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I haven’t re-watched Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise since it opened in theaters, so I’d forgotten how terrible it is at the beginning. And not just the beginning. Major Plot Turns are so heavily foreshadowed that a better word might be forestomped. Men are so evil — and Thelma’s taste in them so spectacularly bad — that you feel your vagina tightening up to shut that whole thing down. In short, though I’d begun watching with the plan to celebrate Callie Khouri’s script, I quickly started to itch for something to distract me.

But that’s the thing about this film. An great film gets birthed out of the head of a more mediocre film, and it rises like Athena through some great scenes that defy all the logic imposed early on. This isn’t so much a female buddy movie as a makeover movie — a movie about before and after.

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We all remember this great shot: Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) posing for a selfie as they head out. This shot encapsulates the important differences between the two women: Louise’s persnickety neatness (her scarf worn like a snood, her lipstick), Thelma’s propensity to live recklessly (the blue eyeshadow, the impractical sundress).

They’re good friends, but underlying their friendship is all that stuff that makes friendships between women hard. Louise can be disapproving; Thelma can be childish, asking for permission from the stronger characters around her. The film’s first act focuses on the breakdown of this relationship.

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At first it seems as if Thelma’s impetuousness and childishness will be the end of them. It’s bad enough that her cartoonishly boorish husband (Christopher McDonald, above) probably won’t give her permission to go away for the weekend with Louise, so she just runs out, taking along a handgun that she pulls, gingerly, from a bedside drawer. “I’ve had it up to my ass with sedate,” she proclaims from the passenger seat, and the movie waves a Giant Red Flag at us so we know something bad’s gonna happen. 

You can’t help but identify with Louise in these early scenes. When the shit starts to hit the fan, Louise is the one who takes charge, protects her friend, and finds an exit strategy. But we can also see that her solutions mask old traumas. When Thelma is nearly raped by a bubba named Harlan in a roadside honkytonk, Louise uses the gun to rescue her — but when he calls her a bitch, she whips around and nails him in the heart with a bullet, and they run away.

brad-pitt-thelma-louiseThe film’s middle act traces a shift in the women’s relationship after they escape. Thelma still makes spectacularly bad choices — not least of which is hooking up with an adorable if oily grifter/ hitchhiker named J.D. (Brad Pitt) who steals all their money — but she also begins to transform.

There’s a beautiful moment at the film’s midpoint, as a disheveled, traumatized Louise sits in the Thunderbird convertible in a parking lot, waiting for Thelma to return from the convenience store across the street. Everything has gone wrong, and it shows on her face. But then she locks eyes with an older woman inside the restaurant, a woman with a careworn face and a big helmet of hair. The film just allows them to look at each other, sharing an indescribable connection that you can’t help but ascribe to their mutual understanding of the burdens women carry. The scene breaks when Thelma careens out of the store that she’s just robbed — using J.D.’s script for such situations — and the two go roaring back down the road.

ThelmaLouise_151PyxurzThat delicate scene of mutual recognition opens the film’s final act, which encompasses a set of emotions that are difficult to convey neatly. No longer does Louise need to carry Thelma or clean up her messes; their shared outlaw status has transformed their relationship. Even as they race for the Mexican border, their relationship has a new feeling of possibility that mirrors the open sky. I don’t quite know how to explain this mood in the film, except to say that men have been squelching and molding and constraining women for so many centuries that no one, no one, really knows what they might do if they evaded that constraint completely — and the final third of Thelma and Louise reveals one version of what might happen when women free themselves.

How perfect, then, that this part of the film takes place in Monument Valley, and part of it during a quiet night. They coast through the eerie, glowing, open space, hardly speaking.

thelma-louise_36“Something’s crossed over in me,” Thelma says with new self-realization as they coast into the dusk of that beautiful, surreal landscape. “I can’t go back. I mean, I just couldn’t live.”

“I know. I know just what you mean,” Louise responds.

“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake,” Thelma says. Moments like that — perfect filmic moments that combine spare dialogue, scenery, and movement — explain how Callie Khouri’s script earned such praise.

0540806_4804_MC_Tx360How can such a story end? After all this time the ending still feels precarious. On the one hand, the implausibly sympathetic detective (Harvey Keitel) screams at the FBI, “How many times do they have to be fucked over?” — a line that rings as false as it did 20 years ago. On the other hand there’s that kiss, which still feels as radical as it did in 1991. As they sit in the Thunderbird knowing that there are only two (bad) options, and Thelma says, “Let’s keep going,” their kiss becomes a statement of mutual love that has gone beyond the usual worldly confines of sex or friendship.

Ultimately that’s why Thelma and Louise has the reputation it does: not for the ham-fisted opening act, or even for Brad Pitt’s abs while he wields a hair dryer like a pistol, but for the way the film sheds its skin to become something we’ve never seen before.

THELMA AND LOUISEIt’s not worth our time comparing this to other female buddy pictures because this defined one side of the field — it starts out with clichés from the domineering husband to the rape scene to the corny-funny lines (Thelma aiming a gun at a guy: “My husband wasn’t sweet to me, and look how I turned out”), but it transcends them to do something that still confounds description. Even as it gestures to the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it also does something that men’s Westerns never could.

Before and after. Perhaps this is not only the quintessential female buddy picture, but also the greatest makeover movie in history.

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You sit down in the theater. The lights dim a bit while they spool up the previews, and a deep voice comes up over the black screen, as images begin to fade in. “In a world that time forgot, a new figure emerges” (or something like it), the voice intones.

