After 20 years, “Thelma & Louise” makes us cheer

To say Thelma & Louise had an impact on women is the epitome of understatement.

In fact, we could make a case for owing the existence of AfterEllen.com to the film. Our founder, Sarah Warn, wrote about how the movie affected her burgeoning feminist consciousness.

Not yet jaded enough to see it coming, I sat in the back of the movie theater at 17 blinded by rage as I watched Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis drive off that cliff. The movie’s portrayal of the paralyzing mix of hopelessness, violence, and poverty faced by women every day was searing, to me and other women of all ages. I suspect many women were initially lured in to see the film because of the caliber of the actresses and the well-chiseled abs of a handsome new actor named Brad Pitt, only to leave dazed and confused, still hearing Thelma’s scornful admonishment to a would-be rapist, “In the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she isn’t having any fun!”

Thelma & Louise was, in fact, one of the first movies to address the issue of rape. And now, 20 years later, the movie is a sort of symbol of feminism. It’s also one of our favorite examples of lesbian subtext.

This week, Davis (Thelma Dickerson) and Sarandon (Louise Sawyer) met in Toronto to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary at a special screening benefiting the Women’s College Hospital Foundation.

Davis said that the reaction to the film from women affected her deeply.

“All of a sudden people were grabbing me by the lapels to tell me what the movie meant to them or telling me their story and: ‘My friend and I acted out your trip!’” Davis told the mostly female crowd at the event. “So it really made me realize how few opportunities we give women to feel that way about a movie, about the female characters in the movies.”

Thelma & Louise turned the Hollywood buddy movie upside down, taking over roles that had always been male. For the first time, two women were the buddies and outlaws; they were Butch and Sundance.

Critics at the time predicted that the success of Thelma & Louise — it earned six Oscar nominations and won for best screenplay — would be a catalyst for more female-focused films, since it proved that female road movies could be profitable. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

“I mean, we really haven’t build any momentum since this movie came out,” Davis said.

Sarandon agreed. “The guys who are running things [in Hollywood] have such a lack of imagination. So many bankers … so many corporate thinkers.”

As a recent New York Times Magazine article noted, the past two decades of movies have been defined more by Pretty Woman (1990) than by Thelma & Louise (1991). Instead of cool girls, Hollywood went for hot girls.

The movie’s iconic scene was when Thelma and Louise decide not to face the authorities, whom they believe will never understand what they did, but to “just keep going.” Sarandon said that it took just a few minutes to shoot and was filmed on the very last day.

“By that time we’d been through so much, we’d put in so many hours in the car together and we’d done everything that really we earned that scene and we earned the sentiment of that scene,” Sarandon said. “If we had had to do it in the beginning I think it would have been more forced, but by the time we got to it, it was the perfect time to do it.”

Here’s the clip of the movie’s final minutes.

The scene caused a lot of controversy, but I don’t think the story could’ve ended any other way.

Of course, in my mind, the Thunderbird took to the air like Doc Brown’s DeLorean and the women drove to San Francisco where they adopted third-world twin baby girls and just celebrated their 20th anniversary. Their daughters currently are women’s studies students at Wellesley.

What about you? Is Thelma & Louise an important movie for you? Tell us how you felt the first time you saw it.

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