In the nearly 30 years since Ridley Scott’s seminal, genre-smashing Thelma & Louise first hit the big screen, the road movie has been firmly cemented as a forerunner of feminist cinema.
But during a special New York presentation of the Oscar-winning film, which follows two friends whose weekend trip turns into a run from the law, co-stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis reminded attendees that Thelma & Louise wasn’t always a magnet for praise.
“I thought it was going to be a cowboy movie with trucks and women,” Sarandon said during the film’s introduction on Tuesday night. “It turned out to be something that was so empowering and infuriating at the time.”
Hosted by Women in Motion, a program launched by luxury goods brand Kering to support the presence of women in cinema and other areas of the arts, the intimate event reunited the film’s award-winning leads for a brief look back at the movie’s impact on the entertainment industry and in our culture.
Speaking in the Museum of Modern Art’s Celeste Bartos Theater, Sarandon said that following its initial theatrical release, Thelma & Louise received “horrible reviews from some people” for its less developed male characters and depictions of suicide, as well as a “man-hating” narrative. Davis added some critics claimed “that the world has gone to hell because now women have guns.”
“I heard [the screenwriter Callie Khouri] being interviewed and they told her, ‘We don’t think the men’s parts are good enough,’ and she said ‘So what?'” Davis said to crowd laughter.
The 1991 film may not have been universally heralded for its then-radically progressive representation of female empowerment and friendship. But several of the event’s high-profile attendees, which included Annie Leibovitz, Diane Kruger, Arianna Huffington, Radhika Jones, Michael Stipe and Kyra Sedgwick, described the film as a deeply influential cinematic experience.
“I was a young woman when I saw it, just out of college, and it made a big impression on me because it was the first time I saw a movie with two female names that were powerful and taking agency in their own lives for better or for worse,” Padma Lakshmi, author and Top Chef host told The Hollywood Reporter on the carpet. “I think a lot of women like me could really identify with the movie, and perhaps it woke something — a frustration — up in us.”
Candice Bushnell noted that Thelma & Louise‘s ending may have fallen into the trope where women who “step outside the norm, step outside the patriarchy have to die,” but the journalist and Sex and the City anthology author told THR that the film was truly a “fuck-you to the man.”
“This is still ‘the woman has to die at the end,’ but it was starting to make forward movement because so many women saw that F-U message in this movie,” Bushnell said.
“I happen to think we are in a seminal moment now where you’re going to watch this film and think, ‘Wow, this movie really was ahead of its time,’ because it’s really selling this message that women are not going to take it anymore,” The Good Fight star Christine Baranski said.
Attendees, including Baranski and Davis, pointed to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements as examples of how Hollywood’s climate and the women who work in it are changing. Now, they say, more women are empowered in the way Thelma and Louise were onscreen three decades ago.
“I do believe that this is a turning point,” Davis said while speaking to THR ahead of the screening. “It’s been shown that it’s OK for us to tell our stories, to speak up, and if we don’t get things like equal pay, to say it. I think my whole career, most of us were afraid to ever complain about anything because we thought they’d just get someone else — that we were all expendable. But the tone and the feeling in Hollywood is really different now.”
Equality and representation were big themes of the event, which not only celebrated the film’s place in the feminist canon but also the 100th anniversary of the suffrage movement. Before the presentation, Sarandon made a callback to one of her favorite lines in the film and explained how it connects to that larger fight for women’s rights in the U.S.
“One of my favorite lines is, ‘You are what you settle for,’ and I’m happy that this time when we’re celebrating the anniversary of women being able to vote, that we are not going to settle and that we remember that all of those things seemed like a long shot when they were happening and took a very long time with people who were really radical,” Sarandon told the audience.
With so much of the night focused on the progress of women’s representation, it was no surprise that the 2020 Oscars came up. This year’s ceremony features a record number of women on the nominees list, yet female creatives were shut out of major categories like best director.
“The goal [of Women in Motion] is to advocate better representation for women in the entertainment industry, and it’s unfortunately still a challenge today,” head of Kering Americas Laurent Claquin said while introducing Davis and Sarandon. “Just look at the Oscar nominations. This year, again, no female director was nominated. And as you know, only one woman director has won in the history of the Oscars.”
In response to the Oscars’ lack of female director nominees and the exclusion of people of color from other major categories, Davis lauded the “extraordinary strides” the Film Academy has made in trying to increase its membership before stressing that in order to see more women nominees, more than 4 percent of directors must be women and those women must be in the director’s branch.
“It can’t just be on the Academy,” Davis told THR. “The industry has to make many, many, many more movies starring and written by women and directed by women, which will then inevitably be eligible for Oscars. This change is really about the whole system.”