Women in the driving seat

Sarandon and Davis still going over the edge

by Richard Mowe

One of the first selfies: Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise
One of the first selfies: Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise

It has been 25 years since Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon hit the desert highway in Thelma & Louise, Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking road movie that absolutely put women in the driver’s seat

Feminists were excited to see complex, stereotype-busting female characters. Thelma & Louise told of a bored waitress and a disillusioned housewife whose road trip spirals into a crime spree after one kills a man who was attempting to rape the other.

It was funny and action-filled and thoughtful as well as being a box-office success. It was believed that it could change the perception of women onscreen and be a cultural milestone.

Talking in Cannes today (15 May) at a session organised by luxury goods brand Kering, Sarandon and Davidson admitted that not much had changed. At this year’s 69th edition of the Festival only three of the 21 candidates for the Palme d’Or are films directed by women (the UK’s Andrea Arnold with American Honey, Germany’s Maren Ade with Toni Erdmann and France’s Nicole Garcia with Land Of The Moon).

Susan Sarandon:
Susan Sarandon: "Hollywood just goes with the money …" Photo: Richard Mowe

Davis who has her own Institute on Gender in Media found that the percentage of female speaking characters in the top-grossing movies hasn’t changed in roughly half a century.

“We have so few parts, and they’re not often really good parts,” Davis says. “The absence of women in film has become so standard that most of us don’t even notice it.”

They cannot quite believe the impact of Thelma & Louise but it must be so because everyone keeps telling them, they concur. “We have been a little busy, both working and raising families,” says Sarandon.

Davis recalls: “We met before we started shooting. Ridley Scott [the director] wanted to get us all together. I thought that my job up until then was to be nice, and never challenge anyone in any way. I used girly techniques to try to get what I wanted. Then Susan came along and started telling Ridley to cut that line there and put it on page 3, and other things. I was in my thirties and did not believe that women could be like that. I learned so much hanging out with Susan making that movie.”

“Ridley had not decided on a lot of stuff,” says Sarandon. “He is all about the presentation. It could have been a tiny film but he put us in this heroic film. He was very collaborative about changing things and fixing things. We were not going to have that much time so we got right into it. There was a huge backlash and a lot of people were offended by the movie and women who did not have those options got upset. We were making a buddy film where we had power and made choices.”

Davis agrees it caused a big stir that they were unprepared for. “I read with five different guys for the male protagonist and none were any good apart from the last one, the blonde one – he was, of course, Brad Pitt.”

On a heavily male dominated production Sarandon remembers that she and Davis would go away to lunch in their trailers. Meanwhile the technicians watched the dailies. “They would play them fast with no sound to make sure there were no glitches. When they got the rushes for the sex stuff, however, there was a three-hour lunch. We did not find out why but they had played the film at the real speed. When I saw Brad in the scene where he taunted the husband on the stairway I knew he was something special.”

Geena Davis:
Geena Davis: "Movies starring women make as much money as movies starring men." Photo: Richard Mowe

Davis has been encouraged recently by “all these amazing female comedians who are making films such as Amy Schumer with Trainwreck. “After Thelma and Louise we thought there would be more films by women, but it has not happened. Movies starring women make as much money as movies starring men. The studio guys in Hollywood cannot see women in leading roles and that slows down any progress. Nine per cent of films made last year were directed by women.”

Sarandon argued that there should be more women green lighting films and telling the stories they want to tell. “More and more women are starting production companies but it is not going to happen under the studio structure. Hollywood just goes with the money and then they have a breakthrough film that defies convention. Suddenly that is the way they want to go. Seven or eight of the money making movies last year were sequels.”

She was looking forward to starting work next on a mini-series by Brian Murphy in which she plays Bette Davis to Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford and to find out just how much things have changed “since those girls came through Hollywood.” She’s also going to be working in July with Xavier Dolan in Montreal – “I play the mother and, of course, his mother is in all of his films.”

Davis remained optimistic that things could improve for women in film. She noted that making films more equitable was easier than increasing the number of women in boardrooms, congress, or other institutions.

“The thing about film is it can change overnight,” she said. “The next film somebody makes can be gender balanced.”

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