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New book chronicles how 'Thelma & Louise' bucked the system and made the leap to screen immortality

Published July 19, 2017 9:43 am

'Off the Cliff' • Becky Aikman's book traces how the movie defied Hollywood at every turn.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Who could forget the ending to "Thelma & Louise"?

You know the scene, where Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer are driving toward the Grand Canyon, a phalanx of police cars on their tail — and just as the Thunderbird gets to the edge, Pfeiffer's Louise makes a sharp turn, and the two female outlaws get away in the dust and confusion.

That's the ending the Hollywood suits might have delivered, according to a new book about the making of the landmark 1991 movie. Instead, the world saw Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as the female fugitives, who drove into a go-for-broke finale that still sparks conversation a quarter-century later.



"I still encounter people who say they hate [that ending]. They say it sends a bad message about feminism, that the only thing women can do is to kill themselves," said Becky Aikman, author of "Off the Cliff: How the Making of 'Thelma & Louise' Drove Hollywood to the Edge" (Penguin Press; hardcover, 305 pages).

Aikman said the film's screenwriter, Callie Khouri, and director Ridley Scott "never saw it that way. They thought it was choosing freedom in a metaphorical way and not to be taken so literally."

The Utah Film Center and The King's English bookstore are collaborating to bring Aikman to Utah — where much of Thelma and Louise's fugitive run was filmed — for a screening of the film, followed by a Q&A with Aikman and Utah Film Commission director Virginia Pearce. The free event, which includes a book signing, is set for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the City Library auditorium, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City.

The story of "Thelma & Louise" starts with Khouri, a 30-year-old Kentucky native working on the fringes of show business as a production manager for music videos. After a late shoot and years of dealing with music-business sexism, she envisioned a movie she wanted to see: Two female friends on a weekend road trip who, after a violent encounter with a rapist, go on a cross-country crime spree and find the freedom they could never have in their regular lives.

Khouri penned her first screenplay, basing the level-headed Louise on herself and the flighty Thelma on her best friend, country singer Pam Tillis. Khouri and producer Amanda Temple started shopping it around Hollywood, but always got the same responses.

"People recognized that this was a very well-written script, but they wanted to water it down," Aikman said. "They said the characters weren't likable, they said they shouldn't commit violence because the audience doesn't like that, they said that men should rescue them, and of course nobody liked the ending. … [Khouri] could have said, 'You know, I've never written a screenplay before, I could cash in and become famous and do what I want the next time around.' "

Eventually Khouri's script landed with producer Mimi Polk, who ran the production company of Scott, then known for big science-fiction movies like "Alien" and "Blade Runner." Polk and Scott liked the script, though Scott didn't think he was the one to direct it. At one point, he had suggested his brother, Tony, famed for such macho movies as "Top Gun" and "Days of Thunder."

"I could just imagine a completely different movie," Aikman said.

Having Ridley Scott, also known as a man's man of directors, take the helm on Khouri's story brought a particular dynamic, a grandeur, to the film.

"One of the things that makes this movie really click is that, for Ridley Scott, it really wasn't within his comfort zone," Aikman said. "There's a creative tension there, as he's trying to cope with this material that he himself says he wasn't completely comfortable with. Sometimes people rise to do their best work when they're challenged in that way."

Even with Scott attached, most Hollywood executives rejected "Thelma & Louise." The one who didn't was Alan Ladd Jr., who ran the small studio Pathé.

"He was the rare Hollywood executive who gave filmmakers the freedom to do what they wanted," Aikman said. "He did object to casting Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon — he wanted bigger stars — but he bowed to Ridley Scott's wishes there. And he held tight on that ending, when most studios would not have done it."

Aikman details the many small steps in the movie's development. The early casting had two of the biggest female stars of the 1990s, Foster and Pfeiffer, in the lead roles, until production delays forced them to drop out. After that, Pathé suggested Cher for one of the roles, and at one point Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn pitched themselves for the movie.

The fierce competition for those roles, the book makes clear, was a symptom of how few good choices women in Hollywood had then. Of the top 50 movies made each year in the early '90s, maybe five would have women as the lead characters — and only two or three would be written by female screenwriters working without a male partner.

