Road trip movies come and go. In fact, they’re almost wired into the American psyche, with the freedom of the open road recalling the founding American myth of pushing the frontier west. It’s rare, however, that women are placed front-and-centre in these movies.
For that reason, 1991’s buddy movie-thriller Thelma & Louise remains an iconic film. It was a box office hit (grossing $45.4 million from a budget of $16.5 million) and a critical success, having been helmed by none other than Alien and Blade Runner director Ridley Scott.
We’re taking a look back at this 1991 classic with some facts you may not have known – but be warned if you haven’t seen the movie before, because there are major spoilers ahead.
20. It could have starred Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer OR Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn
Once heat gathered around the script for Thelma & Louise, there was no shortage of interest from big-name stars. In the early days, when screenwriter Callie Khouri intended to direct the film herself on a low budget, she had Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand in mind.
Once Ridley Scott came on board (initially as producer), the title roles were set to be taken by Jodie Foster (fresh from her Oscar win for The Accused) and Michelle Pfeiffer.
However, there were delays getting the production off the ground, and Foster wound up moving on to The Silence of the Lambs.
After this, another big name duo were poised to play Thelma & Louise: Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn.
Streep would also leave the project due to scheduling conflicts, while Hawn was ultimately deemed the wrong actor for her role. (The actresses would instead unite in Death Becomes Her.)
This paved the way for the film’s eventual stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis to take over.
19. Michelle Pfeiffer convinced Ridley Scott to direct it
Screenwriter Callie Khouri and producer Amanda Temple originally intended to make Thelma & Louise themselves as an independent film on a low budget.
Things changed dramatically when they got interest from major Hollywood filmmaker Ridley Scott (best known for Alien and Blade Runner).
However, Scott originally intended simply to produce the film, and spent some time trying to find a suitable director.
Richard Donner, Kevin Reynolds and Bob Rafelson were among those who were offered the director’s chair, but they all turned it down.
As a director, Ridley Scott hadn’t had a hit movie for some time, yet he wasn’t convinced he was right to make Thelma & Louise – until Michelle Pfeiffer persuaded him otherwise.
The actress, who was poised to play Louise at the time, asked the filmmaker during the audition process, “Why don’t you come to your senses and direct this yourself?”
18. Geena Davis insisted then-unknown Brad Pitt be cast as JD
When Thelma & Louise hit screens, Brad Pitt had been working for several years doing bit parts but hadn’t yet had his big break.
For this reason, he was not the top choice for the role of JD, which was originally given to William Baldwin.
However, when Baldwin dropped out of the project due to production delays, Pitt had his shot.
Geena Davis herself was present at the auditions for the new JD, and when the producers and Scott were pondering which actor to cast, Davis flatly interjected, “the blond one. Duh!’”
Pitt was only paid $6,000 for his role in the film – but this was a significant payday for the actor, who, at the time he was cast, had been making ends meet by dressing as a giant chicken for Mexican restaurant El Pollo Loco.
Thelma & Louise turned out to be a huge breakthrough for Pitt, making him one of the most in-demand actors and widely admired hunks of the 90s.
17. Brad Pitt got ‘over-excited’ shooting his love scene with Geena Davis
A key scene comes when Geena Davis’ Thelma and Brad Pitt’s J.D. get – ahem – better acquainted.
Initially, Davis had been wary of shooting the more intimate moments herself, and body doubles were considered.
Scott says that after Davis saw a “queue of Playboy bunnies coming out of my trailer for two hours,” the actress finally decided to perform the scene herself.
However, as it turned out afterwards it wasn’t Davis but Pitt who had a little more difficulty shooting the scene.
As both actors have discussed numerous times, whilst shooting with Davis sat in his lap, Pitt struggled to restrain – how should we put this – a natural male physical response to that scenario.
Suffice to say, those critics who’ve suggested there was something a bit wooden about Pitt’s performance might not be too far off the mark…
16. Geena Davis spent over a year campaigning for her role
By the time Thelma & Louise was in development, Geena Davis was a major figure in Hollywood.
After breaking through with a bit part in Tootsie, Davis wound up winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Accidental Tourist.
Despite this, Davis was not at the top of the wishlist for Thelma & Louise – but she wasn’t taking that lying down.
Davis recalls she was so determined to be in the film, “I had my agent call Ridley every week for almost a year.”
The actress says, “I just knew I wanted to play one of those parts—I didn’t much care which one. I was always attracted to characters who are in charge of their own fate.”
Finally, once Ridley Scott decided to direct the film, he agreed to consider Davis, although which part she would play was still up in the air.
15. Geena Davis originally wanted to play Louise
While Geena Davis came to Thelma & Louise happy to play either of the leads, her acting coach advised her to pursue the role of Louise.
Davis says when she first met with Ridley Scott, she “had an hour’s worth of notes on why I should play Louise, and I brought them to the meeting.”
“I launched into a passionate monologue,” Davis continues, “and at the end of this long discussion Ridley says, ‘So-o-o, you wouldn’t play Thelma?’”
Davis was open to playing Thelma, but still had her heart set on Louise – until she found out she’d be acting opposite Susan Sarandon.
