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The Making of Thelma and Louise

James Cameron Needs to Sit Down and Take a Lesson From 1 of the Most Iconic Films Made For Women

Now that James Cameron has mansplained to all of us why his concept of a female heroine is better than Wonder Woman, I'd like to return the favor and womansplain something to him: the best way to tell stories about people unlike yourself may be to realize what you don't know and listen to people who do.

That's one reason why Wonder Woman, with its female director and star, spoke to a massive female audience, and that's also how it played out in the making of one of Hollywood's most iconic films starring women up to now, Thelma & Louise. Written by a woman, first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri, and starring two women, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, Thelma & Louise created the sensation it did back in 1991 because it was so clearly a story that emerged straight from the heart of an actual female, addressing issues that drive females crazy in their actual lives. That the movie still feels fresh today is in part because the men involved in its creation listened to women like Khouri, Sarandon, and Davis, who understood how to keep it real.

It's instructive to study how this worked. Ridley Scott was an unlikely choice to direct the movie and didn't he know it. It perplexed people in Hollywood that Scott, a cigar-chomping man's man known for extravagant action/sci-fi spectacles, chose to make a relatively low-budget saga of ordinary women running amok on the road. But he listened to a young employee of his production company, Mimi Polk, who felt a profound connection to the story.

"The script flew," he said after he read it at her request. "It was very well written." He decided to produce, but, recognizing what he didn't know, he couldn't see himself directing such a 'women's picture.' It was too much from their point of view, full of their banter and a wrath about their place in society that he couldn't quite grasp. "It was a very much not my thing," he said.

But when other directors he approached — all men — didn't see the potential of the screenplay as he did, Scott went ahead, yet with an important caveat. He spent days combing through the script with Khouri so he could subsume his perspective with hers. Scott found it hard to believe, for example, that women had to listen to vulgar catcalls from characters like the truck driver in the movie. Khouri convinced him it happened all the time. She also assured him that the audience would get a kick out of it when the heroines blew up his truck.

Once Davis and Sarandon joined the cast, the film enjoyed the benefit of not one but two smart, outspoken female leads, a critical mass of female brainpower. Davis, for her part, showed an uncanny ability to understand what would appeal to the ladies in the audience when she urged Scott to cast an unknown named Brad Pitt for a small part as her love interest. She'd grown so flustered reading with him at his audition that she botched her lines. But she spoke up for him afterwards. "I saw her color up, and that was it," Scott explained.

Later, Scott suggested that Davis take her top off and wave it around to celebrate the characters' freedom as they sped along the road in their '66 Thunderbird convertible. It fell to Sarandon to tell him the idea didn't ring true. "That's exploitation," she said.

Instead of messing with the ending, they doubled down.

Audience members at the first test screening hated what they saw, especially the shocking ending. But studio head Alan Ladd Jr. listened to the production executive Rebecca Pollack, who urged the filmmakers to "hang on to why we made this film in the first place." They opted to hold tight to the original intent of Khouri's script. Instead of messing with the ending, they doubled down, removing a shot that had been intended to soften the blow.

The result was a production that women took to heart, just as they have Wonder Woman today. Thelma and Louise were imperfect characters making imperfect choices, but they looked like real women and talked like real women who could laugh in the open about the too-recognizable foibles of men and women, too.

Audiences recognized in them the texture and outlook of real women's lives, something we'd been craving on the screen. Wonder Woman is more idealized, as Cameron complained, but the mythical heroine, as played by Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins, embodies something we also had been yearning to see, a female heroine who is not only beautiful, but principled and brave.

With films carried by female leads so scarce, it's unfortunate that the few who exist are expected to be everything to everyone. But in the too-rare moments when Hollywood power brokers truly listen to women's voices and create stories and characters that touch us, lo and behold, an audience is there. It's a principle that applies to any workplace, really, but especially one charged with speaking to the rich array of humans around the world.

Becky Aikman is the author of Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge.

Image Source: Everett Collection
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