Thelma and Louise revisited: Six things you didn't know about the classic movie
A new fact-filled book looks at how the film's portrayal of women is still relevant today.
By Del Cowie
Thelma and Louise is a constantly referenced and immediately recognizable part of the pop culture lexicon (just ask Shania Twain and Taylor Swift). Starring Geena Davis as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise, the film details a few days in the relationship of the two main characters on a buddy road trip that goes horribly awry. After a man attempts to rape Thelma, Louise shoots him dead, triggering the duo's fateful run from the law. The film's iconic status is sealed by the vision of a 1966 Thunderbird convertible going over the Grand Canyon, but the undiluted hard truth is that the film was lucky to be made at all.
Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma and Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge by Becky Aikman is an engagingly written and granularly researched history of the film, gleaned from over 150 interviews with those involved. The book traces the genesis of Thelma and Louise from the mind of 30-year-old screenwriter Callie Khouri (who was odd-jobbing between various mind-numbingly sexist music video production sets at the time) to the legacy the film still holds over 25 years later.
Released in the summer of 1991, the film is still relevant because even in 2017 — the success of Wonder Woman notwithstanding — it is still rare to see a major motion picture with strong female leads, based on a script written by a woman, come out of the Hollywood machine.
"I was thinking about doing something about the persistent problem that women's voices aren't being heard enough in Hollywood," says Aikman over the phone. "And I thought if I had to drone on for 300 pages about that I would go insane and probably bore my readers. So I redirected my thinking towards the idea of one great film for women that got made and got made well and following that process to see what I could possibly learn about how it could happen again. Naturally the very first thing that popped into my head and the only thing that popped into my head was Thelma and Louise."
The whole story arises out of the kinds of things that drive women crazy in real life. The disrespect, the sexism, the sexual assault, being harassed by the truck driver on the road. These are all things that women faced then and still face now all the time and watching two characters fight back against that is immensely satisfying for the audience.- Author Becky Aikman
While some of the film's scenes that include robbery and fleeing multiple police cars might seem larger than life, Aikman is quick to nail the film's overall appeal to its ability to identify with the lives of everyday women. "It's not just the story of two women going on a crime spree," she says.
"The whole story arises out of the kinds of things that drive women crazy in real life. The disrespect, the sexism, the sexual assault, being harassed by the truck driver on the road. These are all things that women faced then and still face now all the time and watching two characters fight back against that is immensely satisfying for the audience."
Some of the same sexist attitudes critiqued in the movie were co-signed by various power players in Hollywood. It didn't help that Khouri's script was first circulating in the late 1980s, a time when the testosterone levels of action movies were at an all-time. While Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in-demand stars, women were largely viewed as one-dimensional ornaments, to put it mildly.
Khouri, for her efforts, would eventually win the Oscar for best original screenplay for the film — the first woman to receive the award solo since 1932.
Drawing on many of her own personal experiences, the film flew in the face of Hollywood orthodoxy, but eventually found a few champions, including eventual director Ridley Scott. But as Aikman details, it was an arduous road to travel with many requests to change the film's original vision, particularly the climactic cliff scene.
"There were so many moments when it could have easily wound up in the dustbin of history if things hadn't gone exactly right," says Aikman. Below, she recounts six of the most interesting things that happened along the way to making Thelma & Louise.
1. Khouri partly based the main characters in the film on her friendship with country singer Pam Tillis
While working in Nashville's music scene as a waitress after dropping out of university in 1979, Khouri immediately struck up a friendship with country singer Pam Tillis as soon as she fixed Tillis a drink at the bar. The innocence of Tillis and jaded Khouri, who was armed with what Aikman calls a "smart-ass mouth," would form the basis of the characters of Thelma and Louise, respectively. Tillis and Khouri would become lifelong friends and Khouri helped to write a couple of Tillis' early songs. "One of the favourite things that [Khouri] said to me was that I wasn't writing the kind of movie that got made," says Aikman. "I was writing the movie I wanted to see."
2. The film initially was going to star Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster
Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster were attached to play Thelma and Louise initially as Alien and Blade Runner director Ridley Scott (who was acting as the film's producer at the time) was looking for another director. Both had wanted to play Thelma but after a phone conversation they agreed Foster would play Thelma and Pfieffer would play Louise.
Ironically, it was Pfieiffer that convinced Scott to drop his extensive search for a director and do it himself, but she ended up dropping out as well. Pfieffer would move on to the independent film Love Field and Foster would sign up for The Silence of the Lambs. The departure of the two leads led every prominent Hollywood female actor to vie for the two acting leads.
