Today, Thelma & Louise is rightly recognised as a seminal feminist film. Starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon (actresses who were in their mid-30s and 40s, respectively, when the film was made), it tells the story of two best friends who plan a girls’ weekend to escape their monotonous small-town lives. While on the road, however, they find themselves in trouble with the law – leading them to go on the run across the American West.
The film won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe upon its release in 1991, and was selected last year for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, marking it as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. However, in her new book Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge, journalist and author Becky Aikman reveals how the iconic picture almost didn’t get made – because Hollywood execs thought it was too “risky”.
Thelma & Louise’s screenwriter was Callie Khouri, a Texan woman in her early 30s who had never worked on a feature film before. She sent her script to Diane Cairns, a young literary agent working in Hollywood who – according to Aikman – loved it as soon as she read it.
However, Cairns knew she would have a difficult time persuading studio executives to take a chance on the film. Hollywood in the late eighties was at least as sexist as it is now: hardly any major films were written by women without male partners, and even fewer starred two women as the main characters. Aiken says that Cairns suspected that getting Thelma & Louise made might be “impossible”.
Convinced by the script’s brilliance, Cairns sent it to British director Ridley Scott, who was already revered for his work on Alien and Blade Runner. He said that while he wasn’t sure he was equipped to direct such a female story, he was on board to produce.
Next, Cairns recruited Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster, then two of Hollywood’s most bankable female stars, who “jumped on board without hesitation”. (Pfeiffer and Foster, of course, didn’t go on to appear in the film in its final incarnation – and there were other big names attached to the roles of Thelma and Louise before Sarandon and Davis were cast.)
But even with Scott, Pfeiffer and Foster on board, Thelma & Louise proved a hard sell. Several executives fobbed Cairns off with assurances that while they thought she had a “great movie here”, they saw it as “too risky”, due to the female leads and the fact that Scott wouldn’t be directing.
Another studio boss told Scott: “I don’t get it. It’s two bitches in a car.” (Take a minute to go and punch a wall, if you need.)
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In the end, major studios including Universal, Fox 2000 and Disney all passed on the chance to make Thelma & Louise. Warner Bros. were reportedly interested, but Cairns learned that they “might want to alter the ending” – which, if you’ve seen Thelma & Louise, you’ll know is one of the film’s most important moments.
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Eventually, the film went to Pathe Entertainment, the only studio brave enough to take a chance on it.
“Sorry little Pathe was the only studio standing between this movie and oblivion,” writes Aiken. “The people committed to Thelma & Louise didn’t know it, but they were hanging out there all on their own.”
While we’d like to believe that attitudes towards female-led films in Hollywood have changed, one of the film’s stars has said that she believes Thelma & Louise would have an even harder time getting made today.
“I don’t think the studios have fallen off their horse and had some kind of epiphany about women in film,” Susan Sarandon said in 2016. “After Thelma and Louise, they predicted there would be so many films starring women. But it didn’t happen.”
Asked if she thought the film would be made today, she replied: “Maybe as an animation? … I think it’s a cultural thing, and part of what slows it down [is] a lack of imagination on the part of men.”
Her co-star Geena Davis, who now runs the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, added: “The thing about film is it can change overnight. It isn't like real life, where it takes so long to get women to be half of congress or boards or CEOs.
“The next movie somebody makes can be gender balanced,” Davis continued. “We don't have to sneak up on it – just do it.”
Images: Rex Features