'Thelma & Louise' at 20

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are reuniting in Toronto to talk about their landmark movie

Thelma & Louise at 20

MGM/Everett Collection

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Thelma & Louise, the classic female outlaw road movie. In fact, it seems like the only female outlaw road movie. There hasn’t been a film like it, before or since. Sure, we’ve seen our share of killer women, from Angelina Jolie’s banshee vixens to the gamine cutthroats in Hanna, Kick-Ass and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But the picture that premiered in Cannes in 1991 wasn’t about some psycho freak. It was about a bored housewife and a snappy waitress, two Arkansas gals who take a vacation from their men and hit a bump in the road that sends them flying. Good girls who come loose in the badlands.

Thelma & Louise became an instant landmark, etched into pop culture by controversy. Over the years, it may have acquired more iconic weight than its soft suspension can bear. But what remains is the power of its iconic moments. It’s a wide-eyed Susan Sarandon hissing “you watch your mouth, buddy,” at the lifeless body of the rapist she’s just shot. It’s a windblown Geena Davis as Thelma, swigging liquor from tiny bottles in a Thunderbird convertible that sends dust plumes into the desert sun to the sound of slide guitar. It’s the cowboy hustler played by an unknown hunk named Brad Pitt, stripped to the waist and bouncing on a motel room bed as he whips a hair dryer out of his pants to re-enact a bank robbery, before having wild sex with Thelma. Most iconically, it’s that aqua ’66 T-bird sailing over the Grand Canyon, the fate of its occupants sealed with a kiss.

On June 7, Sarandon and Davis will reunite to share their memories onstage in “Thelma & Louise: The 20th Anniversary Homecoming,” a show at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall to benefit the Women’s College Hospital Foundation. In recent interviews, they talked to Maclean’s about the film and what it means to them two decades down the road. Both said that, at the time, they had no clue it would become a phenomenon. “I thought we were making a cowboy movie with women and trucks instead of men and horses, and that it would be fun,” said Sarandon. Davis concurred: “It seemed like a small movie. I thought it was unusual there were two incredible female roles, and that people might not like the ending. We had no idea what the reaction was going to be.”

Both actresses remember being shocked to see the audience erupt in applause when Louise shoots the rapist. “I just thought there would be this stunned silence,” says Sarandon. Right off, she had told director Ridley Scott that she didn’t want to make a revenge movie. In Callie Khouri’s original script, shooting the rapist “was an execution—[Louise] holding the gun in front of her, spreading her legs,” says Sarandon, who toned it down so that “she was just trying to shut him up. It’s almost as if she’d slapped him except with the gun in her hand and it goes off.”

No matter. Thelma & Louise was the movie that gave feminism a licence to kill. Alternately hailed as liberating and male-bashing, it had instant impact. Davis, who had won an Oscar for The Accidental Tourist, says she “was used to being recognized, but this was night and day. Suddenly, it was women grabbing me by the lapels to tell me how much the movie meant to them.” Sarandon, who would get letters from people inspired by the film, says, “It served as a catalyst for ‘Don’t settle.’ If you’re in a bad situation, and you’ve settled, you’ve got to get yourself out.” For singer Tori Amos, the movie triggered memories of her own rape six years earlier, which she’d never discussed. Sobbing loudly in a crowded theatre, she began writing the lyrics to Me and a Gun in her head.

Given all that, it’s striking how much testosterone is blended into the high-octane rage of Thelma & Louise. While the targets of its textbook feminism—Thelma’s idiot husband and the obscene trucker—are caricatures, the film finds room for three strong, likeable men: J.D. (Pitt), Thelma’s boyfriend (Michael Madsen), and the sympathetic cop played by Harvey Keitel. Then, of course, there’s Ridley Scott, the macho director of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator. “He opened it up in such a glorious way,” says Sarandon. “When [the script] said they go to get gas, I never in a million years thought we would be backing up at full speed into a gas station with a muscle guy lifting weights and all kinds of smoke pots going.”

