Tag: Geena Davis

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis hit the road in Thelma and Louise

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Susan Sarandon (Louise Sawyer), Geena Davis (Thelma Dickinson), Harvey Keitel (Detective Hal Slocumb), Michael Madsen (Jimmy Lennox), Christopher McDonald (Darryl Dickinson), Stephen Tobolowsky (Max), Brad Pitt (JD), Timothy Carhart (Harlan Puckett)

Two people on the run, dodging the police and doing what they can to survive. It’s a well Hollywood has gone back to time and time again. But in most cases the people were either two men, or maybe a man and a woman (romantically involved naturally). It was unheard of to make that most masculine of genres, the outlaw road movie, into one led by women. But that’s what we get here, in a movie that has become iconic in more ways than one, Thelma and Louise.

Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) is a tough, independent-minded waitress. Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is a shy housewife, whose husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) is a jerk. With Darryl away for the weekend, Thelma and Louise head off for a weekend away together, to let their hair down and feel a bit of freedom. Unfortunately, disaster happens when Thelma flirts with a sleazy guy in a Texas bar (Harlan Puckett), who tries to rape her in the car park. Louise saves her – but guns the guy down. The two women now find themselves on the run from the law, terrified that no one will believe their side of the story. But as the women find themselves on the road, the experience changes them, with Thelma flourishing in an environment where she can make her own choices and Louise becoming more able to open herself up emotionally. But can they stay ahead of the law?

With a terrific (Oscar-winning) script from first-time writer Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise offers a dynamic and daring twist on the Hollywood road movie. By placing women at the centre of a story like this, a fascinating new light is shed not only on the law, but also on the culture of the American South. It also gives what would otherwise be familiar situations, a fascinating new light as two underestimated people are forced to prove time-and-time again how ahead of the game they are.

Ridley Scott directs the film with a beautiful, confident flourish. The John Fordian iconography of the West is a gift for a painterly director like Scott, and this film hums with the sort of eye for American iconography that only the outsider can really bring. The film brilliantly captures the dusty wildness of the West as well as the neon-lit grubbiness of working class American bars. It looks beautiful, but also vividly, sometimes terrifyingly real. Scott then, with a great deal of empathy, builds a very humane story around this, with two characters it’s nearly impossible not to root for.

He’s helped immensely by two stunning performances from the women in the lead roles. Susan Sarandon’s is perfect for the brash and gutsy Louise, not least because she’s an actor brilliantly able to suggest a great emotional depth and rawness below the surface. Louise is a women juggling deeper traumas – past experiences (its implied a historic rape) that leave her in no doubt that the justice system will not be interested in hearing about a woman’s suffering. It’s the hard to puncture toughness that softens over the course of the film, as Louise becomes more willing to explore her emotions and allow her vulnerability to show.

Particularly so as the lead between the two is slowly taken over by Geena Davis’ Thelma. This is certainly Davis’ finest work, her Thelma starting as a beaten down housewife, just trying to let her hair down in a bar, into a scared victim, a horny teenager lusting over Brad Pitt’s hunky JD then finally into a road warrior who discovers unimagined determination and resources inside herself, toting guns and robbing stores. It’s the sort of once-in-a-lifetime part Davis seizes upon. She’s sensational and totally believable at every turn.

Placing these two women at the centre of a story like this puts the feminine perspective front-of-centre – and it’s alarming to think how little some things have changed. Can we imagine today that there wouldn’t be policemen and lawyers willing to blame Thelma – or claim she asked for it – for her near rape in a bar? Or that there wouldn’t be a fair crack of the whip in the system for Louise for gunning down an unarmed rapist? On top of that, the majority of the police tracking the two women (with the exception of Harvey Keitel’s decent cop – Keitel is very good in this) find it hard to take “these girls” seriously, finding it hard to imagine them being anything other than a joke.

