Jeffrey Wells
June 14, 1991 AT 04:00 AM EDT

A milestone in recent Hollywood history: Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise is the first mainstream movie in years in which a pair of major stars (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis) come to a tragic end. The last memorable time this happened was 1969, when Robert Redford and Paul Newman met their fate in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Why the wait? Primarily because Hollywood has grown squeamish about tough denouements since the blockbuster era began in the mid-’70s.

Yet Thelma & Louise‘s irreverent heroines defy Hollywood law at the finish, soaring toward mythic freedom as they plunge over a cliff. Are audiences turned off? Nope. The film has become one of the summer’s first genuine hits ($11.9 million after two weekends), with pundits singing its praises. Which is ironic in light of the film’s shaky start: Before MGM-Pathé agreed to produce Thelma & Louise, four other studios — Columbia, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, and Orion — passed on it, saying they were uncomfortable with the ending.

The contracts of director Scott and producer Mimi Polk stated that the original ending, written by first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri, couldn’t be changed. Slightly different versions of the finale were ultimately filmed and screened for audiences, ”but we always knew that the ending we first liked was it,” says Polk.

Some critics, such as Roger Ebert, have faulted Scott for shortening the last climactic shot and adding flashback scenes showing the two women smiling as the credits roll over an upbeat country soundtrack. Polk admits that ”from an emotional point of view, we could have made that final shot longer,” but she says the director snipped it for mainly practical reasons. ”The last image is of the flying car, with dummies in the front seat. And Ridley was afraid if he didn’t cut away, people would notice they’re dummies.”

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