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By 1991, Geena Davis had made impressive appearances in "Tootsie," "Beetlejuice," "The Fly" and "Quick Change," and had won a supporting-actress Oscar for "The Accidental Tourist" in 1988.

None of that created the instant recognition she got by hopping in a convertible with Susan Sarandon in the 1991 film "Thelma & Louise."

"I had women stop me and tell me their reaction — they'd be holding onto my lapels, getting me to listen to what they were saying," Davis said in a phone interview this week. "Other cars were honking at me, waving, going 'woo-hoo.' "

"Thelma & Louise," which marks its 20th anniversary this year, raised Davis' profile — and was a factor in changing her, and Hollywood's, way of looking at women in movies.

Davis will visit Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 28, to talk about her career at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, prior to a screening of "Thelma & Louise," and a Q-and-A with the film's producer, Mimi Polk Gitlin. The event is one of three galas this fall to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Utah Film Center (see sidebar).

The vistas of "Thelma & Louise" • Davis said she had "absolutely no inkling" the reaction that would ensue from "Thelma & Louise."

The movie, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Khouri, centered on two Arkansas women: Thelma (played by Davis), a housewife with a controlling husband (Christopher McDonald), and Louise (played by Sarandon), a waitress with a musician boyfriend (Michael Madsen). The two decide to kick back with a road trip, in Louise's '66 Thunderbird convertible.

The trip turns sour when a man tries to rape Thelma, and Louise shoots the man dead. The women decide to flee to Mexico, driving through Oklahoma (played by the red rocks around Moab, Utah), New Mexico and Arizona, because Louise refuses to go through Texas — for reasons that are dire for her, but never fully explained.

Along the way, the women learn outlaw skills from a dashing young criminal (Brad Pitt, in his first major role), and are hotly pursued by every cop in the Southwest toward a dramatic showdown at the rim of the Grand Canyon (which was actually filmed at Utah's Dead Horse Point).

"We had the best time" filming in Utah, Davis said. "Pretty much everything we did was outside, in the magnificent scenery. Susan and I got to hang out together in the car waiting for them to set up shots."

Davis watched the movie again on a big screen, and "it really struck me, more than ever, the vistas of the film, the landscape of it," she said. "It's so visually stunning."

The impact of one female friendship • Reaction to the film, Davis said, was "overwhelming — both positive and negative reactions." She and Sarandon landed on the cover of Time magazine, with the headline "Why 'Thelma & Louise' Strikes a Nerve." The film received six Academy Award nominations (Davis and Sarandon lost Best Actress to Jodie Foster for "The Silence of the Lambs"), and won an Oscar for Khouri's script.

What made "Thelma & Louise" unique, Davis said, "was seeing two strong female characters who were friends. It's the story of an incredible friendship. Also, it's the story of women claiming power over their own lives, not giving up control of their own lives. In that way, the ending is a metaphor. They got away, they didn't surrender their control of their lives."

Labeling the movie "feminist" is a tricky proposition, though. Davis said Khouri "wanted to make a movie with a strong empowerment message for women." However, Davis adds, "'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' wasn't a film that wasn't making a powerful male statement. It was just a film about two great characters. This is sort of a similar situation."

But "Thelma & Louise," Davis said, "really impacted how I saw films, and female roles. It made me realize we give women so few opportunities for female characters."

Movie roles, and real-life choices • The effect has guided Davis' career choices since. In the last 20 years, she has portrayed a baseball star ("A League of Their Own"), an ambitious TV reporter ("Hero"), a political speechwriter ("Speechless"), a pirate ("Cutthroat Island"), an amnesiac assassin ("The Long Kiss Goodnight"), and — on the short-lived TV series "Commander in Chief" — the president of the United States.

"I had a terrific spidey-sense about women's roles in movies after that," Davis said. "When I'm making choices, about what parts to choose, I always think about the female audience, what are they going to think. I don't always play role models. [Thelma and Louise] were horrible role models."

It was one real-life role — as a mother — that launched her current work advocating for women in the media.

"It was when my daughter was 2 years old, and I was watching little kids' TV and movies, the entertainment aimed at them had a terrific gender imbalance," Davis said. "That really struck me. I wasn't aware we were feeding kids such an imbalanced view."

'If you can see it, you can be it' • Her reaction was to found the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media, which commissioned a research project to measure the disparity between male and female characters in family entertainment. The results: Only one out of four speaking roles in family films were women — and in crowd scenes, only 17 percent of the background characters were women.

It's the sort of thing people don't notice, Davis said, "because all we've ever seen in entertainment media has been a big imbalance. That starts to look normal. A group of four where one is a girl is normal, so you stop noticing it."

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who interviewed Davis for her documentary "Miss Representation," praises Davis' activism on this issue.

"She's presented it in a way that has made people shocked or surprised," Newsom said. "Her bringing this to the attention of the Hollywood community is critical. I adore her."

Newsom believes Davis' onscreen work has also changed how the world views women. By portraying President Mackenzie Allen on "Commander in Chief," which ran 19 episodes on ABC in 2005 and 2006, Newsom said it made the idea of a woman president more plausible in some voters' minds.

"If you can see it, you can be it," Newsom said, relating Davis' fictional presidency to the 2008 campaign of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

There are still struggles, Davis said. "People really want to think there's been change," Davis said, "but the ratio of male to female characters has been the same since 1946."

Davis holds out hope, though. "I feel confident that by 2015, the needle will have moved," she said.

An evening with Geena Davis

Actress Geena Davis will appear at a gala event Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m., at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Davis will talk about her career and about the filming of "Thelma & Louise" with Leigh Von der Esch, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism (and, back in 1991, director of the Utah Film Commission). That will be followed by a 20th-anniversary screening of "Thelma & Louise," followed by a Q-and-A with the film's producer, Mimi Polk Gitlin.

The event is presented by the Utah Arts Center. Tickets are $50 (or $42.50 for members of the Utah Arts Center), at