Hol­ly­wood’s get­away

It was hailed as the start of a new era for women in Hol­ly­wood, but as Becky Aik­man’s Off the Cliff re­lates, in the 26 years since Thelma & Louise, fem­i­nist films have stalled

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It is time for us to stop pre­tend­ing like this is a new story. This sum­mer, nes­tled in-be­tween news about Johnny Depp’s fi­nances and Dwayne John­son’s presidential mus­ings, prac­ti­cally ev­ery American pub­li­ca­tion has of­fered its thoughts on the su­per­hero pic­ture Won­der Woman, star­ring Gal Gadot as Ama­zo­nian war­rior turned First World War fighter Diana Prince, and its im­pli­ca­tions for the fu­ture of ac­tion films star­ring women. Won­der Woman’s suc­cess, the the­ory goes, could lead to a less testos­terone-heavy fu­ture, in which women open ac­tion movies, fe­male film­mak­ers are granted more op­por­tu­ni­ties, and fe­male au­di­ences are re­spected and de­ferred to. Ev­ery­thing, it seems, rides on this one movie.

Won­der Woman’s US$103 mil­lion (Dh378 mil­lion) American open­ing-weekend take, and its $125 mil­lion haul over­seas, makes it the third-largest open­ing of 2017 to date, out­pac­ing tent­pole films like Pi­rates of the Caribbean, The Lego Bat­man Movie, and Lo­gan. There have been au­di­ble sighs of relief broad­cast from the in­dus­try and much of the en­ter­tain­ment media, who feared a re­peat of the grue­some di­a­logue sur­round­ing last year’s Ghost­busters, which was the tar­get of re­peated at­tacks from misog­y­nis­tic and racist in­ter­net trolls who then crowed when the film dis­ap­pointed at the box of­fice. With Sofia Cop­pola re­cently the win­ner of the best-di­rec­tor prize at Cannes, a hotly an­tic­i­pated new film from Kathryn Bigelow ar­riv­ing later this sum­mer, and new films fea­tur­ing fe­male su­per­heroes like Cap­tain Marvel, Sil­ver Sable and Black Cat on their way, the once-dour mood of fem­i­nine em­pow­er­ment in Hol­ly­wood has turned a bit sun­nier.

But those of us not born last week may re­mem­ber such dis­cus­sions hap­pen­ing prior to 2017, with the films promis­ing a brighter to­mor­row being Ghost­busters or Brides­maids or Boys Don’t Cry. We may even re­mem­ber back all the way to 1991, and the stealth suc­cess of Thelma & Louise, the comic crime-re­venge ca­per star­ring Su­san Saran­don and Geena Davis, which promised a golden era of films for and about women. That the era never came – it keeps being bumped back, promised anew by Brides­maids or de­layed by the fail­ure of Ghost­busters – is the stealth mes­sage of Becky Aik­man’s finely etched Off the Cliff, which doc­u­ments the failed ar­rival of a fu­ture now a quar­ter-cen­tury in the past.

Aik­man can­nily begins her story with Cal­lie Khouri, a mu­sic-video jack-of-all­trades frus­trated at wran­gling bikini mod­els to pose saucily behind the likes of Whites­nake. In her off-hours, Khouri started writ­ing a story about women driven mad by a world of un­think­ing mas­cu­line priv­i­lege, con­structed atop the en­gine of her real-life friend­ship with upand-com­ing coun­try singer Pam Til­lis. “We had more power as a team,” Khouri said of the two women, and Thelma &

Louise imag­ined them as out­laws, driven to the open road by the same sti­fled fury and hunger for free­dom Khouri had ex­pe­ri­enced. In her story, Thelma and Louise kill a man who has at­tempted to rape Thelma and then flee into the open West, and dis­arm­ing free­dom.

“You can write a true story that never re­ally hap­pened,” Khouri ob­served, and the bud­ding screen­writer meant this story to be a fan­tasy and a cau­tion­ary tale all at once.

Much of Off the Cliff fol­lows the mak­ing of the film, with more than half the book un­fold­ing be­fore the cam­eras first start rolling. Aik­man has spo­ken to prac­ti­cally ev­ery­one of note on the pro­duc­tion, and slings all the juici­est de­tails our way.

Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeif­fer were ini­tially cast in the star­ring roles, and when they dropped out, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn of­fered them­selves up, in per­son, as a duo. Davis, com­ing off an Os­car for The Ac­ci­den­tal Tourist, was so pumped by the film’s script that she had her agent call ev­ery week to re­mind Ri­d­ley Scott that she was avail­able – for ei­ther role. Scott ini­tially signed on as a pro­ducer, in­sis­tent that his aes­thetic was a poor fit for the story. It was only af­ter nu­mer­ous other film­mak­ers, in­clud­ing his brother Tony (who de­murred, telling him that “I’ve got prob­lems with women”), turned him down, that Scott re­alised he wanted to di­rect Thelma & Louise him­self, and cast Davis and Su­san Saran­don in the lead­ing roles. But nei­ther Scott nor the film’s pro­duc­ers could de­cide what they wanted to do with that pesky end­ing. Would Thelma and Louise re­ally drive to their deaths?

