Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge
By Becky Aikman
28, 320 pages
It’s too bad that "Off the Cliff," a robustly researched, anecdote-rich and snappily written account about how "Thelma & Louise" came about, didn’t arrive last year for the ground-breaking film’s 25th anniversary. But perhaps it is just as well now that "Wonder Woman" has smashed the superhero glass ceiling with a box office tally of $715 million-and-counting worldwide, breaking the record for the highest-grossing film by a female director (in this case, Patty Jenkins, at last helming her first movie since her 2003 debut "Monster").
It seems somehow appropriate to reflect upon the gender barriers broken by the comic-book warrior’s unlikely predecessors, two bosom-buddy outlaws in a still-too-rare hell-raising action flick with high-octane estrogen in its tank and that infamous ending that provides the book with its title.
Gunning down a would-be rapist, robbing a store, locking a cop in his car trunk and blowing up a huge tanker truck – these two Arkansas ladies behind the wheel of a now-iconic 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible in the 1991 sleeper hit pulled off quite a crime spree even without any super powers at their disposal. But as brought to full-bodied and relatable life by Geena Davis as neglected homemaker Thelma and Susan Sarandon as harried waitress Louise, they offered an early template of how to beat such big-screen macho men as Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone who dominated the decade’s multiplexes at their own game. Basically, rely on your feminine instincts and smarts to foil those misogynist brutes who dare stand in the way of you achieving your true destiny.
Taking a cue from her subject matter, author Becky Aikman kicks off her first chapter – following a prologue about initial reaction to the script – with a bang in the form of one Callie Khouri. The then-30-year-old, a Kentucky native and Purdue dropout, had endured first-hand frustration over Hollywood’s rampant sexism as a wannabe actress (after doing an emotional audition for a male agent, his only comment was that she didn’t wear enough makeup) and as a glorified lackey in the music video business who hired strippers and aspiring starlets to bump and grind to various hair-band tunes.
Then in 1987, as she wearily sat in her car at 4 a.m., the idea for "Thelma & Louise" came to her and Khouri decided that writing their story would allow her to escape her own unfulfilled existence. It also was a way to pay homage to her own best friend, country singer Pam Tillis, who was a real-life messy Thelma to her more methodical Louise.
Khouri’s ups and downs in showbiz – she would become the first solo female to win an original screenwriting Academy Award thanks to "Thelma & Louise" and currently oversees the TV series "Nashville" – could make for one rollicking memoir in and of itself. But Aikman also provides countless candid reflections from the mostly laid back Davis, who was adamant about hiring a newcomer named Brad Pitt as the cocky drifter who beds Thelma, and the more particular Sarandon, who regularly questioned the script and offered suggestions throughout filming. But the actresses, who would compete against each other at Oscar time in the lead actress category (the fifth and last time that has occurred), have already done countless interviews over the years about their participation in the film.
Which is why I was more intrigued by the men who got involved with a project that often portrays the male of the species in a less-than-flattering light while treating the travails of its two main characters with a mythic grandeur worthy of a Western. Take British filmmaker Ridley Scott. Save for his savvy decision of making Sigourney Weaver’s Ridley the lone survivor of 1979’s sci-fi thriller "Alien," he was a specialist in guy-oriented movies like "Blade Runner" and "Black Rain." He loved the script and wanted to produce it, but he didn’t think he was the right person to direct. But after his first choice, younger brother Tony ("Top Gun"), turned down the offer after he told him, “I’ve got problems with women,” Scott finally listened to others like Michelle Pfeiffer who convinced him to agree to take the reins. (At one point, Pfeiffer was supposed to co-star with Jodie Foster.)
Aikman also successfully hunted down Chris McDonald, Davis’ former beau who brought brilliant comic timing to Darryl, Thelma’s pinheaded peacock of a husband; Timothy Carhart, a sweet person in real life who had to transform into Harlan, Thelma’s hateful attacker; Stephen Tobolowsky (best known as Ned Ryerson in "Groundhog Day") as a straight-laced FBI agent; soulful-eyed Michael Madsen as Jimmy, Louise’s longtime lover; model-handsome Jason Beghe as the cop who gets terrorized by a suddenly empowered Thelma; and Marco St. John as the lewd and crude truck driver who is taught a valuable – and loud – lesson by our rootin’-tootin’ gals.
Perennial baddie Harvey Keitel appreciated going against type as Hal, a police detective who shows more sympathy for the two suspects than he does their victims. But he seems less forthcoming with juicy details than his castmates, who have no problem sharing their stories about him. At one point, Tobolowsky grew so frustrated that Keitel was stepping on his lines, he improvised picking him up by the lapels so he could shout at him as a helicopter hovered nearby.
However, a behind-the-scenes book like "Off the Cliff" must do more than offer a kind of oral history. It must not only capture the electric feel of seeing "Thelma & Louise" in 1991, when certain actions taken by the main characters sparked debate over the film was too anti-male. But it also has to justify the film’s place in movie history, which includes providing Scott with his first best-picture Oscar contender, based on the inroads it made for women in the film industry at the time. Aikman, a former journalist at Newsday and Business Week, does that and more. Not only will it make you want to see the movie again; you might want to watch it even before reading the book, the better to fully savor what made this majestic ode to sisterhood such an enjoyable, exhilarating and, yes, still controversial cinematic landmark.
Susan Wloszczyna is a former film critic for USA Today and a current contributing critic to the Roger Ebert website.