'Thelma & Louise': Still a Must-watch Movie, 25 Years Later

Ridley Scott's classic remains the basis for any discussion on the representation of women in American films.

Susan Sarandon takes aim in 'Thelma & Louise'
'Thelma & Louise'

An event in New York last week commemorated the 25th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s "Thelma & Louise." The fete took place in Times Square, a venue unrelated to the movie’s plot. Had it taken place at the Grand Canyon the site that proved a sure sequel killer it’s hard to believe any journalists would have shown up.

The movie’s two stars, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, had their pictures taken in Times Square sitting in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird, the convertible in which the two heroines rode the American Southwest.

Based on footage of the Manhattan event, the last quarter century has left fewer marks on the faces of those two lovely actresses than one might have expected. This conforms with the movie, which I’ve watched many times. Its message has only grown over the years. The film is a testimony to the time when it was produced, and each viewing sheds light on the moment you're seeing it again.

For the benefit of anyone who hasn't seen it, I won’t go heavy on the spoilers. I’ll only mention that the movie tells the story of two friends from Arkansas who go on a weekend vacation that turns bad. After one of them is assaulted by a man, her friend shoots him dead.

They decide to escape to Mexico, and on the way they are chased by apparently every law enforcement agency in the United States, depicted by Scott as a homogenous, aggressive, threatening and almost anonymous male entity. The exception is the main pursuer, played by Harvey Keitel, who feels sympathy toward the two women even though his job is to arrest them.

I still remember the excitement that accompanied "Thelma & Louise," including the controversies. They focused on whether Scott’s movie was feminist, whether the road taken by the protagonists was an act of feminist liberation, and whether the ending provided an acceptable feminist message.

Some of the debates stemmed from the fact that the movie was the collaboration between a male director, Scott, and a female screenwriter, Callie Khouri. This was her first screenplay to be turned into a movie; she was unknown until it came out.

'Thelma and Louise' ends at the Grand Canyon.
'Thelma & Louise'

Feminist twist

It was largely female critics who said this inter-gender collaboration created the film's ambivalent ideological dimension. After all, underpinning the plot were two subgenres whose heroes had always been men: the road trip and buddy movies.

The creators of "Thelma & Louise" created a feminist twist to the buddy adventure but kept pulling the film in opposite directions. In discussions about the movie, the question arose on what the film would have looked like if a woman had directed it, perhaps Khouri herself. This brought to the surface yet another question: Are there any differences between movies made by men and movies made by women?

The challenge "Thelma & Louise" posed to America and the arguments around it provoked discomfort in patriarchal America, something that led to a strange phenomenon. The movie received six Academy Award nominations, including best director, best screenplay and two for best actress, but not best picture. It ended up winning just one Oscar to screenwriter Khouri.

Still, 1991 was an interesting year for female representation in American movies. Best picture went to Jonathan Demme’s "Silence of the Lambs," in which the protagonist was an inexperienced and troubled female FBI agent.

An only slightly less intense debate accompanied the fact that the five finalists for best picture included "The Prince of Tides," the second movie ever directed by Barbara Streisand, who wasn’t nominated for best director.

The debate also raised the question of whether "Tides" was a more worthy contender than "Thelma." Moreover, academy members for the first (and last) time picked an animated movie, "Beauty and the Beast," as one of the five finalists for best picture.

Still marginalized

"Thelma & Louise" is driven by intense creative energy you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Its relevance  including its problems  hasn't diminished in American filmmaking over the past quarter century, in which women have been increasingly marginalized, whether as protagonists or filmmakers.

For some of the people who made "Thelma & Louise," this was the peak of their careers. It was one of the two major movies by British director Scott, along with 1982's "Blade Runner."

Sarandon had been nominated for best actress for her performance in Louis Malle’s "Atlantic City" in 1980. After "Thelma & Louise," she was nominated twice until she won for best actress in 1995's "Dead Man Walking." That was directed by Tim Robbins, her partner.

Davis, also a talented actress, won for best supporting actress in 1988's "The Accidental Tourist" made by Lawrence Kasdan. But since "Thelma & Louise" her career has included only one hit, “A League of Their Own,” directed by Penny Marshall one year after Scott’s movie came out.

The saddest story is that of Khouri, whose later screenplays were insipid, while the few movies she directed didn't indicate a great talent.

In contrast, the role of the charming young buck with whom one of the heroines spends a night in a motel getting herself in further trouble was played by a little-known actor named Brad Pitt.

The history of film follows its own rules. Some movies create a storm when they're released, but their impact fades over the years, while others you want to see and discuss again and again, even decades later.

"Thelma & Louise" is one such movie. Just as some of 1970s films touched on the revolution in women’s status, such as Paul Mazursky's “An Unmarried Woman” in 1978, "Thelma & Louise" remains the basis for any discussion on the representation of women in American films.

The movie will never have a sequel, but even this is of relevance in contemporary American cinema. Scott and Khouri’s film demands a sequel, but this sequel seems, at least in contemporary American cinema, hanging over an abyss.