WIFV DC Presents: Thelma and Louise 20th Anniversary Screening
Q and A with Geena Davis
This year marks the 20th birthday of some of America’s greatest exports: The World Wide Web. Pearl Jam. Thelma and Louise. While I missed Eddie Veder and the guys at Destination Weekend festival in Wisconsin, I was able to hit up Women in Film and Video’s special 20th anniversary screening of Thelma Louise at the National Women’s Democratic Club in Washington, DC last Wednesday night. My sister and I have watched the movie no fewer than 50 times and can pretty much recite it from memory, so when I heard that WIFV was hosting the screening complete with Q and A with Geena Davis, I couldn’t resist.
The event also served as a benefit for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which works to change female portrayals and gender stereotypes in film and television.
According to Davis, the inspiration for the Institute came from raising her daughter, Alizeh. “When my daughter was two, I started watching little innocent cartoons with her. I immediately noticed that girls weren’t really represented and boys were doing all the interesting things,” Davis said. The more she started paying attention, the more she noticed the skewed ratio of men to women in TV and movies.
“Like the Bechdel test,” Ulaby commented, referring to a way to measure how well a film represents female characters, made popular by comic Alison Bechdel. The test uses three criteria: (1) does the film in question feature at least two women, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man? “There’s a great YouTube video about this,” Davis remarked, “they start going through a list of all of the movies that don’t pass the test and it’s like every major movie from the past twenty years.”
Davis wondered how many other people had noticed the disparity. She started bringing it up at Hollywood parties and at meetings with studio executives. “Whenever I would say, ‘Hey, have you noticed that women aren’t really represented equally in a lot of films or TV?’ they would bring up a movie that had like, one female lead.”
The more Davis started digging, the more she realized the problem was entrenched and systemic. “It’s really pervasive,” she said “one statistic I like to quote is that in family films there is one girl represented for every three boys, and those numbers have been the same since 1947.” She also cited research that shows more TV girls watch, the fewer options they think they have available to them, and the more TV boys watch, the more sexist their attitudes become.
Davis realized it would take a focused effort to change the landscape for women in the media and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media was born. Seven years later it has become a leader in the effort to foster positive images of girls and women in media. “I never intended for it to take over my life,” Davis said with a laugh, “but we’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish so far.”
Using a mix of original research, media literacy campaigns, strategic partnerships and educational outreach, the Institute is working to bring more attention to the issue, and hopefully, reverse the trend.
After the film screened (and yes my sister and I totally held hands during the end scene), Ulaby and Davis returned to stage for more Q and A. The questions turned toward Davis’ experiences making Thelma and Louise
As soon as Davis read the script, she knew she wanted in, but the role she had her eye on, was not the one that would make her famous. She wanted to play Louise. “Ridley Scott was set to produce, so I had my agent call his office once a week for months” Davis explained. At that point, Davis was told the cast had been set, but then fate intervened. The director they had set to make the film quit. They found a new director and a new cast – that still didn’t include a role for Davis. And then that director quit and the cast fell apart yet again. At that point, Ridley Scott decided he would direct the film. He agreed to meet with Davis.
“I showed the script to my acting coach, who thought I should play Louise because she was more mature and could establish me as a more mature actress,” Davis explained, “I spent hours making all of these notes for Ridley about why I should play Louise.” She met with Scott and made her case. “He listened carefully and then said, ‘So you’re saying you wouldn’t play Thelma?’” Davis recalled laughing, “I then vamped for the next hour about how I would be perfect for Thelma.”
Even Scott was on the fence about the ideal role for Davis “They wouldn’t cast me until they found the actress for the other role,” she explained, “I think I’m the only person in Hollywood to ever sign a contract saying I would play either.” Davis still had her heart set on playing Louise – until she met Susan Sarandon. “Susan walked in and I was like ‘I could play Louise?’” Davis recalled laughing, “Susan was so poised and centered and had her life together. I turned into Thelma around her. I was a puppy around her.”
Ulaby asked Davis to talk about the reaction to the film when it first came out. “I remember the press saying it encouraged everything from man hating to drunk driving and feminists hated the ending.” Davis responded that the entire cast was shocked by the response. “We thought it would be this small movie that a few people would see,” she explained, “then the next week we hit the cover of Time magazine and then it just blew up. I started to get recognized in grocery store.” While the film was heralded as ushering in a new era of women-centered films, the phenomena didn’t last. “They said the same thing when a League of Their Own and the First Wives Club” came out. Davis observed “about how this showed that there are roles for women and for older actresses, but we haven’t seen much since then…There’s a belief among Hollywood executives that women will watch men but men won’t watch women so we need to make movies to appeal to men.”
Ulaby noted that ending was controversial and asked if there was ever any discussion amongst the cast and crew about doing it differently. “There was never any other ending,” Davis explained, “Ridley was clear and firm from the beginning that he didn’t want another ending. And to his credit, the studio didn’t make him shoot an alternate ending.” Davis also remarked on the idea that film shows men in a less than favorable light. “I don’t think the film bashes men. There are seven male characters in the movie and they run the full spectrum.” As for those feminists who believe the film’s ending sends the wrong message, Davis would say this: “the ending is actually very empowering. It’s a metaphor for them getting away and taking control of their fate.” And then she paused with a slight wink in her eye and added “despite main characters killing themselves, it’s very uplifting.”