When it comes to leading ladies, you’d have a hard time finding a more powerhouse lineup than 1991’s Thelma & Louise, which saw both of its stars nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars that year. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon play BFFs whose road trip goes seriously south when they shoot a rapist and end up as unlikely outlaws bound for Mexico — via the Grand Canyon, of course.
Callie Khouri’s original screenplay was so groundbreaking and audacious, it attracted the attention of nearly every actress in Hollywood — and was passed on by nearly every studio executive at the time, who pushed Khouri to make her characters more “ladylike” and change the controversial (and now totally legendary) ending.
In this episode, our hosts discuss a film that had the odds stacked against it ever getting a greenlight, which has since become one of the most iconic and beloved films of the 90s. We also dust off the two other runners-up from the 1991 Best Actress race, seeing how For The Boys’ Bette Midler and Rambling Rose’s Laura Dern stack up against Sarandon and Davis.
Does Thelma & Louise feel as fresh as it did 30 years ago? Would the film still ruffle as many patriarchal feathers if it were made today? And what ever became of that handsome newcomer who plays the drifter? Climb in your Thunderbird, lock a cop up in the trunk, and leave your sex hair as is, because we’re in hot pursuit of the ultimate female buddy movie — and we think we have it in our sights!
I’ve been wanting to do Thelma & Louise on the podcast for ages. Without knowing many specifics, it was obvious to me that the film would have an interesting backstory, as well as plenty to revisit through a modern lens.
I wasn’t wrong — as it turned out, there was a whole book on how this film got made (Becky Aikman’s Off The Cliff), which I read in preparation. The book makes a great case for how groundbreaking Callie Khouri’s script was by first detailing what a dearth of opportunities there were for female filmmakers in the 70s and 80s. The book is a great read on sexism in Hollywood, in addition to telling the story behind the making of a fantastic film.
I also really enjoyed learning about all the alternate versions of the title duo we could have had, if things had happened a little differently. Frances McDormand and Holly Hunter? Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer? Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn? I think Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon were ideal casting, but it’s fun to imagine the Bizarro World versions of this movie.
I thought Thelma & Louise was terrific the first time I watched it, but that was years ago, and I hadn’t seen it since. I was pretty sure I’d still like the movie, but would it still hold up as great? I remembered the imagery better than I remember the story, aside from the broad beats that are now infamous (including the ending). I couldn’t exactly remember what genre it prioritized. Was it a comedy with some dramatic and suspenseful beats? A drama with some action and laughs? A thriller with some comic relief and emotional moments?
Perhaps I didn’t remember because the answer to all those questions is yes. No genre really dominates the film any more than the others — it gracefully moves through them without ever signaling a switch. It satisfies in so many ways we want a movie to, but few manage to do all of these things equally well, and work as a discussion piece on top of it all. There’s a lot of moral complexity here. It stirs up emotions you want to talk about after the film. You want to watch it again once it’s over. It really is something special.
Ridley Scott still seems like an unlikely choice to direct one of the best films about female friendship ever made, yet I don’t think Thelma & Louise could have been what it is without him. He honored Khouri’s script, leaving its more challenging aspects as is, fighting for the controversial ending — but he also added a masculine element to the visual style that perfectly complements the sharply written female leads. He expands the scope of the story through the cinematography, making it feel like a true epic — evoking the sense that Thelma & Louise is a mythic Western, right up there with High Noon. Scott insisted that this intimate story of female friendship be as grand and cinematic as any male-driven movie would. I don’t think many directors would have made that choice.
Thelma & Louise still feels remarkably fresh. I don’t think we’ve seen another female-driven film quite like it in the 30 years since. This year’s Promising Young Woman treads into a lot of similar thematic territory, prompting some of the same discussions (though, thankfully, in a post-Weinstein environment that is a little more receptive to the conversation). Thelma & Louise, ultimately, is still more daring than Promising Young Woman is; it’s also a lot more satisfying and cathartic in the ways it shows women taking predatory men down a peg. The heroines of each film meet comparable fates, but Thelma & Louise manages to be both genuinely triumphant and tragic. This isn’t meant to put down Promising Young Woman so much as it is meant to illustrate how thrillingly original Thelma & Louise still feels all these years later.
It probably should have gotten more attention from the Academy, but the fact that it won Best Original Screenplay feels just right. This is the kind of movie that can only be made from an original idea, a magic stroke of pure inspiration that’s all too rare. The film is a testament to putting original ideas up on the big screen, something Hollywood doesn’t do nearly enough of anymore. We need movies like this to become cultural touchstones, and they can only do that if studios put them out there in a big way. Thelma & Louise is one of the best examples of what great original idea can do — how it can change minds and change lives and become an integral piece of culture.
Thelma and Louise live on, and on, and on…