As Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer in the year’s landmark road movie, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon had fun, fun, fun-and no daddy dared take their T-bird away. Women (and not a few men) loved Thelma & Louise‘s jazzy acting, sharp, seriocomic script, gorgeous Monument Valley cinematography, and dandy countrified soundtrack. But mostly they were enthralled by a shoot-’em-up buddy picture with women as the romantic antiheroes who pack the heat. It didn’t hurt that the film also combined the erotic-makeover theme of Moonstruck and the underdogs-have-their-day romanticism of Revenge of the Nerds. Los Angeles Times pundit Pat Morrison hailed Thelma & Louise as a new kind of classic: ”Bitch Cassidy and the Sundress Kid.”
Other viewers — mostly men, oddly enough — had conniption fits over Thelma, with its scenes of thwarted machismo and would-be rapists getting what they deserve (and then some). John Leo of U.S. News & World Report bewailed its ”explicit fascist theme, wedded to the bleakest form of feminism.” Whaddaya mean bleak? replied Hollywood — this form of feminism grossed $43 million. Audiences were after apolitical thrills, to be sure, but Davis and Sarandon couldn’t have scored one of the sleeper hits of the summer without tapping vast underground reserves of female anger. T&L inspired many feminists to stand up and holler, We’re not dead yet! How else to account for the startling success of the film, the surprise bestsellerdom of Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (a book detailing the efforts to roll back women’s rights), and the volcanic reaction to Anita Hill’s TV testimony?
But it’s important to remember that Thelma & Louise was, above all, a wonderful romp. Its political statement could not have had a more appealing pair of spokeswomen. Both actresses had launched their careers by doffing their duds to wow the menfolk — Davis in Tootsie, Sarandon in Joe. Playboy even awarded Sarandon the ”Celebrity Breasts of the Summer” title for 1981, in honor of her notorious chest-cleansed-by-lemons scene in Atlantic City and multiple torso exposures in Pretty Baby. So it was particularly satisfying to see her in a fantasy world tailored to women.
Sarandon, 45, actually reshaped her role, vetoing her character’s sex scene; Sarandon’s Louise drives the story. But it was Davis who came of age in it. As a churchgoing child, Davis, 35, had grown up forbidden to see any movie not made by Walt Disney, and it is the innocence of her own movie persona that makes Thelma’s discovery of lawless sexual ecstasy such a gas. ”You’ve always been crazy,” Sarandon’s character tells her. ”This is just the first chance you’ve ever had to really express yourself.” Perhaps the divided response to the duo was best expressed by America’s leading married film critics, Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell: After watching Thelma and Louise take their final plunge into forbidden territory, Sarris muttered, ”Tragic.” Haskell retorted, ”Triumphant!”