Life after cinema's classic road movie, Thelma and Louise
It's been 23 years since the iconic road movie came out. Donal Lynch looks at the film's enduring legacy and the fate of the two beautiful actresses who made it a classic.
As with many selfies, nobody could quite decide whether it was heart-warming or a little sickening: Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon — heads huddled together again exactly 23 years after they took what might be the original selfie, during the filming of cult classic Thelma & Louise. Despite the passing of time — Sarandon is now 67 and Davis is 58 — and the difficulties they have gone through in recent years (both had tough divorces) neither looks as though she has aged a day.
“Inventors of the #selfie at it again. #ThelmaAndLouise,” Sarandon captioned the snap, which has already been retweeted thousands of times.
The picture quickly went viral, a testament to the enduring popularity of the 1990s classic, which is still regarded as the most powerful girl-buddy movie of all time — The Atlantic recently called it “the last great film about women”. It quickly entered the Oscar pantheon (it won best screenplay for Callie Khouri and both actresses got nominations) for its daring depiction of a tender friendship between two women who had cut loose from the mundanity of their everyday lives, and, in Thelma's case, her brutish, domineering husband. For many, it also became a feminist statement which smuggled itself into the mainstream by pretending to be a feel-good chick flick.
Of course you don't get to make a girl-buddy movie classic without some serious eye candy. Thelma and Louise also became famous as being the film that launched a superstar; young William Bradley Pitt made his big-screen breakthrough as JD, a shirtless hustler who steals Thelma's bruised heart. The actor, whose abs were doused with Evian for the role, would never again be known as anything less than the ultimate heartthrob. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter to mark the anniversary of the release of the film, Davis revealed that filming that famous love scene with Pitt was “challenging” after she was overcome by his chiselled good looks. “I actually read with him first — there were five candidates for the role. And then he came in — this is so embarrassing but I got a little distracted during the scene, you know?” she laughed. “I was forgetting my lines. I was like, ‘I'm totally screwing up this kid's audition'.”
The shocking conclusion of the film, in which the two protagonists drive off a cliff, has always been a controversial footnote in film history. The visceral final image of the two heroines locking hands as they roll, presumably to their death, is impossible to forget and seemed to beg as many questions as it answered. Now, 23 years later, both stars are adamant that this was the only possible ending for the best friends on the run.
“Actually, I said to Ridley (Scott, who also directed the sci-fi classic Alien), ‘I hope we're not gonna shoot this and then you test it and then we end in Club Med’,” Sarandon revealed. “(I said) If I'm gonna play that part, I want to make sure that I know where it's going. And he said, ‘I can tell you that you will definitely die. But I'm not sure about Thelma. You may push her out of the car at the last minute’.”
“But I earned the right to die!' Davis giggles. “You earned the right to go down with me, baby!” Sarandon sagely replies.
The two women remained very close over the years since the success of Thelma & Louise, but ironically given the feminist statement of the movie and its bittersweet ending, it also marked the beginning of the end of Geena Davis' career as an A-Lister with the ability to carry a film by herself. Throughout the 1980s she had built up momentum, graduating from modelling and soap acting to box office hits like Beetlejuice and The Fly, which also starred her second husband Jeff Goldblum. She also garnered an early Oscar win for her role in The Accidental Tourist, also starring William Hurt. After Thelma & Louise, she had one more notable role — in 1992's Penny Marshall-directed Madonna vehicle, A League Of Their Own, and then, at the peak of her powers, seemed almost to vanish from view.
“Once I turned 40, I really did feel like I'd ceased to exist in Hollywood,” she once said. “I thought I'd have an older-woman's career like Meryl Streep or Jessica Lange did. But not only weren't there roles for me, there weren't any for Meryl either. It was noticeable and unmistakable. And painful.”
At the same time, the drying up of suitable roles gave Davis, a highly intelligent woman and a member of Mensa, a chance to recalibrate and reassess her goals. She came up with a couple of surprising answers. The first was a return to the athleticism of her youth — growing up in Massachusetts, Davis had been a cross-country runner. Having taken up archery while making the action film The Long Kiss Goodnight in 1996, she began to pursue the hobby more seriously during her hiatus from movie-making and soon she was competing in the National Trials, and narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Sydney Olympics. “I didn't realise archery would become such a big part of my life, but I got completely hooked,” she told The New York Times.
“Sports are 90 per cent mental,” she once explained, “Becoming confident in my physical abilities, acknowledging that I had a right to take up space and be happy with my performance was the final piece of the puzzle. I started to believe that people weren't judging me every second of my life. I began to really like myself.”
Taking heart from the self-esteem fillip which sport had given her, Davis found herself drawn into an unlikely romance with a man who was 27 to her 42. Reza Jerrahy, an Iranian-American, was an up-and-coming
plastic surgeon who ran into Davis at a party. The pair hit it off immediately. Davis would later say that she had always been looking for a man to “fix” her, but in her relationship with Jerrahy she was ready to break with the dysfunctional behaviour of the past.
“I was always in the type of relationship where everything was about the other person,” she explained. “I'd find my worth through sacrificing everything for his sake. And that had everything to do with my own feelings about myself; the guys I was with felt pretty great about themselves all on their own — they didn't need me to fix them because they weren't damaged. But I sure was.”
