FILMS

Feminist fast lane

A pair of fugitives discover themselves on the road

Brian D. Johnson May 27 1991
FILMS

Feminist fast lane

A pair of fugitives discover themselves on the road

Brian D. Johnson May 27 1991

Feminist fast lane

FILMS

A pair of fugitives discover themselves on the road

Two sympathetic outlaws ride into the hot, dusty heart of the American Southwest, chased by a gathering storm of state and federal authorities. It is a familiar Hollywood scenario— the outlaw-buddy-road movie. But what makes Thelma &

Louise different from just about every other film of its kind is that the buddies are women. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon portray best friends who plan a weekend escape from their small-town lives. A violent incident transforms their holiday into an outlaw odyssey that takes them from Arkansas to Arizona. The movie is funny, sad, sexy and exhilarating—an inspirational joyride with disarming emotional depth.

And in its own modest way,

Thelma & Louise breaks new ground for American cinema.

While recalling the renegade romance of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the despair of Easy Rider (1969) and the sunbaked banter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it puts a sassy, feminist spin on the outlaw myth.

“It’s sort of like Bonnie and Bonnie,” Davis said in an interview last week in New York City, where British director Ridley Scott and his stars discussed the film with the media.

Davis and Sarandon are superb together onscreen. They generate a combustible female chemistry that is rare in Hollywood movies. And most remarkably, their performances survived the rigors of a shoot by Scott. A former art director, Scott, 51, has a reputation for being more passionate about machines and scenery than about actors. His two best-known films, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), are cold, science-fiction thrillers set in austere versions of the future. In Thelma & Louise, Scott’s camera takes a rhapsodic journey into the American West, a hard-shadowed landscape of big skies and red deserts, with a slide guitar sidewinding through the sound track. But the breathtaking imagery—a wide-screen world crisscrossed by canyons, freight trains

and shiny chrome tanker trucks—only throws the tenacity of his two heroines into stronger relief.

Adopting a honeysuckle accent that makes “special” sound like “spatial,” Davis plays Thelma, a bored housewife. She is married to Darryl, an abusive, Corvette-driving carpet dealer played by Christopher McDonald, whose overacting strikes the only false note in the film. As Louise, Sarandon walks a familiar beat as a blowsy, worn-out waitress.

The movie begins in a deceptively lighthearted vein. Thelma and Louise are two southern girls who just want to have fun. They pack Louise’s vintage Thunderbird convertible for a trip to a friend’s vacant cabin in the country. Thelma cannot bring herself to tell her husband—mischievously, she leaves a note in the microwave, along with his supper. On the

highway, the women stop by a roadside honkytonk and order dangerous drinks—Wild Turkey bourbon for Thelma, tequila for Louise. Then, declaring that “I’ve had it up to my ass with sedate,” Thelma steps out of character and onto the dance floor with a cowboy hustler.

After making her drunk and dizzy, he takes her outside and tries to rape her on the hood of a parked car. Louise intervenes, pointing a revolver. The man backs off. But as the women leave, he remains obscenely unrepentant. Louise fires, killing him with a single shot.

That act—and the sexual violence that precipitates it—spreads like a bloodstain through the movie, creating a dark subtext for a film that is otherwise brimming with comic energy. Arguing that they cannot report the killing to the police, Louise convinces Thelma that they should head for Mexico. The women hit the highway, with Louise chain-smoking at the wheel and Thelma beside her, knocking back miniature bottles of Wild Turkey. Along the way, Louise has a poignant but fleeting reunion with her boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen). And Thelma enjoys a sexual awakening in a motel-room interlude with a young drifter named J. D. (Brad Pitt), who passes on some advice that she later finds useful: “I always believe that if it’s done properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be a totally unpleasant experience.”

As the women get into deeper and deeper trouble, a paternal police detective, played by Harvey Keitel, establishes phone contact with them and tries to persuade ^ them to give themselves up.

: Thelma & Louise is the second movie released in the past month about two women who are afraid to go to the police after one of them kills a sexually abusive male. The other is Mortal Thoughts, a whodunit starring Demi Moore, Glenne Headly—and Keitel, again, as a homicide investigator. But in that movie, the two women remain depressingly unenlightened and unheroic as they try to cover up the crime, which is no more than a premise for an uninspiring tragedy of errors. In Thelma & Louise, the women become discriminating road warriors, avenging crimes of sexism.

