Thelma & Louise got a bum rap — even from a lot of people who liked it. Everywhere you looked last summer, Ridley Scott’s movie was getting slammed as a feminist revenge fantasy or hailed as, well, a feminist revenge fantasy. Commentators lined up on all points of the political and gender divides, debating the meaning of this story about two good ol’ gals (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis) who go off on a vacation and wind up on a turkey shoot. But now that the dust storm has passed, and the film is available on video, it looks less like a tract and more like Hollywood business as usual — only this time with superior writing, acting, and directing. You’re supposed to think about T&L, all right — once the end credits start to roll. Until then, it’s a good tale well told.
And yet, something in this movie digs deep into the unease that men and women feel when they look at each other and see aliens. Perhaps it’s simply built into the nature of the road movie, that genre that sends its protagonists careening across America seeking meaning, the long thread of the interstate a metaphor for the depth of the search. Twenty-two years ago, there was a movie that, like Thelma & Louise, galvanized all who saw it with its portrait of two outlaws coming up short against this country’s tangled legacies of freedom and violence. Unlike Thelma & Louise, the antiheroes were men, and they rode motorcycles.
Easy Rider makes an ideal video double bill with Thelma & Louise, in fact. The two movies are similar on the surface, but it’s their differences that indicate why, in a sense, Thelma & Louise had to be made.
Back in 1969, Peter Fonda’s stoic Captain America and Dennis Hopper’s babbling Billy the Id were instant romantic idols for a youth culture increasingly cynical in the wake of the 1968 Chicago riots. As Fonda sums up in the movie’s druggy epigram, ”We blew it, Billy.” But for all its inarticulateness, Easy Rider has a core of truth that keeps the modern viewer watching. It’s contained in Jack Nicholson’s still valid line ”They’ll talk to you about a free individual, but when they see a free individual, they’re scared.”
The catch is that that freedom is never extended to the female characters. Easy Rider barely has female characters, in fact, other than the hippie chick who asks Fonda whether he’s an Aquarius and the New Orleans whores played by Karen Black and Toni Basil. Questioning authority, it seems, isn’t women’s work.
That’s where Thelma & Louise comes in. Under the surface of Callie Khouri’s engaging women-on-the-lam screenplay is a long, serious look at men, and contrary to what you may have heard, she doesn’t cast them all as belching brutes. Instead, the movie offers an assortment pack: There’s the good-hearted Joe (Louise’s musician boyfriend) and the strutting monster (the honky-tonk rapist whose murder puts the two women on the run). There’s the kindly father figure (Harvey Keitel’s soft-voiced cop), the laughable buffoon (Thelma’s husband), and the double-talking studpuppy (Brad Pitt’s amoral hitchhiker). Thelma & Louise doesn’t judge men harshly so much as turn different types over in a fresh, questioning light. That’s more than enough to make some people nervous.
It should, in a way, because these two women represent something more threatening than a couple of drug-dealing longhairs. They’re not outlaws when the movie begins; they’re normal. Louise is a waitress no different from the one in Easy Rider’s diner scene. Thelma’s a mousy, dim-bulb housewife. The path they take is almost exactly opposite that of Rider, which starts on the fringes of society, spirals inward toward the heartland, and ends in gunfire. Thelma & Louise starts with gunfire in the heartland, then sends its heroines rocketing straight out toward the edge, their eyes opening wider with each moment. ”I feel awake,” says Thelma as their blue T-bird sails along a serenely empty canyon highway, ”I don’t ever ‘member feeling this awake.”
That clarity — it’s there in Sarandon’s and Davis’ beautifully judged performances and in the liquid direction of Ridley Scott (Alien) — is where Thelma & Louise and Easy Rider part company. The funny thing is that both end in much the same way, but what was an oh-wow bummer in 1969 is a triumph in 1991: Thelma and Louise never back down. Perhaps that’s what made those male op-ed writers upset. For plenty of women, there’s enough defeatism in the real world, where Clarence Thomas sits on the Supreme Court and William Kennedy Smith is not guilty. Why shouldn’t they get to see their fantasies (of escape more than revenge, really) played out in a movie? Women may have had to wait 22 years for their own Easy Rider, but the timing couldn’t have been better. Thelma & Louise: A-