That the movie exists is a miracle of happenstance. In 1988, Khouri, who would win an Oscar for her script, was a 30-year-old rock video producer who had never written a screenplay. The story came to her in a flash while driving home from work late one night in Santa Monica. Khouri, now a successful screenwriter married to songwriter/producer T Bone Burnett, imagined a low-budget affair directed by Julian Temple. Once Scott signed on, every A-list actress in Hollywood was interested. First Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer were attached, then Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. After they moved on, Scott finally considered Davis, who had pursued him relentlessly for a year. She saw herself as the hard-headed, self-possessed Louise, but agreed to play either role. Sarandon was given a choice. Drawn to “the challenge of literally driving the movie,” she picked Louise.

Brad Pitt’s casting was a fluke. Scott wanted Billy Baldwin to play J.D., the hustler who seduces Thelma and steals the $6,700 that Louise’s husband has lent them. But Baldwin dropped out to do Backdraft, in which Pitt, ironically, had failed to land a role. Davis remembers reading with Pitt at his audition and blowing her lines because she was so distracted by his charm. “Yeah, I think we liked each other right away,” she laughs.

Sarandon still likes to drop innuendoes about Brad and Geena. “The day they did their scenes in bed was the only day they watched the dailies right through, which was suspicious to me,” she says. “The lunch when they showed those dailies was a very long lunch.” In a recent Vanity Fair, Madsen recalls walking out of the motel one morning to find Pitt smoking a joint. “We got stoned together a couple of times,” he says. “Every actor finds his way to make it work; that was his thing.”

Sarandon was unaware of it. “I wish he’d shared some with me,” she says. “I was talking to Brad just the other day. I ran into him socially and said, ‘I’m so happy for everything that’s happened to you and I’m not at all surprised.’ And he said, ‘You were so tough on me and you pushed me to be better.’ I don’t remember that at all. He was charismatic and funny and so professional, and kind of shy.”

By all accounts, making the movie was a joyride. “We were in that car, shooting sunsets coming back from the set,” says Sarandon. “Everybody had their shirts off—not us. It was just the two of us in the middle of this cigar-smoking, car-driving environment. That alone would have been reason to bond. I had a couple of small kids with me so I brought that into the equation.” Davis remembers looking up to her older co-star with awe: “I felt about her the way Thelma felt about Louise. She was more evolved, more centred, and I became her devoted acolyte.”

The onscreen chemistry between Sarandon and Davis is still astonishing. It first roars to life as antic odd-couple comedy, accelerating until it hits the wall of that shattering rape scene. Then, as the narrative stretches into the open space of Scott’s epic visuals and Hans Zimmer’s snaky score (which owes a lot to Ry Cooder’s licks from Paris, Texas), time expands. There’s less talk, more feeling. Luxuriating in the moment, the women seem to take charge of the movie, drinking in the moment until they’re gazing at each other on the edge of oblivion, dusty and sunburnt and more beautiful than ever.

The iconic ending contributed to the film’s notoriety, which Sarandon finds absurd: “It’s a heroic convention,” she says. “Butch Cassidy didn’t get examined that way. Or Jules and Jim. It’s not as if you saw them smashed at the bottom and bleeding.” The final freeze-framed whiteout nips any tragedy in the bud. But an alternate ending on the DVD shows the car plummeting deep into the canyon, then cuts back to Keitel. Scott rejected it as too dark.

The suicide leap of Thelma and Louise didn’t just end the movie, but also the promise that it represented. As Davis recalls, “the press at the time said this proves women’s buddy movies can be successful, and it’s going to set off a whole new wave.” Well, that didn’t happen. In recent years, Hollywood may have woken up to the box-office power of chick flicks, but they’ve been romantic trifles about the power of shopping and finding a man (Sex and the City, Mamma Mia!, Eat Pray Love). This week marks the opening of The Bridesmaids, an uproarious comedy starring Kristen Wiig. This salty Judd Apatow vehicle breaks new ground as Hollywood’s first gonzo gross-out chick flick. But it’s more cat fight than buddy movie—and a far cry from what fans of Thelma & Louise hoped might lie beyond that canyon sky.

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