The movie also takes the clichés of a male buddy adventure and gives them a subversive twist. In one scene, the heroines blow up a tanker truck while giving the driver a lecture about harassing women. And the ending— which is uplifting without being happy—marks a brave departure from Hollywood formula. The movie is a breakthrough, said Sarandon,

“not only because two women are playing cowboys in a cowboy movie with cars, but because it has an ending that is not the usual studio ending at a time when the American public is completely underestimated in terms of what they will take.”

Sarandon actually talks like that, in tumbleweed clauses that race to keep up with a lively, political intelligence. Sitting in a New York hotel room, the actress, 44, looked decidedly casual in a loose white shirt embroidered with cats, khaki tights and old running shoes. “My

daughter dressed me this morning,” she said, explaining that the shirt and the frog earrings were Mother’s Day presents from her sixyear-old daughter, Eva, and the juice stains came from her two-year-old son, Jack.

The actress revealed that she initially had “serious misgivings” about making Thelma & Louise with Scott. “One was this fear that it would turn into a blood-fest celebration of violence,” she said, “kind of like we’ve had after this war [in the Persian Gulf]. I didn’t think that was the direction to go in.” Added Sarandon: “My character had to be on a journey, asking what makes women victims and why men feel they have a right to do this.”

After reading the script by novice American screenwriter Callie Khouri, the movie’s two stars were not prepared for what awaited them on the set. Sarandon said that the director kept staging action that was not in the script, often involving big trucks. “We were just vehicleinundated after a while. But once you realize it’s about that, you just surrender to this driving cult. We got down with the guys and weren’t quite so prissy.” Davis, meanwhile, recalled that when she first read the script, “it

seemed like this intimate character study of two small-town women. Then you’d get to the set, and Ridley would have four semis all around the car. And now a train’s going to go through this shot. And then there’s a cattle drive all around us while we have this intimate talk about sex or something.”

In New York, Davis, 34, was wearing a white T-shirt, olive jacket and filmy skirt that stopped at mid-thigh. Six feet tall, she is at once gangly and glamorous, newly blond, with an ingenuous smile. Shooting Thelma & Louise was gruel-

ling, she said. “I was worried that if you breathe too much dust, does it give you cancer? And does the sun block work? And how soon before the cliff are you going to stop the car? But I always prefer to be challenged.”

Despite Scott’s obsession with action, both actresses say that he was sensitive to their suggestions. And the two stars collaborated closely. “Susan and I really dug in and took care of each other,” said Davis. Recalled Sarandon: “That was the only way we could hold our own. We were definitely in the trenches. Ridley is a

passionate visionary. We respected him and he respected us. But I’m not going to tell you that he’s a feminist.” Then she added: “If this had been directed by a really serious feminist, it might have seemed too much like a political statement. And if Ridley had two bubbleheads, he might not have gotten some of the stuff that we added. If anything, this movie shows that people coming from completely different perspectives can create a third thing—something that we haven’t seen before.”

In Thelma & Louise, the two women have a sex appeal that breaks with Hollywood tradition. Their complexions seem enriched more by sun and dust than by cosmetics. Sarandon comfortably shows her age. And Davis—whose character undergoes a coming-of-age—finally gets the star treatment she deserves. She becomes more attractive with each scene, as her character evolves from wife to renegade. And her transformation is captured with adoring close-ups. But in keeping with the film’s feminist spirit, during Davis’s love scene with Brad Pitt the camera dotes on his chest, not hers. “He shows more skin,” laughed Davis. “I got jealous of Brad’s lighting.”

Strong female roles, like those in Thelma & Louise, are rare in Hollywood, where conventional wisdom is that men pack more punch at the box office. But both Davis and Sarandon question that assumption, claiming that the male star always gets the - credit for a hit movie. “Patrick Swayze was the hot property after Ghost, not Demi Moore,” said Sarandon. “Bull Durham—I got great reviews, blah, blah, blah— but it was Kevin Costner’s vehicle.”

Hollywood’s male supremacy has far-reaching implications, the actress added. “If the movie business were to redefine what’s heroic, we would not end up playing John Wayne in the Gulf and we would not think you’re a wimp for using sanctions.” Sarandon was one of the few Hollywood actors to publicly protest against the Gulf War. “It was unusually lonely,” she recalls. “People were terrified.”

On-screen, Sarandon and Davis stir up their own desert storm. Some critics have called Thelma & Louise a male-bashing movie. Sarandon says that it is about “self-determination.” But she cautions that it does not necessarily herald a new age of enlightenment in Hollywood, which, she suggested, financed the movie because of its action, not its ideas. “We’re dealing with systematic sexism,” she said. “If Hollywood just woke up to it, it’s probably because we blew up a truck.”

BRIAN D. JOHNSON in New York