99% of the time the voice is male. Until Lake Bell’s delicious romantic comedy In a World…, most viewers have never considered the the ways that this pattern that we unconsciously accept in movie theaters has ripple effects across gender behavior and expectations in our society. Nor is it just the film previews. Advertising that “counts” — i.e., airlines and cars, not laundry detergent or yogurt — pays its voiceover artists better and is virtually always a male domain.

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The film pivots around the real-life fact that the “in a world…” opener cliché was retired after the death of legendary voiceover artist Don LaFontaine. In fact, the world depicted in In a World… is of the cutthroat competition for voiceover work in Don’s wake. Bell writes, directs, and stars as Carol Solomon, a wannabe voiceover artist who primarily works as a voice and accent coach and whose narcissistic father, Sam (real-life voiceover artist Fred Melamed), openly discourages her — believing he’s telling her the hard truth. “Dad, you’ve made me painfully aware of that my whole life,” she replies. “I’m not being sexist, that’s just the truth,” he pronounces.

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The comedy moves at breakneck pace through a bunch of subplots including Carol’s lovelorn producer (the ever adorable Demetri Martin), who desperately wants to date her; Carol’s sister Dani (Michaela Watkins), whose marriage to Moe (Rob Corddry) is floundering on the rocks of boredom and routine; competition and old-boy networks within the voiceover industry, particularly circulating around a sleazy upcoming voiceover star named Gustav (Dan Marino); and Carol’s ongoing quest to tape the interesting voices and accents she hears in the world around her.

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Indeed, the film moves so briskly and features such an array of favorite comedic actors — including Nick Offerman, Geena Davis, and Jeff Garlin among the many I’ve already listed — that you get a lot more punch per minute than most comedies. Just taking the scenes in which voiceover artists exercise their mouths and tongues, or sit in steam rooms to keep the chords moist gives you a nicely weird and textured view of the lives of these people.

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You should go to this film for the comedy — it’s just a funny, tight film — but you’ll stay for the feminism. The central problem depicted in In a World… is not merely thwarted female ambition or a failed father-daughter relationship, even as both of those problems matter to Carol. Rather, it’s that female voices get stuck in a vicious circle: women never learn to sound authoritative because there are no models for sounding that way. Worse, women learn patterns of speech like uptalk (ending words or sentences on an up-note as if asking questions), silly filler (the surfeit of “likes”), and high-pitched sexy baby voices, all of which detract from what women say, and therefore demean women’s authority overall.

When Carol rolls her eyes at the sexy baby voices, I wanted to kiss her on the lips. It helps that she’s so gorgeous in a normal-woman way — no discernible makeup, no nose job, no caps on her teeth.

_7NK0130.JPGSome critics have accused Bell of “dissing women’s voices” by mocking what women cannot help: that their voices can sometimes be naturally high-pitched. I don’t see it. Bell criticizes nurture, not nature — the cultivated Valley Girl tics, falsely high sexy-baby pitches, and girlie in-talk that women learn strategically or unconsciously as part of socialization. She also indicates, correctly, that these patterns can be unlearned.

IAW-7NK0608Nor is this one of those movies in which the woman realizes her ambition by being better and more hardworking than all the men in sight. Remember G.I. Jane (1997)? Demi Moore showed us there that women can be Navy SEALS, but the plot seemed to indicate that it could only be true if they could actually out-push-up every man in sight.

In a World…, in contrast, doesn’t say that Carol ought to succeed because she’s the best voice out there. Rather, it says something more profound: that we need more female voiceover artists because it will directly and subconsciously change how people think about women.

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I admit, I’m probably more hyper-conscious about people’s voices than most, so may have found this film all the more enjoyable (those who know me will laugh at the understatement here). My mother has a beautiful voice. I’ve written academic pieces about voice. I form unnatural attachments to certain radio or podcast voices and regional accents — Slate’s Dana Stevens, Christiane Amanpour (now with CNN), NPR’s Wade Goodwyn, PBS/NPR’s Charlayne Hunter-Gault, singer Steve Earle, and many others.

And on a personal note, can I just say that simply in casting Demetri Martin as the smitten producer, In a World… has given me a gift? Because there’s something about his sweet goofiness, helmet of hair, and fantastic schnozz that says LOVE INTEREST to me.

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So what’s not to like? This is basically Feminéma’s wet dream of a film: a female-directed, female-written, feminist film about voice that stars a gorgeous but not cookie-cutter actor with a real-looking nose — AND Demetri Martin is chasing her. Maybe I need to see it again. You should see it too, even if you just like breezy rom-coms. And then tell me what you think.

Now that it’s 20 years old, we can see that Thelma and Louise (1991) was greater than the sum of its parts. No matter what kind of criticim it received on initial release, it has since attained a canonic position in film — it implies something more radical about women than it ever says explicitly — something more unsettling about female friendship and love, about men’s treatment of women, and about what women can do for recourse. 

Melissa Silverstein asks today, “Why didn’t we build on Thelma and Louise?  It feels like we have spent the 20 years since losing power for women onscreen.” One begins to suspect that keeping a blog on the topic isn’t much help. And yet this is the eve of my one-year anniversary as Feminéma, so it’s incumbent on me to say, dudes, watch out.

A note: I saw this film 20 years ago while on a road trip through western Massachusetts with my college friend Nan. I don’t know about you, Nan, but don’t we need a reunion trip/repeat viewing?