Af­ter Wil­liam Bald­win, heart­throb brother of Alec, jumped ship for the fire­fight­ing drama Back­draft, the pro­duc­tion team looked at the likes of Mark Ruf­falo, Dy­lan McDer­mott, Der­mot Mul­roney, and Ge­orge Clooney, who each au­di­tioned with a tooth­pick in his mouth. Davis, hav­ing au­di­tioned with some of the fi­nal­ists, chan­neled her in­ner Saran­don and po­litely asked Scott: “Would you be in­ter­ested in what my im­pres­sion was?” For Davis, this cast­ing de­ci­sion was a no-brainer: “The blond one! Hello?!” And thus be­gan the ca­reer of a per­former named Brad Pitt.

Scott emerges as an af­fa­ble stylist, lit­tle in­ter­ested in the ma­noeu­vrings of ac­tors. He be­lieved that get­ting the phys­i­cal de­tails right was of­ten enough, and that tal­ented per­form­ers would han­dle their roles with­out un­nec­es­sary in­ter­fer­ence. Thelma & Louise mostly proved him right, with Pitt wow­ing even his male co-stars, ini­tially in­tent on see­ing him as a pretty face and lit­tle more. Most im­por­tantly, Davis and Saran­don were just right, with Scott’s ini­tial as­sess­ment, de­scribed by Aik­man, that “Su­san’s faint traces of crow’s feet and cool, as­sess­ing eyes would dis­tin­guish her from Geena’s wide-open ex­pres­sion and but­ter-smooth skin” prov­ing cor­rect. We saw them, and we knew them in­stantly.

Hav­ing spo­ken to prac­ti­cally ev­ery­one in­volved in the mak­ing of Thelma & Louise, Aik­man does not have to do much in the way of pad­ding her book with pot­ted his­tory or the­matic di­gres­sions. In­stead, we feel the rich­ness of her re­port­ing, which turns up nuggets like Scott reg­u­larly pass­ing out cigars to ac­tors dur­ing his shoots to cre­ate a cin­e­matic blue haze, and the di­rec­tor ap­proach­ing a fe­male ce­ment-truck driver en­coun­tered on lo­ca­tion to pur­chase her faded black trucker cap for Thelma to wear.

Off the Cliff wisely uses the sto­ries of its pro­tag­o­nists to il­lu­mi­nate Hol­ly­wood in the early 1990s, when Thelma & Louise emerged as an art­ful twist on the gun­sand-ammo, testos­terone-heavy films of the 1980s. The American film in­dus­try was over­due for change, and Khouri, Davis and oth­ers be­lieved that the smug misog­yny of films like Bev­erly Hills Cop

II, di­rected by Ri­d­ley’s brother Tony, was surely on its way to the dust­bin of his­tory. Alas, no. Much of Off the Cliff ’s en­ergy emerges from a cast and crew be­lat­edly re­al­is­ing they are work­ing on a truly mem­o­rable film; much of the book’s un­ex­pected bit­ter­sweet­ness emerges from the re­al­i­sa­tion that even that is not enough to change the arc of a film in­dus­try in­tent on serv­ing only a favoured few.

Thelma & Louise was re­leased on Me­mo­rial Day weekend in 1991. Its open­ing-weekend com­pe­ti­tion was the Bruce Wil­lis ve­hi­cle Hud­son Hawk and Ron Howard’s Back­draft, which it had bat­tled for male act­ing tal­ent dur­ing cast­ing. The film fin­ished a mod­estly re­spectable fourth, but as the other films faded, Thelma & Louise found ever-wider au­di­ences. Even with a rel­a­tively weak mar­ket­ing cam­paign from Pathé, the film kept strong in the­atres into the au­tumn.

Khouri was mo­men­tar­ily the hottest screen­writer in Hol­ly­wood, and Saran­don and Davis were each nom­i­nated for Best Ac­tress at that year’s Acad­emy Awards. (Likely can­celling out each other’s sup­port, the award ended up go­ing to Jodie Foster for The Si­lence of the Lambs.)

And 1991 was also seen as the year of the fe­male di­rec­tor, with Bar­bra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow, Martha Coolidge, and Jodie Foster all helm­ing their own films. But Khouri’s ca­reer failed to as­cend, even af­ter win­ning an Os­car for her very first screen­play. And Davis starred in a pair of un­der­per­form­ing ac­tion films di­rected by her hus­band and found her ca­reer had mostly evap­o­rated by the late 1990s.

The promised wave of spir­i­tual se­quels to Thelma & Louise never ap­peared. “Af­ter

Thelma & Louise came out, ev­ery­one said, ‘Now we will see a flood of fe­male buddy movies, fe­male road pic­tures, fe­male ac­tion movies,’” ob­served Davis. “But noth­ing changed… It hap­pens over and over, ev­ery two or three years.” There were, in fact, fewer films in the top 50 at the United States box of­fice di­rected by women in 2016 than there had been in 1991.

The early re­views for Won­der Woman are pos­i­tive, and hopes are being raised once more that the bro-zone of su­per­hero films will be­lat­edly in­te­grate. Will fe­male movie­go­ers – and fe­male film­mak­ers – find more of a home in Hol­ly­wood? Off

the Cliff tells us that it takes sig­nif­i­cantly more than suc­cess to open a stub­bornly closed door.

SNAP / REX / Shut­ter­stock

MGM / Pathé / Kobal / REX / Shut­ter­stock

Heroines for a new gen­er­a­tion: Su­san Saran­don and Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise. Since the 1990s, how­ever, there have been piece­meal ad­vances for women in film.

Becky Aik­man Pen­guin, Dh103

Off the Cliff: How the Mak­ing of Thelma & Louise Drove Hol­ly­wood to the Edge

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