a hit with audiences and most critics (interestingly enough, most of the film’s more vocal opponents were men). Some even went as far as to say that the film was the beginning of a new era for more progressive films for women. That…did not happen.
  • Both Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are thankfully still gracing our screens with their talents. Sarandon finally won her Oscar for 1995’s “Dead Man Walking”, and Davis’ 1988 Supporting Actress trophy for “The Accidental Tourist” was recently joined by her Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
  • While Callie Khouri’s subsequent screenwriting career isn’t as iconic as “Thelma & Louise”, she did give us “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya- Sisterhood” and the TV show “Nashville”. Fun Fact: Ms. Khouri is married to T Bone Burnett.
  • Everyone has spoofed or referenced this movie; god forbid you have two strong female characters in your movie without evoking these two. The film’s finale is parodied a lot, most memorably in this classic “Simpsons” episode. Great, now I have “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” stuck in my head.

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