Mind you the attitudes of men are laid bare at every turn. Thelma’s husband Darryl (a very good performance of selfish patheticness by Christopher McDonald) is a waste of skin, a man who can’t imagine a world where Thelma could be his equal. Timothy Carhart is all charm until Thelma denies him the sex he believes he was due for in exchange for a night if flirting and drunks, and promptly turns extremely nasty. The cops – gun totting with itchy trigger-finger – just seem to be waiting for an excuse to throw the ladies down. Even JD (a star marking early performance by a deeply attractive and charismatic Brad Pitt), who seems so charming – and proves the sort of generous and skilled lover Thelma has never experienced in her life – has no qualms about robbing the ladies of their life savings, leaving them hung out-to-dry.

Many men at the time complained (pathetically) about the presentation of men in this film (as if men haven’t had any films where they were sympathetically placed front and centre), but I think it’s a pretty clear judgement that women are not held to the same standards. Khouri’s script shows time and time again the casual sexism (and sexualisation) the women encounter – to the extent that when they finally confront (and pull guns) on the sexist, aggressive truck driver who has been following them for most of the film, you cheer along with them when they shoot out first his tyres, then his oil tanker. We’ve even had a warm-up with Thelma turning a tough intimidating cop into quivering jelly by taking control of the situation.

But that’s what this film is about – the unexpected taking control. Because this isn’t just a feminist statement because it puts women into a male genre. It does so by showing how few choices these women have in their lives before they take into the road and how liberating it is to be able to make their own choices. Because these characters have had all their choices made by men, from Thelma’s smothering marriage to Louise’s undefined past as a victim. And their futures are as much out of the control, likely to find themselves on death row for shooting a rapist. On top of all that, men continue to see them both as sex objects.

How could you not be moved by this? It’s why the films iconic ending carries such impact. These are women discovering they have the power to make their own choices and their own mistakes. It has an undeniable power to it. It’s a power that runs through the entire film, perfectly shepherded by Scott’s astute and sharp direction, with Davis and Sarandon superb. It will still give you shocking insights today into what life is like for women in a world still dominated by men.

More recently its writer and stars pointed out that the film actually ended up changing very little for women in Hollywood. There was no new wave of daringly different female-led movies, with “women’s drama” still mostly restricted afterwards to family drama and romances. There are still few exciting opportunities for female filmmakers. (And it’s a sign of the times back then that the very idea of a woman directing this feminist film was never even raised as a possibility.) Perhaps that’s why Thelma and Louise remains such an icon, because it’s still such a one-off. Either way, it’s a film that hasn’t aged a day since it was released.

Tootsie (1982)

Dustin Hoffman plays somewhat against type in the marvellous Tootsie

Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels), Jessica Lange (Julie Nichols), Teri Garr (Sandy Lester), Dabney Coleman (Ron Carlisle), Doris Belack (Rita Marshall), Charles Durning (Les Nichols), Bill Murray (Jeff Slater), Sydney Pollack (George Fields), George Gaynes (John van Horn), Geena Davis (April Page)

It sounds like a movie idea from hell: “We’ll get Dustin Hoffman to play a struggling actor who can only get a job when he dresses as a middle-aged woman and auditions for a daytime soap. Hilarious misunderstandings will follow…” But you’d be wrong: Tootsie is an absolute delight: not only a wonderful comedy, but a touching love story and an acute commentary on sexism and the compromises women are forced to make to get the same opportunities as men. It’s a wonderful, smart, thought-provoking film.

In a role that draws on more than a little self-parody, Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a dedicated, demanding, difficult actor who has alienated so many people across Broadway and Hollywood with his unwillingness to compromise that he can’t land a job. When his friend Sandy (Teri Garr) flunks an audition on a General Hospital-style daytime soap, Michael thinks “what the hell” and puts himself forward for the role under the disguise of the middle-aged “Dorothy Michaels”. Surprisingly he finds he lands the job: and realises that women’s lot on the masculine film-set is not a happy one, evading sexual approaches, treated like idiots and generally encouraged to not pipe up. Intelligent, clever fellow-cast member Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) hides her light under a bushel. At first Michael enjoys the respect he wins, but as Dorothy increasingly becomes a feminist icon he’s plagued with guilt at the lies and deceptions he’s practising.

