What Movie Studios Today Can Learn from ‘Thelma & Louise’

Still from Thelma & Louise 1991 filmPathé EntertainmentMGM Studios Inc.

Editor's Note:

Becky Aikman is the author of the memoir Saturday Night Widows: The Adventures of Six Friends Remaking Their Lives, a writer and editor for Business Week, and a reporter for Newsday. Her newest book, Off the Cliff, takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of the most influential and controversial movies of all time: “Thelma & Louise.”

If ever there was a summer when women might want to head to a movie theater to blow off steam about the state of being female in America, this is it.

Denied our first female president, our right to speak without interruption in the Senate, our quest for equal health coverage and even the assumption that our bodies are our own if the man who wants to grope them is famous, the right movie for the summer of 2017 would tap into a deep well of frustration. It would deliver an emotional catharsis and a shared sense of defiance. It would star some seriously nasty women.

That movie would look a lot like “Thelma & Louise.”

“Wonder Woman” is currently serving up some of that sweet sisterly satisfaction. Audiences are whooping and even bursting into tears at the sight of a female fantasy hero who is brave, idealistic, and unapologetically powerful.

But for the most part female leads remain in short supply, and characters grounded in reality who get to show genuine anger and insubordination are even rarer. Although Hollywood is doling out more than the usual number of high-profile summer movies starring women this season, it’s frustrating that most of the offerings fall back on tired reboots of guy movies rather than fresh stories that erupt from the uniquely female experiences of uniquely female characters. Director Patty Jenkins freshened up the tired comic book genre with her distaff, character-driven approach to Wonder Woman. Yet it otherwise follows a new Hollywood penchant for taking movie genres conceived by, for, and about guys and swapping those characters out for gals. “Rough Night,” starring Scarlett Johansson, is a lame rip-off of “The Hangover,” striving without success to demonstrate that women can bumble into embarrassing gross-out situations as well as overgrown frat boys do. When “Atomic Blonde” launches in July, Charlize Theron will feminize the well-mined role of a brutal assassin, backward and in stilettos. Last summer’s “Ghostbusters” switched out the dudes in the original, and next year’s “Ocean’s Eight” will do the same as Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, and Rihanna wisecrack their way through a tricky heist with the aplomb of George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

But the ideal movie for our times would take inspiration from “Thelma & Louise,” which still, after twenty-six years, stands nearly alone in spinning a story out of women’s exasperation at being exploited, harassed, insulted, even sexually assaulted. When Susan Sarandon as Louise, a waitress haunted by a past rape, and Geena Davis as Thelma, a housewife under the thumb of a domineering, narcissistic husband with an absurd pompadour of bouffant hair, turned outlaw and hit the road back in 1991, audiences, whether they agreed with all the characters’ questionable choices or not, reacted with a roar of recognition.

The movie hit multiplexes like a depth charge, setting off shockwaves of delight and outrage throughout the summer. Women flocked to see it, often with their friends, exhilarated that the characters got to bust out of their tedious, thwarted lives and act out fantasies of rebellion instead of blending into the background chirping, “Good luck, honey.”

There was no template then or now for how to make a movie that smashes through the barriers of how women can behave on film. Nevertheless, today’s Hollywood could learn a few lessons about how to speak to a riled-up female audience by studying how the makers of “Thelma & Louise” broke the mold.

For one, many of the key people involved in the movie simply didn’t know what they were doing, so they didn’t care about conforming to business as usual. The first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri was a lowly production drone working on tawdry music videos at her day job. She was so green that she didn’t realize movie studios considered a production starring a woman, let alone two, box-office cyanide. “I wasn’t writing the kind of movie that got made,” she said. “I was writing the movie I wanted to see.” The director, Ridley Scott, was a Brit who claims he didn’t appreciate how much women were off-limits, either.

For another, the two of them didn’t sell out. During months of limbo when Callie shopped her script around to producers and studios, the powerbrokers objected that the ticked-off protagonists weren’t “likable.” Some suggested that Thelma and Louise should steer clear of committing violence or be rescued by a man. Even when Scott came on board to produce, one executive rebuffed him with the putdown, “I don’t get it. It’s two bitches in a car.” But the filmmakers held out. Khouri insisted that any studio that wanted her script had to make it the way she wrote it or not at all.

Equally important for the final outcome, the powerful men who lent their clout to get the movie made knew what they didn’t know. Scott realized that he couldn’t relate to the characters’ rage, so he spent days combing through the script with Khouri, intending to subsume his point of view to hers. She explained how real and infuriating it was for women to be subjected to demeaning catcalls from a truck driver, for example, and how satisfying it would be for the audience when the heroines blew up his truck. Alan Ladd Jr., the head of Pathé Entertainment, the financially troubled studio that was the only one willing to take on Khouri’s script as written, stuck with the mantra, “Let the movie be what it’s supposed to be.”

Once filming began, the two smart, outspoken female stars kept it real. Sarandon faced down Scott when he asked Davis to take off her top as the women tore down a highway in their convertible. And Davis showed an uncanny understanding of what might appeal to the ladies when she spoke up in favor of casting the third-choice newcomer Brad Pitt as a sexy drifter. His big star-making scene with Thelma, as written by Khouri and filmed from Davis’s ogling perspective, is one of the rare movie sex scenes considered from a woman’s point of view.

Finally, the filmmakers didn’t capitulate to doubts and pressure. Guys in the studio marketing department wished for a sexy scene for Susan Sarandon and worried, “Your traditional young male moviegoer was not going to watch a couple of women in their mid- to late-thirties kick ass and shake it up.” But Scott shot the movie almost entirely as Khouri wrote it. The result was such a departure from the norm that the audience at an early test screening didn’t know what to make of it, especially the shocking ending. “What kind of movie is this?” one comment card said. But the studio doubled down, removing a final shot that had softened the ending a bit so the final scene delivered the thunderbolt Khouri intended, with all the sharp critique of the place of women in modern culture that a scandalous image on the big screen could wield.

In the conservative, male-dominated roost of Hollywood, it was a million-to-one shot that “Thelma & Louise” could make it out of the nest. But its creation story suggests useful guidelines for how to make movies, or any art for that matter, that speak to under-served but eager audiences. Ignore the usual rules. Let the outliers speak from their hearts. Don’t cave to mediocrity. Let the ladies get mad.

Today’s television shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” have been willing to embrace that kind of outrage. It’s been nearly three decades since “Thelma & Louise.” When will the movies be so bold again?