Audacious Dames – Susan Sarandon – Thelma & Louise
Thelma & Louise, both the film and its titular characters, were jinxed at the Oscars in 1992, winning only one well-deserved award for Best Writing for a Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen by Callie Khouri. Its parched vistas, greasy spoons, and asphalt veins of the southwest lost for Best Cinematography to JFK, Ridley Scott lost Best Director to Jonathan Demme for The Silence of the Lambs, and leads Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis famously cancelled each other out as Best Actress, allowing Jodie Foster to nab her second Oscar in three years for Silence, which would become only the second film to win the Top Four awards since 1935. In that golden year – I used to tape the Oscars and the 1992 show is still my favorite for its humor and arsenal of iconic films – Thelma & Louise was the square peg, a western drama by any other name that fell into the same trap as Brokeback Mountain more than a decade later: a refusal to treat it as such and thus leaving it indefinable.
The film places two women, two Southern women, into a Western landscape that neither wants nor welcomes them. Amidst the lovely wide shots of the scrublands and plateaus of western Oklahoma and into New Mexico, there is no room for these two characters – outsiders in both look and manner. As I read once that Brokeback was Ennis’s story, so Thelma & Louise is Louise’s story. Their journey begins, changes, and ends because of her; she is the nexus around which the legend grows. This is not taking anything away from Geena Davis’s amazing portrayal of Thelma, the neglected housewife finally allowed to shine, only to be fleeced once her wings were able to stretch. Her doom was her loyalty to her friend, and her agency came at the ultimate price.
At forty-four, Susan Sarandon played Louise with a hard-won composure, tightly structured in her carriage and routine. Though Thelma is taller, more striking, and naturally showy in her allure, Louise displays a quieter, more intense confidence. Her home is immaculate, she packs her shoes in plastic bags and folds her ironed blouses before placing them neatly in the suitcase, and she washes the lone glass in the sink before leaving to pick up her girlfriend, whose home is a mess and suitcase consists of whatever drawer she dumped out. Thelma displays the gangly, giggly innocence that Louise smiles upon, a bit wistfully: she is unspoiled and way too sheltered, throwing herself into a carelessly coquettish role that both amuses and concerns her older friend, especially when it attracts the kind of men Louise avoids like the plague.
Bravo to hair stylists Leslie Ann Anderson and Anthony Cortino and makeup artists Richard Arrington and Bonita DeHaven for creating two distinct looks that each woman puts on like a shield and then slowly strips away throughout the film. Louise twists her strawberry curls into what a honky-tonk waitress describes as a “tidy hairdo,” wearing a bolero-style jacket and red lipstick. That red lipstick is a deliberate decision: she wants men to approach her directly (if they are so bold) so she can speak to them eye-to-eye, sans eyelash batting or proximal glances. Proactivity reduces the likelihood of being on defense for Louise, who must remain in control, while Thelma initially engages in a series of reactions to male advances. This makes her shooting of Thelma’s rapist in the parking lot of the dance hall all the more jarring, as she repeats the same phrases such as “figure out what to do” over and over in an attempt to line up the chaos in her head.
Louise is a rules-based woman, adhering faithfully to the norms of a system which have taught her to be polite (even when angry or annoyed), respectful, and genteel. There is an unspoken agreement between Louise and this Southern structure of manners and mores: while she remains a lady, she demands reciprocation from men and breaks her reserve if those expectations are not met. Screenwriter Callie Khouri has made the older lead the true romantic of the picture, as she has been hurt – badly – and yet her her heart pulses the strongest for everyone she looks to protect. She sees things as they should be, and revolts when they are not so. She is the one who entrusts her life savings to Thelma to watch over. She is the one who asks her significant other, a failed musician named Jimmy (Michael Madsen), if he loves her. Her interaction with Jimmy in a cheap motel room off the highway, while not as energetic as the sexual Olympics of Thelma and J.D. down the hall, is deeply felt, as the older couple face their impending, and likely permanent, separation with a building electricity as they talk about their past mistakes, failures, and fears. When Thelma puts her hand over Jimmy’s eyes and asks him to tell her what color her eyes are, try not to melt. As it is with her personality, Louise is a realist to the ways of the world and admits her actions, but she refuses to relinquish the heart of herself. Being a romantic, ironically, is what makes Louise her own worst enemy, as her choices lead her deeper into trouble. She isn’t the pious savior any more than Thelma is the sex kitten, and her mistakes actually give Thelma the opportunity to take more control of their situation, in her own haphazard way. Late in the film, she is wearing Louise’s jacket from the dance hall.
The most faithful masculine figure in the film could be the one thing whose very life is in Louise’s hands: her beloved 1966 Thunderbird, gray-green and spitshined. Susan Sarandon doesn’t get credit for her control of that car, as she plows backwards through a gas station or weaves between pump jacks to avoid the attention of police cars on the highway. Director of Photography Adrian Biddle’s languid closeups of the car’s wings and chrome detailing mirror Louise’s devotion, yet she pushes it to its limit as the women speed across the golden red desert with the top down, brazenly daring to be seen. One notable exception is when Louise is waiting in the car for Thelma to come back from a local grocery (ignorant that she is actually robbing the place) and starts to reapply her red lipstick, only to throw it away in resignation, the attention she once controlled slipping out of her grasp.
In the film’s funniest scene, the women actually get pulled over for speeding and pull every trick in a Southern belle’s book to get out of getting caught, then apologize profusely to the state trooper for holding a gun to his head, crippling his cruiser, and locking him in the trunk. As they frisk the officer for extra ammunition and his sunglasses, they continue saying “please” and “sir.” It’s as if they recognize the perceptions their upbringings have caused and have acknowledged how farcical it can be, but also the respect they deserve. The next man they come in contact with is a nasty trucker who refuses to apologize for his crude gestures, and so they blow up his tanker. True to the end, they demand to be treated right, but as Louise says, “We don’t live in that kind of a world, Thelma.”