It’s the sort of idea that should be either patronising today (a man learns about feminism by walking in a woman’s shoes!) or inadvertently toe-curling. The fact that it isn’t (and I’ve watched this film with women who have enjoyed it a great deal, so I’m not completely guessing here!) is a tribute to the film’s lightness of touch, combined with a neat sense of the ridiculous, along with the emotional truth and genuineness that the film is handled with. It neither preaches nor mocks but simply focuses on telling the story and allowing us to draw our own conclusions. It also has a script packed through with some absolutely cracking jokes, all of which are delivered straight.

Central to its success is Dustin Hoffman, who plays the entire role completely straight. His Michael is a neat self-parody in his abrasive difficulty – but he’s also shown to be a concerned and genuine friend to Teri Garr’s delightfully ditzy Sandy, urging her to have more confidence (little realising how difficult it is for women to impress male casting directors if they behave with the confidence of men). Sure he’s not above clumsy passes to women at parties, but he’s no dinosaur or sexist. And becoming Dorothy Michaels is an opportunist moment of eagerness to show he has range and can get work if severed from his terrible reputation, rather than having any cruel or mocking motivations.

And what Hoffman does so well here is that Dorothy becomes her own personality. And that Michael immediately recognises that Dorothy, with her assurance, her kindness, her unwillingness to take nonsense, but her serene confidence, is a much better person than he is. She refuses to be trapped into either of the two roles the director intends for her (love interest or shrew) but insists her role in the hospital soap be treated like a dedicated professional, not defined by her sex – which makes her exactly the sort of role-model women around her (and eventually across America) have yearned for. Somehow as well, the film gets us to invest in what a great person Dorothy is, even as we know it’s really Michael in disguise – and Hoffman never, ever plays the part for laughs.

The casting allows the film to get a number of hilarious shots at the fast-paced, poorly-written, cheaply sexist nonsense that goes into daytime soaps. The director of the show is a roving lothario (played with all the smarm at his command by Dabney Coleman), who opposes Dorothy’s casting because she is not attractive enough, talks over the women in the cast and expects affairs as part of his salary. The show’s leading man is an aged actor (played with an oblivious sweetness by George Gaynes) who expects to kiss every woman in the show and is totally unable to learn lines. The plots of the soap are a joke, and the actresses are frequently placed into demeaning situations that real nurses and administrators (the only roles of course women can play in a hospital!) would never do.

Becoming horrified by this, Dorothy/Michael encourages the other women in the cast to break out from this – not least Julie Nichols, beautifully played by Jessica Lange as an intelligent, sensitive woman forced into pretending to be an airhead so as not to disturb the men around her. Lange is superb in this role, and so radiant that of course Dorothy/Michael finds himself falling in love with her – a complexity that constantly intrudes on the sisterly bond that Julie increasingly feels for Dorothy…

And that’s another source of guilt for Michael, who is (despite it all) a good guy, and slowly works out that there is no way of extracting himself from all this without hurting people’s feelings (not least when Julie’s sweetly charming widowed dad – played wonderfully by Charles Durning – starts to have feelings for Dorothy). Michael doesn’t want to hurt anyone – not even Sandy, with whom he finds himself stumbling into a one-night stand that he can’t work out how to reverse out of because he’s so desperate not to damage their friendship (something that he of course ends up damaging anyway). It’s a film that brilliantly balances these personal struggles with wider pictures.

Because, as Michael is aware, he’s himself guilty of using women by stealing the cause of feminism by pretending to be a woman. He’s perpetrating a con on the whole of America, and can’t work out a way to back out. The solution he does finally find is a comic tour-de-force – while finding time to still focus later on the real, emotional impact on those who have come closest to Dorothy – and gently indicates how lives can move on.

Sydney Pollack has probably never directed a film as smart, touching and wise as this one (he also puts in a hilarious cameo as Michael’s frustrated agent). It’s a film that could have been just a comedy about a man in drag, but in fact ends up raising profound issues about sexism, feminism and relationships that still feel relevant today. It’s almost certainly Hoffman’s greatest performance – honestly, he’s sublime here, it’s a once in a lifetime performance – and there is barely a wrong beat in it. The cast fall on the great script with relish – Garr was never better and Bill Murray has a superb unbilled supporting role as Michael’s acerbic, playwright housemate. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think and you’ll want to watch it again. Can’t say better than that.