Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis Know Why Thelma & Louise Drove People Nuts

The actresses reflect on how the film’s reception has changed 28 years later, plus why they’re not so sure a woman could have directed it.

Susan Sarandon in a white shirt an black suit  and Geena Davis in a black lace dress at a red carpet...

“You missed the good part,” Susan Sarandon told me when I stepped out of a screening of Thelma & Louise to speak with its costars, at the moment their characters were settling into a hotel. Turning to Geena Davis, Sarandon added: “You’re going to be fucking Brad any second!”

It’s been nearly three decades since Davis filmed that sex scene with a then up-and-coming Brad Pitt, not to mention many, many iconic moments with Sarandon. And yet, rather than seem dated, Thelma & Louise holds up—perhaps even better than ever. Back when it was first released, in 1992, the idea that a leading luxury conglomerate would screen Thelma & Louise at New York’s Museum of Modern Art may have seemed absurd. But on Tuesday night, when Kering hosted a screening as part of its Women in Motion program, the theater was full.

What’s more, no one seemed to think it was a violent tale of resentful man-haters—something that Sarandon and Davis don’t take for granted. Here, they reflect on how the film’s reception has changed, plus why they’re not so sure a woman could have directed it.

When did you last see Thelma & Louise together?

GD: It was in Cannes in 2016, so not that long ago.

SS: They did an outdoor screening, which was very cool. I went in my pajamas—my chic pajamas—thinking I’m just going to watch the beginning, and I got sucked into it. I really had a good time.

Susan, you mentioned that the film was initially “infuriating” because of the way it was being received. Obviously, that’s changed over time. I actually laughed looking back at how often the word “man-hating” was used in early reviews.

GD: It was crazy. A lot of people were saying it’s so violent, and the women have guns.

SS: And that it condoned suicide, when you have Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Jules and Jim. I mean, we weren’t the first ones—it’s like a movie tradition. Some people just got nuts.

SS: Entertainment Weekly did a chart comparing us to Lethal Weapon, which was fabulous. It had things like the number of bullets fired, which was 11 for Thelma & Louise and something like 450 for Lethal Weapon. They were like, give us a break. This is no comparison.

SS: It was just that it was a woman.

Do you think “man-hating” came from a lack of terminology?

SS: Well, you had women doing things like that back in Greek tragedies. But I think the other problem for people was that we were having fun. That whole thing about “you are what you settle for” was probably as threatening, if not more threatening, when you see someone leaving their house. I remember from when I was with Louis Malle that one of his films with Jeanne Moreau really caused a problem. You don’t see any sex—she’s on a bed and this young biker shows up and goes down on her. But then she leaves her husband and child. And that was the taboo there.

When was that?

SS: I think it was in the ‘50s. The problem with that was that she left her husband, and I think that’s probably part of the problem here, too. Yes, they do these other things, but as Geena said, it’s not really that violent. The problem is that she’s choosing to leave a boring and somewhat abusive situation—even though he’s so funny when he does it. He’s still abusive.

GD: That’s right. [Laughs.]

SS: And they won’t believe women. And so rather than go through whatever’s going to happen to them, they take the romantic leap. And it is a whole romantic thing, with uplifting music and not seeing the car smash. I don’t know—Geena, do you think they’d show it smashing now?

GD: Oh, god. Well, if they did, they wouldn’t get what it’s about. That would defeat the purpose. Because it’s supposed to be that we took off, you know?

SS: Liberation.

GD: Liberation. I think that might be part of the problem that some people had with it, too—that we’re in charge of our own destiny, and we refuse to relinquish it. And for some people, that’s infuriating.

At the time, how unusual was it to find a role like this—a woman who’s actually fleshed out and complicated?

GD: Well, if I was offered them, I did them. [Laughs.] I didn’t turn down any really good parts. That’s kind of one of the downsides of having been in Thelma & Louise—I want more parts like that.

SS: The really unusual thing was having another woman in a film that you’re not hating for some completely vague reason.

GD: Or competing with.

SS: There’s the wife, and there’s the younger gal, and they hate each other—that’s been the formula. I remember it was such an eye-opener to do Tempest, which was before Thelma & Louise. I was the mistress, and Gena Rowlands was the wife of John Cassavetes, and at some point we meet. And the scene was written incredibly—by a man—very bitchy. But she didn’t play it that way. She just completely played it with dignity and respect. And I thought, Wow, that is really interesting—she just didn’t go there.

GD: That’s so cool.

SS: That was a big lesson for me. I mean, Goldie Hawn and I did a film afterward [The Banger Sisters] that was about two women who were buddies, but it wasn’t as threatening as Thelma & Louise, for sure. But it’s unusual. I think the breakthrough has not been in film, but in TV. The soap operas always had good parts for women, but now the long TV version of soap operas has good parts for women.

GD: Exactly.

It seems so odd now that it was Ridley Scott who directed Thelma & Louise. Did it even cross your mind at the time that a woman could direct it?

SS: It could have been directed by a woman, but it probably would have been a very small story. The reason [it worked], I believe, is that he was very collaborative with us. A lot was changed and rearranged. And he’s not that concerned about what accent you’re using or this, that and the other thing—he’s somebody that interprets it completely visually. What he did was put it in an incredibly heroic setting, where John Wayne’s films had actually been shot, which I think was really special.

He put it on a massive scale.

SS: Yeah. That made it much more iconic than we would have earned if it were tiny. It wasn’t such a big budget, but I don’t think they would have given a woman a budget. I’ve worked with a lot of women directors, and the films are all tiny budgets. Half of them can’t get released. They don’t get distribution. I mean, that’s the story—that women can have their shot, but that doesn’t mean it’ll go anywhere.

GD: Whenever people start saying things like “women should direct movies about women,” I always say, “Ridley Scott directed Thelma & Louise.” That’s not to say that women shouldn’t direct movies about women, but I don’t think they should be siloed. Women can direct anything; men can direct anything. We just need more—many more—women.

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