"They were all big stars and big talents and there were only two or three parts a year that were worthy of those talents and look how many women were up for them," says Aikman. "It was tremendously competitive. If there were 20 great parts it wouldn't have been such a mad rush to get these two, but there weren't. That year there were [Thelma and Louise] and the part Jodie Foster got in The Silence of the Lambs. That was it."
At one point Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn scheduled their own meeting with the team working on the film to pitch themselves as Thelma and Louise, but Scott ultimately declined their intense interest, settling on the less certain box office draw of Davis and Sarandon.
3. Geena Davis loved the script but Susan Sarandon was more skeptical
Davis, coming off her best supporting actress win in The Accidental Tourist, had been interested early on, but not before Pfeiffer and Foster had been attached. Still, her agent doggedly persisted and Davis got her shot once Pfieffer and Foster dropped out.
While Davis was completely enamoured with the script, Sarandon was more skeptical. Ironically, she was one of the few actresses who never lobbied for the part, largely because she lived outside of the Hollywood bubble in New York.
While she was attracted to being in a film with another woman, she was critical of the script's timelines, its romantic scenes and wanted to specify the regional accent the role required. Sarandon's challenging approach actually won Scott over and he cast her as Louise. Their different initial reactions to the material didn't matter once Davis and Sarandon were on set, however.
"They both loved having another woman around who was a co-equal and they developed a friendship that was rare for women that were on a movie set," says Aikman. "So they really enjoyed all that time they got to hang out together and it carried over into their performance, a real fondness that they had for each other."
4. Brad Pitt won his breakout role because his audition with Geena Davis was a near-disaster
Aside from the acclaim and attention the film generated for its two main stars, the breakout actor in the movie turned out to be Brad Pitt, who became a star quickly afterwards. Pitt plays the roguish hitchhiker J.D. that Thelma and Louise pick up halfway through the film and eventually ends up in a one-night tryst with Thelma. Pitt was decided on to play the role after a carousel of young Hollywood male actors rolled through for auditions."Pitt gets to be the sex object in a movie from a women's point of view," says Aikman. "So his big debut was a very unusual role. So he had an opportunity to stand out."
The team behind the film had originally settled on Billy Baldwin, but he bailed just before shooting began to work on Backdraft. "It was incredible to me when I went through the records to see how many people who later became huge stars came in to read for these relatively small parts," says Aikman. Cue the carousel.
George Clooney blew his audition by fidgeting too much and chewing on a toothpick throughout, while Mark Ruffalo and Dermot Mulroney were also rejected. And Robert Downey Jr., already a rising star, offered to work on the film for any fee to fit the budget but wasn't even invited to audition.
Pitt got the role because he flustered Davis so much that she missed her cues and fumbled the delivery of her lines. While the male decision makers saw Pitt's audition as a fluffed scene and were considering other dark-haired candidates over the fair-haired Pitt, Davis spoke up about her preference. "The blonde one! Hello?!"
5. The truck driver was not only tricked by Thelma and Louise, but by director Ridley Scott too
One of the film's most famous scenes is the explosion of the catcalling truck driver's gasoline truck triggered by Thelma and Louise's gunshots. In the lead-up to the scene , the truck driver has been catcalling the women with sexually suggestive and inappropriate language on the road and Thelma and Louise eventually trick him into pulling over for what he thinks will be a romantic rendezvous. Instead the women rebuke him for his behaviour, shoot out his tires and eventually destroy the tanker with their bullets.
The truck driver was played by an actor named Marco St. John, who after refusing a stuntman to stand in his stead, was only 50 yards in front of the vehicle when the explosion happened. Scott told him the blast would happen after he said "Ready, Steady, Go!," but Scott made sure the explosion happened at "Steady," surprising St. John, who found out later that he had hearing loss.
6. The car does not drive off the Grand Canyon in the final scene
The end scene was actually filmed in Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah and was also the last scene to be filmed. Two takes for the car going off the cliff were performed after they built a ramp and removed much of the car's weight to ensure the vehicle defied the law of physics, going up, rather than down. However, the car does contain Thelma and Louise dummies.
Aikman had interviewed the man who made them but ultimately omitted the details from the book because it would have impacted the flow of her book. "I already had to explain how they rigged the car to go over the edge for the geeky element of that chapter," says Aikman.