Those numbers, and the fact that they haven't improved much for women in Hollywood since, are what drove Aikman to write "Off the Cliff."

"The more I thought about it, the more I thought I would go insane droning on for 300 pages about a frustrating problem, and a problem that doesn't change much," Aikman said. "So I thought I would take one movie about women that was made, and made really well, and follow the process of how that happened. Maybe from that, I could learn about what are the obstacles, and how you could overcome those obstacles."

There was never a doubt which movie Aikman would profile. "It still stands as the one great women's film that's about women and [written] by a woman," she said. "It seemed like the obvious movie to look at and say, 'How did that one get through?' "

Aikman — a former Newsday reporter whose previous book was the 2013 memoir "Saturday Night Widows" — said she saw "Thelma & Louise" when it opened in 1991.

"It blew my mind," she said. "It was just so different from everything else. I didn't even fully understand why it blew my mind at the time. I didn't really think through the fact that I so rarely got to see female characters carrying the story and driving the car. It was a story that grew out of the things women think about and have feelings about. And it wasn't a sappy women's film. It was like a really cool movie, for women."

The first three people Aikman contacted for her book were Davis, Khouri and Polk (now Mimi Polk Gitlin). They not only gave Aikman expansive interviews, but also helped connect her with other principals. Through Davis, the author talked to Sarandon. Through Polk Gitlin, she got to Scott, Ladd and composer Hans Zimmer.

In all, Aikman interviewed 130 people for the book. She found plenty of folks wanted to talk about "Thelma & Louise" because "for so many people, this movie was a highlight of their careers, and they were really proud of it."

Those included Chris McDonald, who played Thelma's boorish polyester-clad husband, Darryl (and was Davis' ex-fiancé at the time of filming), and Michael Madsen, who got to break with his tough-guy typecasting to play Louise's good-hearted but commitment-averse musician boyfriend, Jimmy.

The one interview Aikman couldn't land was with Brad Pitt. The movie star had his breakout role as J.D., the charming outlaw who famously beds Thelma and teaches her the secrets of armed robbery.

"I wouldn't even say he turned me down. I never got past his people for him to even have an opinion," Aikman said. "Fortunately, he was young when it came out, and there were a whole lot of 'Star of Tomorrow' kinds of articles about him, where he was very candid about what his thoughts and feelings were at the time. And everyone else involved in the movie were hyper-conscious of him, so they all had memories of him, too."

Utah's connection to "Thelma & Louise" also was a result of rejection. The National Park Service turned down the production's request to film the climax at the Grand Canyon. Scott looked briefly at Monument Valley for some of the driving scenes, but logistics were unworkable. The Utah Film Commission pointed the scouts toward the Moab area, including Arches National Park and — in the role of the Grand Canyon — Dead Horse Point State Park.

"Thelma & Louise" was a qualified hit at the box office, and the controversy over it landed Davis and Sarandon on the cover of Time magazine. On video, it topped the rental charts for eight weeks. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won one for Khouri — the first woman in 60 years to win an Oscar for a solo screenwriting effort.

The movie expanded Scott's menu beyond science-fiction blockbusters. It cemented Sarandon's star status, and spurred Davis' career and her drive (through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media) to champion the cause of putting more women's voices in the mass media.

Last December, "Thelma & Louise" was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

"The movie just clicked," Aikman said. "For many, many women, it was a story that came directly from the heart of one woman, about the kind of stuff that drives women crazy in real life. They felt such a profound connection to it."

Far too often, Aikman said, "female characters in the movies are so placid, and so boring, and so unassertive. We're the girlfriend or the mom. It just shocked people to see them driving their own cars, shooting their own guns. … The idea that women would be angry and kind of scary freaked some people out."

movies@sltrib.com —

'Thelma & Louise'

A screening of the 1991 classic "Thelma & Louise," partly filmed around Moab.

Where • City Library auditorium, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City

When • Tuesday, July 18, 7 p.m.

Q&A • After the movie, Becky Aikman, author of the new book "Off the Cliff: How 'Thelma & Louise' Drove Hollywood to the Edge," and Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission, will have an onstage conversation about the movie. After the Q&A, Aikman will sign copies of her book.

Admission • Free

Presented by • The Utah Film Center and The King's English bookstore

 

 

 

 

 

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