She was aware that many people would comment on how “ridiculously young” her dashing new man was. “I did say to Reza, ‘You're about to become someone's fourth husband',” she later explained. “‘What on earth are you thinking?' But as for myself, I really did feel that I had turned a corner, that I had pulled off changes that were real and permanent. And it was exciting to know I was marrying someone who I can be cranky or selfish in front of and he doesn't run screaming from the room or judge me for it.”
Davis would become a mother for the first time in her forties — a daughter, Alizeh, was born in 2002 followed by fraternal twin boys, Kian and Kaiis, born in 2004. Having settled into her new role as a stay-at-home mother, her career once again took unlikely flight. In 2005, the six-foot actress began starring in the ABC series Commander In Chief, in which Davis, in her second zeitgeist-defining role, played the USA's first female president. The series was a huge success and Davis was rewarded with an Emmy Award and a Screen Actor's Guild Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series.
Though Susan Sarandon's career and profile did not wane to the same extent, she went through a very similar journey to the one Davis had undergone, replete with a new found love of sport, some meaty middle-aged roles and the discovery of a toyboy love. Like her younger friend, Sarandon got her Oscar out of the way early on (winning in 1980 for her performance in the French-Canadian crime thriller Atlantic City) and had built incredible momentum for the rest of the decade, starring in smash hits like Bull Durham (alongside Kevin Costner) and The Witches Of Eastwick (with Jack Nicholson and Cher).
While Davis's star would fade after Thelma & Louise, Sarandon went from strength to strength, carving out a niche playing tough yet sexy women. In the two years after the film came out, she was twice Oscar-nominated for best actress (for The Client and Lorenzo's Oil), before finally winning once again with Dead Man Walking for her harrowing portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean.
Like Davis, Sarandon, who grew up in New York City, had married and divorced early.
“I married so young but took it very seriously,” she later wrote. “I never had that kind of free-love 1960s. I was slow to lose my virginity. In fact, throughout my life I've been with so few people; I'm one of those serial monogamists. I was never that wild, although I was a bit of a hippie chick. I think I probably still am a hippie chick.”
From 1988 until five years ago, Sarandon was involved in a high-profile relationship with the actor Tim Robbins, and the pair became known as Hollywood's ultimate activist couple. Sarandon spoke out publicly on the plight of Haitian refugees during the 1993 Academy Award ceremony, and in 1999 she was arrested and spent seven hours in a cell for demonstrating against the police shooting of an unarmed black immigrant. And her defiant opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq earned her scorn and death threats. “It got pretty ugly in the lead-up to the second Gulf war,” she admitted. “But I can't remain silent.” Throughout it all Robbins, 12 years her junior, remained by her side. They had two sons and it seemed like they would remain together forever.
Sarandon would later say the catalyst for the split was her role in the Broadway play Exit The King, which had impending mortality as one of its themes.
“You can't do a meditation on death and stay in a situation that's not authentic,” she told AARP The Magazine. It made me examine where I was in my union and in my life, and to discuss making changes.”
It was one of the factors, which made her realise that her relationship with Robbins had run its course. He went through what he called a ‘midlife crisis' and ‘insanity' and she became disillusioned. “You bring people into your life at certain times”, she said afterwards. “Maybe you have a relationship to have children and you realise that it's fulfilled after that point.” She added that she doesn't have regrets: “It's better to have made decisions that turned out badly and learn from them than to feel as if you had no choice and are resentful of the turns that your life takes.”
Like Davis, she would fall into a sport in an attempt to distract herself, buying a ping-pong club in New York City, enthusiastically playing the game herself.
Like Davis, Sarandon would also meet a toyboy. As of earlier this year she has been dating 36-year-old hipster hunk Jonathan Bricklin, who runs a ping pong franchise. “Jonathan and I collaborate on different things. That means a lot of things,” Susan told AARP The Magazine. When pressed to confirm if that meant a relationship, she responded, “yes, I think so”.
Sarandon is about to become a glamorous grandmother — her daughter Eva Amurri (whose father is Italian film director Franco Amurri) is now pregnant and in a repeat of history she is again starring in a girl-buddy road movie — Tammy, starring Bridesmaids standout Melissa McCarthy.
Over the years, Davis and Sarandon have been approached with several ideas for a sequel (“I don't understand, what would we be doing?” Sarandon once asked. “Receiving a big cheque,” came the reply).
In fact, Sarandon recently described most of the ideas she heard as “ridiculous” and the two Oscar-winners probably have too many principles to sell out for a cheap script. But now that the women of Thelma & Louise have recreated their selfie and shown themselves none the worse for wear, the eyes of the film world must turn to Brad Pitt. Would Angelina let him take a picture of those famous abs to see how they've held up over time? “I'm sure he still looks great,” laughs Davis.
What the critics said about Thelma and Louise
"What sets Thelma & Louise aside from the great central tradition of the road picture - a tradition roomy enough to accommodate Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, Midnight Run and Rain Man - is that the heroes are women this time: working-class girlfriends from a small Arkansas town, one a waitress, the other a housewife, both probably ready to describe themselves as utterly ordinary, both containing unexpected resources." - Robert Ebert
"That Thelma & Louise is able to coax a colourful, character-building escapade out of such relatively innocuous beginnings is a tribute to the grace of all concerned, particularly the film’s two stars, whose flawless teamwork makes the story gripping and believable from start to finish." - Janet Maslin, New York Times
"Call it a comedy of shocking gravity. Thelma & Louise begins like an episode of I Love Lucy and ends with the impact of Easy Rider." - Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Belfast Telegraph Digital