‘Off the Cliff’ shows how ‘Thelma & Louise’ raised Hollywood hell

In 1991, two women took a wrong turn on a road trip — and all hell broke loose in theaters from coast to coast.

“Thelma & Louise,” a genre-busting movie in which a waitress and a housewife cut loose and turn deadly, was meant as a light-hearted female buddy pic.

Instead, it set some critics’ hair on fire. Moviegoers, too, were loudly appalled at the female crime spree portrayed.

Sure, other critics loved it and so did plenty of ticket-buyers.

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis recreate ‘Thelma and Louise’

But it was the white-hot backlash — from “toxic feminism” to “man-bashing” to “deranged violence” — that made the film a hit, the summer movie that people were still talking about come fall.

“Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge,” by Becky Aikman, is the gem-studded story of how the little movie that made the cover of Time even made it to the screen.

“Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge” a novel by Becky Aikman.

It’s necessary to clarify one issue straight off. “Thelma & Louise” may be an iconic film seared into memory. But everyone still stumbles over two questions: Who was Thelma? And who was Louise?

Thelma is the ditzy housewife played by Geena Davis. Louise is the sage, older waitress played by Susan Sarandon. Clip and save.

‘Thelma & Louise’ hit the road: 1991 review

The script was sent out to studios with Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster attached as stars. Both wanted to play Thelma, but the two decided the role belonged to Foster.

When it took too long to rustle up financing, Foster went off to play Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.” When Pfeiffer departed as well, the stampede of would-be substitutes began.

Every female box-office draw in Hollywood was out to snare one of the leads: Julia Roberts, Kim Basinger, Kathleen Turner, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg and many, many more.

The only one unhappy about the parade of stars was first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri. Scraping by as a line producer of music videos, the 29-year-old wrote the script in a fever.

The chances of getting a movie made that ends with a suicide pact, with the female leads gunning their Thunderbird convertible over the edge of the Grand Canyon, were less than minimal.

When the powerful Ridley Scott decided to produce and direct “Thelma & Louise,” Khouri should have been abjectly grateful. Instead, she made Scott feel as if he were auditioning for her.

She didn’t want glossy movie stars inhabiting her working-class characters. As far as she was concerned, Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep pitching themselves as a team was not a positive development.

Scott decided Hawn was too old, and Streep confessed she wanted to spend the summer with her children.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.

Davis (l.) and Sarandon find themselves surrounded in “Thelma & Louise.”


Enter Davis and Sarandon.

Davis had been stalking the role of Louise, but quickly saw the wisdom in playing Thelma when the part was offered. Sarandon hadn’t even lobbied for one of the parts.

Khouri’s adamance was only a warm-up for Scott. Sarandon presented him with a list of “concerns” at their first meeting. Once filming began, some in the crew saw her as trying to act as a shadow director.

“She just knows more about anything than anybody,” Scott said later. The director, who’d most recently made “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” was a man’s man and made no bones about it.

Casting the male roles turned out to be the real challenge.

“Thelma & Louise” screenwriter Callie Khouri

(Ron Galella/WireImage)

Any actor with a six-pack wanted to join the lineup. Billy Baldwin was set to play J.D., the sexy hitchhiker who steals the women’s money, but defected to Ron Howard’s “Backdraft” at the last minute.

Other hopefuls were less fortunate as the casting director shot down a parade of hunky actors.

George Clooney, 28, hunched forward during his audition, fidgeting and chomping on a toothpick. His square face was burdened with dark hair to the shoulders, heavy eyebrows and thick sideburns. On film, his head looked weirdly wider than it was long.

Brad Pitt, 26 and a total unknown, delivered a slinky charm, but Scott judged him too young. Still, he was one of four actors to get an emergency callback two days before production started.

Davis read with three dark-haired men before the blond guy, Pitt, walked into the room. He launched into his lines. Instead of responding on cue, Davis stood gawking at him.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.

Brad Pitt won over Geena Davis at his audition, which landed him the coveted role.


When he left, Scott and the casting director debated which of the “nobody brunettes” to hire. Davis interrupted: “The blond one! Hello?!”

Scott was convinced. “I saw her color up,” he said, “and that was it.”

Clooney was one of the nobodies Pitt beat out for the star-making role.

Meanwhile, Davis watched as Scott auditioned a string of Playmates to step in as a nude body double in her no-star motel sex scene with Pitt. It was competitiveness, she claims, that made her announce, “Goddammit … I’ll do it.”

The outtakes from their onscreen coupling later won an award at a soft-porn festival. The two kicked off hot rumors on-set by spending their downtime together.

“Thelma & Louise” made $45 million in theaters.


Davis suffered far more in filming another scene. She was summoned to reshoot the ugly attempted rape from earlier in the movie. It needed to be more violent.

The second shoot was so raw, so stomach-turning, that actor Timothy Carhart sent Davis a note apologizing. The scene was pivotal, though, in terms of all that ensued.

Thelma and Louise, escaping dreary lives in a small Arkansas town, set out on a fishing trip. On the way, they pull off the highway for a drink at a roadhouse that turns into a wild night.

It was the wrong turn. Louise walks out to the parking lot as the guy who’d been dancing with Thelma is brutally manhandling her. The waitress pulls a gun on him.

The two women are walking away when the would-be rapist spews obscene insults at them. Louise turns back and shoots him point blank in the head. Unless the friends make a run for it, she’s going to jail.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.

The iconic off-the-cliff shot from the movie.


Liberated, so to speak, as fugitives, Thelma robs a convenience store after J.D. cleans them out. When a state trooper pulls their red convertible over, they lock him in the trunk of his car at gunpoint.

Critics were appalled by the parking lot killing — though no one sweated Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body count when “Terminator 2” was released later in the summer.

But what also ignited raging controversy was the spectacular scene in which the two women blow up a tanker truck after the lip-licking driver lewdly harasses them on the road. He’s unharmed.

Khouri would later say the movie didn’t man-bash, it “idiot-bashed.”

“Thelma & Louise,” released the same weekend in May as “Backdraft,” was at first a well-received, small movie turning a modest profit.

It was still the era of water-cooler chat, though, and people talked. Theaters filled up, and a furious national debate erupted — a debate that sometimes began in the lobby of the theatre.

Time magazine claimed the movie unwittingly “tapped into a wild, rushing subterranean stream of inchoate rage and demented violence.”

The Los Angeles Times’ movie critic, a woman, decried it as a “betrayal of feminism.” Prominent social commentator John Leo railed against it as “explicitly fascist.”

“Thelma & Louise,” a movie that reasonably should have come and gone in a few weeks, played into the fall in some theaters. It earned $45 million, far more than was expected. Callie Khouri won an Oscar for the screenplay.

In other words, “Thelma & Louise” found its audience. Then went on to earn its indisputable place in film history.

thelma and louise
geena davis
susan sarandon
george clooney
brad pitt
goldie hawn
meryl streep

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Source: Ny Daily News

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