“When a woman is crying like that, she isn’t having any fun.”
THELMA & LOUISE
Ridley Scott . 1990
What we have here – apart from one of Sir Ridley Scott’s finest movies – is a distaff version of Easy Rider.Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are now Thelma Yvonne Dickinson and Louise Elizabeth Sawyer. They take off in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible for a two day breakin the mountains that takes them, not in search of but deep into America.ToHell but not back.
As for the Jack Nicholson’sscene-stealing and career-making role, we have Brad Pitt as JD. “Well I may be an outlaw, darlin’, but you’re the one stealing my heart.”
All of which was a great surprise because at firstglance, even with two other instant classics, Alien and Blade Runner, behind him, Scott was not the obvious choice for what for whatUS critic Kenneth Turan would call “a neo-feminist road movie”while most American crackers saw it as simply beingabout two bitches in a car.
Scott’s six previous films, including hia first failures Someone To Watch Over Me and Black Rain.were more masculine, even macho affairs. The stars you remembered were Tom Berenger, Keith Carradine, Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, Albert Finney, Harrison Ford, Andy Garcia, Rutger Hauer, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Koto, Tom Skeritt – not thewomen, with the obvious exception of the Nostromo’s Officer Ellen Ripley.
“Ihad cast a woman for what would be considered very much a male part in Alien [and he listed Sigourney Weaver again as Thelma or Louise], so… people were beginning to look at me saying, ‘Here’s a director who supports the process of female equality’. “
He never intended to direct to direct T & L, simply wear his producer’s hat.In from Kentucky (and before that, Texas), Callie Khouri created her duo- toxic feminists, said some – in 1979, Scott bought the scriptin 1980- for her to make a directing debut with.No studio in a town wanted that deal. Who she? What she done? MGM finally agreed to back the project but decreed that afirst-timer wasn’t insuranceenough for the hefty budget. Even if she had written the damned thing.
The suits wanted names. Star names.John Carpenter, for example. . Brian De Palma (a star name?). Or, Sidney Lumet.Ultimately,Ridley decided to confirm his belief in Callie and to safeguard her scenario (she finally directed her Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in 2001, leading to a surprise offer for the thirdHarry Potter chapter) by adding directing to his producing gig.
And a classic was born.
Hey Louise, better slow down, I’ll just die if we get
caught over a speeding ticket… I mean in broad
daylight and everything?
I want to put some distance between us and the
scene of our last god damned crime!
The movie was due to be shot in 1981 for an ’83 release.Callie and Ridley agreed on Natalie Wood and Tuesday Weld as T & L.Perfect!Then, Natalie drowned in November 29, and Tuesday was too crushed to go on without her.
OK, send in the reserves…First,Michelle Pfeiffer-Jodie Foster.No? Well how about: Frances McDormand-Holly Hunter?
Next, enter: Goldie Hawn-Meryl Streep and a big battle – not between them, but Goldie’s agents. Within the mighty CAAgency.
Bossman Mike Ovitz felt “very strongly,” that Goldieshouldnot doit,for the quite preposterous reasonthat it was too closeto her first switch from comedy to drama, Steven Spielberg’s 1973 road-movie, Sugarland Express. (Isn’t that what stars do, make similar movies) .Ron Meyer, CAA’s #2, hadtalked Goldie into a salary-cut for Bird On A Wire. That did well, so she issued her edict: “Make it happen.”
He tried but, as Goldie agreed, “no bells rang.”Or not until… well, Goldie had always wanted to work with La Streep.And, apparently, or allegedly,vice-versa. So, yeah, Ron, make that happen.Again, he couldn’t.Meryl was off onanother film and having waited nine years, Ridley had a start date and wasn’t tohang about twiddling his storyboards for another six weeks.Not even for queen Meryl.
Exit: Meryl. And Goldie, too! She would not make the movie without her, despite it being important her enough to want it to happen before Streep momentarily entered the frame. Instead, they joined forces for a piece of demeaning schlock fromgimmicky director Robert Zemeckis, DeathBecomes Her, 1992. Owch!
Thelma . Also on Ridley’s 1988 wish list: Candice Bergen, Kim Cattrall, Mia Farrow,Jessica Lange, Liza Minnelli, Isabella Rossellini, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Tuesday Weld,.Later, Rosanna Arquette, Phoebe Cates had talks. Nicole Kidman auditioned.Also listed: Joan Cusack, Farrah Fawcett, Carrie Fisher, Daryl Hannah, Barbara Hershey, Kelly LeBrock, Andie McDowell, Madonna, Cybill Shepherd, Meg Tilly, Kathleen Turner.Plus total outsiders like Christine Ebersole and Mary Gross, And Ridley never forgot the Brits… Jane Seymour, Emma Thompson and Tracey Ullman.
Louise . The’88 also-rans included: Ellen Barkin, Kim Basinger, Lorraine Braco, Glenn Close, Anjelica Huston, Helen Mirren, Mary Steenburgen – and Debra Winger. She refused point blank, of course she did! Later ideas were: Bridget Fonda, Diane Keaton, Kay Lenz, Kelly McGillis, Catherine O’Hara, Rene Russo. Oh and even Vanessa Redgrave.
Cher turned it down, “It was a much rougher when I got it.It probably would’ve beena good movie to do.Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I’m glad Susan did it.”
In early drafts, T & L were the same age… which explains why, at times, certain actresses were considered for either role – Ellen Barkin, Glenn Close, Anjelica Huston, Sigourney Weaver. Indeed, when finding Louise took so long (until Ridley decided on an older woman in (ageless) Susan Sarandon) thatGeena Davis, having won Thelma, was askedto sign a contract agreeing toplay one or the other.
