Monday, January 5, 2009


The firestorm of controversy that erupted over the release of “Thelma & Louise” (**** out of ****) took British director Ridley Scott, first-time scenarist Callie Khouri, and principal co-stars Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis entirely by surprise. Men and women on both sides of the issue whether feminist activists or otherwise weighed in on the combustible argument. Some said it degraded men, and other heralded it as a testosterone-laced female manifesto, while still others “Time” magazine critic Richard Schickel devoted three pages to the “white-hot debate” seething “over whether Thelma & Louise” celebrated “liberated females, male bashers—or outlaws.” Schickel concluded that Scott’s film possessed “a curiously unselfconscious manner about it, an air of not being completely aware of its own subtexts or largest intentions, of being innocently open to interpretation, appropriate and otherwise.” Moreover, Schickel went on to say that its “makers, without quite knowing what they were doing, sank a drill into what appeared to be familiar American soil and found that they had somehow tapped into a wild-rushing subterranean stream of inchoate outrage and deranged violence. Indeed, when Scott decided to helm “Thelma & Louise,” he wanted to “raise this film from being about two girls in a car to something with a little bit more of a statement.” As for Khouri, she reacted to the male bashing assertions as “shocking.” Nevertheless, this gender bending controversy didn’t harm the box office. Budgeted at $6.5 million, “Thelma & Louise” generated $20 million in revenues in less than a month and eventually grossed $45 million. Ironically, despite its notoriety, Khouri noted later that “Thelma & Louise” didn’t open up more roles for women.

Fed-up coffee shop waitress Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) and her claustrophobic housewife friend Thelma Dickerson (Geena Davis of “Beetle Juice”) plan a weekend fishing trip. Louise has an on-again, off-again romance with a sweet-hearted musician boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen of “Reservoir Dogs”), who suffers from a commitment phobia. Meanwhile, Thelma contends with a domineering husband, carpet salesman Darryl (Christopher McDonald of “Grease 2”), who keeps her on a short leash. These gal pals load up Louise’s 1966 T-Bird convertible and paranoid-minded Thelma packs a gun. Our heroines don’t get very far before they slake their thirst at a country & western roadhouse with a band and dance floor. Thelma flirts with a charismatic redneck, Harlan (Timothy Carhart of “Witness”), who winds up assaulting her in the parking lot. Louise saves her girlfriend before Harlan can sodomize Thelma. Momentarily, everybody backs off in an uneasy truce. What we don’t learn about until later is Louise has concealed an incident in her past that she has never resolved. When the would-be rapist insults Louise with a derogatory dog reference, she shoots him dead cold dead on the spot without a qualm. Our heroines hightail it without a second thought.

Thelma insists that a jury would blame her for enticing Harlan with her flirtatious manner and provocative apparel. As fugitives on the lam, our protagonists embark on a cross-country journey through Oklahoma and New Mexico, carefully avoiding Texas, for the sanctuary of Mexico. Everything goes awry when they pick up a sexy, Stetson-wearing, denim-clad hitchhiker, J.D. (Brad Pitt of “True Romance”), who steals their money when Thelma has her mind on his hunky physique. At this point, Louise relinquishes her role as the stern mother figure and Thelma—who had been in the daughter figure role—takes it over. Since they have no money, Thelma decides to put into practice J.D.’s formula for robbing convenience stores to use and holds up a grocery store. Darryl is shocked when the FBI shows him the videotape of the robbery.

Thelma and Louise’s odyssey of liberation turns into a tragic manhunt in the tradition of the modern-day Kirk Douglas western “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962) where a lone cowboy is chased by cars and helicopters across the wilderness. Eventually, a posse of heavily armed lawmen, among them a sympathetic Arkansas State Police investigator, Hal Slocumbe (Harvey Keitel of “Mean Streets”), who has tried to reason with them, corners them at the equivalent of the Grand Canyon. Rather that capitulating to justice and inevitable jail time, our heroines refuse to surrender. Literally, they take flight, launch themselves off a cliff, and plunge their car into the oblivion of a canyon and certain death. We never actually see them die. Scott concludes this larger-than-life epic on a freeze frame of the protagonists soaring through air in their automobile, reminiscent of George Roy Hill’s memorable freeze frame at the end of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” when the heroes charge an army of soldiers. Appropriating the male bonding movie formula, “Thelma & Louise” reversed its sexuality so that women rather than men bonded, shared life-altering experiences, and savored a taste of freedom that neither sought to forsake despite the consequences. Previously, the buddy picture had been exclusive domain of men with examples such as “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” “The Sting,” and “Easy Rider.” Scott’s film, however, irrevocably changed the landscape, and nothing comparable to “Thelma & Louise” has been produced. Previously, Scott had made a pioneering foray into feminism with “Alien” (1986) when he cast Sigourney Weaver as the survivor. “Thelma & Louise” emerged as a cautionary tale about what can happen when men refuse to treat women with respect. Callie Khouri not only won the Oscar but also a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. Sarandon and Davis received Best Actress Oscar nominations as well as Golden Globe nods for their performances. Ridley Scott received a Best Director nomination for the Oscar as well as the César--French equivalent of the Oscar. Amid all of the kudos for Khouri, Sarandon, Davis, and Scott, the most overlooked person in “Thelma & Louise” is actor Christopher McDonald who steals the show with his hilarious performance as Darryl, much of which was—according to Scott—improvised by McDonald on the set.

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