Hal . On Ridley’s 1988 wish-list for the Arizona PD detective was David Bowie, Beau Bridges, Pierce Brosnan, Tim Curry, Robert De Niro, Richard Gere, Dustin Hoffman, Steve Martin, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, James Woods.Instead, Hal went to one of the stars of the UK director’s career-making 1976 feature debut, The Duellists – Harvey Keitel.
Harlan . Before winning Louise’s guy, Michael Madsen had talks about playing the rapist shot dead by Louise. Also seen: Christopher McDonald (who became Thelma’s brutish husband – “Get your butt back here, now!”) leavingTimothy Carhart. to beshot dead by Sarandon.
Jimmy . In 1988, For Louise’s always touring musician lover, Ridley had considered Chevy Chase, Kevin Costner, Rick Moranis, Bruce Willis in 1988 Before Michael Madsen was signed up, Kris Kriostofferson was also offered (inevitably) the role.
Max . Willem Dafoe, John Travolta, Jon Voightwere seen, howeverI-know-that-face-but-not-his-nameStephen Tobolowsky won the other cop.
Which leaves uswith the part that made Brad Pitt a star… “Well, I’ve always believed that if done properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience.”
JD . Christopher Atkins, Kevin Bacon, Scott Baio, Alec Baldwin, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr (“too short for Geena,” said Ridley), Sean Penn and Mark Ruffalo. Christian Slater tested before the first choice for the role was William Baldwin, youngest of that band of brothers. He passed. (So did big brother Alec – the sap!) Billy preferred Backdraft, which Pitt had also tested for. George Clooney (who had auditioned five times) was called back to another of his TV series that never caught fire (until ER, 1994-2009).
Pitt and Clooney have been pals ever since, resulting in their Ocean’s 11/12/13 capers. “I was really stuck doing a lot of bad TV at that time,” George recalled. “And I had auditioned and auditioned, and it got right down to Brad and I… And I just couldn’t watch that movie for a couple of years. When I saw it, I thought actually that was the right choice. He was really good in it, and I would have fucked it up somehow.”
After arriving in LA and finding himself stuck in sitcoms (like Growing Pains but before Leonardo DiCaprio joined it), Brad Pitt was at all time career low (ie no career!) when Thelma and Louise droved into his life. “They’d already chosen an actor, but he left for another film. I knew this was my chance, it was a role for me. I come from Oklahoma and I know this kinda guy. I did a second test and all seemed OK – and they chose someone else! Fuck! Fuck! Two months later. A new phone call. The guy they’d chosen left for I dunno what reason. The shooting started in a week and I did a reading with Geena Davis.” (Pitt and Davis shared the same acting coach – Roy London. (Saron Stone also studied with him).
“And the rest is history,” declared DiCaprio, listening to this story during their joint French Premiere magazine interview at the 2019 Cannes festival.
All the guys tested with Geena – “the last one was so cute I kept messing up my lines.” She then overheard Ridley and casting agent Lou DiGiamo discussing the other two. “Can I say something?” she asked. Of course. “The blond one. D’oh!”
Ironically, Bad had earlier been rejected – “too sweet” – for another guy named JD in Heathers. That role didn’t help Christian Slater as much as Callie Khouri’s JD boosted Pitt. Both guys went on to glory in Tony Scott’s version of Quentin Tarantino’s script, True Romance, 1992.
“This is one I would love to get hold off,” Pitt said at the time. “A month went by and I found something else. I got another call about a month later… Ridley said he wanted a real sociopath… I was just in from Missouri, I hadda go home and look that up!’ (Hardly, he’d just majored in journalism at Missouri U). “Got a call on Friday and I was on the set Monday.” Andf as he confided to James Lipton on his Actors Studio show: “They were desperate! And I snuck my way in.”
For among other things, his first foray into a sex scene. And Brad has avoided love scenes ever since. “It’s discombobulating. Well, I was young and virile. And Geena’s… Geena. She was really sweet with me, me…”
On to the memorable climax, what the late, great Chicago critic Roger Ebertcalled “the catharsis shot, the payoff, the moment when Thelma and Louise arrive at the truth that their whole journey has been pointed toward,” assit in the car, with a cliff edgeinfront andthe the Keitel PD behind.
OK, then listen; let’s not get caught.
What’re you talkin’ about?
Let’s keep goin’
What d’you mean?
And off they slam right into a Truffaut freeze-frame…Although, Ridley had mused abut Thelma pushing the younger woman out of the Thunderbird in the proverbial nick of.(Oh, Ridley!).
Not that the finale pleased everyone. Roger Ebert maintained that Scott and his editor, Tom Mount,botched it, the reason the Chicago Sun-Times criticgave the filmthree-anp-a-half stars, not four. “It’s unsettling to get involved in a movie that takes 128 minutes to bring you to a payoff that the filmmakers seem to fear. If Scott and Mount had let the last shot run an additional seven to ten seconds, and then held the fade to white for a decent interval, they would have gotten the payoff they deserved. Can one shot make that big of a difference? This one does.”
Callie Khourie was staggered that people saw it as suicide. “I don’t even think of them as dead. To me, the ending was symbolic, not literal. We did everything possible to make sure you didn’t see a literal death. You were left with the image of them flying. They flew away, out of this world and into the mass unconscious. Women who are completely free from all the shackles that restrain them have no place in this world. The world is not big enough to support them. They will be brought down if they stay here. They weren’t going to be brought down. So let them go. I loved that ending and I loved the imagery. After all they went through I didn’t want anybody to be able to touch them.”
Love it or loathe it, the ending has become part of Hollywood language. During the 2013 Cannes festival, Steven Soderbergh praised the way Michael Douglas and Matt Damon played gay lovers (Liberace and bis chauffeur) in Behind The Candelabra.“They knew they had to be Thelma & Louise and jumping off the cliff or it doesn’t play.”