Davis admits, “pretty much the second Susan walked in the room, I was, Are you kidding that I could play Louise?”
Davis recognised that Sarandon – ten years her senior, with more extensive acting experience – was “so self-possessed, so centered and together,” as Louise needed to be.
14. Ridley Scott convinced Harvey Keitel to be in the film by telling him to “stop f***ing about”
Thelma & Louise marked the second time that director Ridley Scott had worked with the esteemed actor Harvey Keitel.
Scott had cast Keitel against type as a French swordsman his debut film The Duellists, and sought to push the actor out of his comfort zone again in Thelma & Louise.
The role of Detective Hal Slocumb, the cop who’s on the tail of the two women but is sympathetic towards them, was a nicer guy than Keitel usually played.
Scott says that, for this reason, Keitel was hesitant to take the role: “I said, ‘Come on, you get to play a good guy for a change.’”
The director recalls, “Harvey said, ‘Arrgh.’ I said, ‘Stop f***ing about. Do it.’ He said, ‘O.K.’”
Thelma & Louise also features a supporting turn from Michael Madsen, who would appear alongside Keitel the following year in Reservoir Dogs.
13. Scott shot an alternate ending where the car hit the ground
We guess it’s a bit late to say ‘spoiler warning’ – but then, Thelma & Louise is one of those movies like Casablanca or Gone with the Wind: its final scene is its most iconic.
The iconic conclusion sees Sarandon and Davis, with no escape from the law in sight, reach the end of the road.
Rather than give themselves up, the friends clasp hands and drive into the Grand Canyon, falling to their deaths.
In the released version, the film freezes with the car in mid-air, leaving the inevitable explosive climax in the viewer’s imagination.
However, it has been revealed that a different version of the ending was shot in which the car was shown falling, to the sounds of BB King’s Better Not Look Down.
12. The producers considered letting Thelma live at the end
As we’ve mentioned already, probably the most famous moment in Thelma & Louise is its conclusion.
In a poignant twist on the classic ‘ride into the sunset’ ending, the movie ends with our heroines driving into the Grand Canyon to their death.
This ending sparked much debate among audiences and critics on release, prompting some complaints that it was too downbeat.
This was something that the filmmakers had also been concerned about from the beginning, and they had considered letting Geena Davis’ Thelma survive.
Susan Sarandon recalls being told by Ridley Scott early on, “I can tell you that you will definitely die. But I’m not sure about Thelma. You may push her out of the car at the last minute.”
However, neither actress felt that would have been appropriate: Davis jokingly protested, “I earned the right to die!”
11. The film has been called “the last great film about women”
Thelma & Louise has proved to be a big influence on other films, and is considered to be a major turning point for feminism in Hollywood.
Screenwriter Callie Khouri has stated that the film’s heavily female-oriented storytelling was a reaction against the climate she worked in on music videos.
Khouri had worked on promos for bands like Mötley Crue and Foreigner, in which women were used primarily as window dressing.
Because of this, the screenwriter was determined to write a film which spoke to, and from, a distinctly female perspective.
This meant that the film caused no shortage of controversy on release, with many conservative critics accusing it of ‘misandry.’
However, Thelma & Louise garnered equal praise for its feminism amongst other critics; in 2011 The Atlantic declared it “the last great film about women.”
10. Geena Davis thinks the film “didn’t do s***” to fight Hollywood’s sexism
Thelma & Louise hit screens way back in 1991, more than a quarter of a century before the Me Too movement started making headlines.
The film’s pro-women stance (considered anti-men by some critics) was considered a bold leap forward in the male-dominated entertainment industry.
However, reflecting on the film’s impact on its 25th anniversary, Geena Davis admitted Thelma & Louise, furor or no, didn’t really change the Hollywood status quo.
Davis told Harper’s Bazaar, “One very common theme in the press [in 1991] was, ‘This changes everything’… and it didn’t. The really short answer is, it didn’t do s***.”
“We’ve been stuck in this world where Hollywood operates under the assumption that women will watch men, but men won’t watch women. We never get any momentum because everything’s a one-off.”
Still, both Davis and Sarandon expressed admiration for the new generation of actresses pushing for greater gender equality today.
9. Not everyone agrees it’s a feminist movie – including Susan Sarandon
Thelma & Louise may have been widely declared a feminist movie as soon as it hit screens, but not everyone agrees.
Actress Susan Sarandon says, “I really didn’t think it would have the kind of resonance it had.”
“We thought it was fun, and we were cast in the kinds of roles usually played by guys. It wasn’t seen [by the filmmakers] as any feminist statement.”
Some critics also felt it was inaccurate to call the film feminist. Critic Sheila Benson argued this wasn’t the case, saying the film was too preoccupied with revenge and anti-male violence.
Kyle Smith of the New York Post had a very different interpretation, arguing Thelma & Louise is misogynistic, and that its lead characters are “unbelievably ditzy.”
Many feminist critics questioned the film’s conclusion, feeling that killing off the title characters would be deemed punishment for their female empowerment.
8. The Rasta cyclist was hired after Ridley Scott drove past him on the road during production
One memorably funny moment in Thelma & Louise comes shortly after the title characters have left a cop locked in the trunk of his own police car.
When a Rastafarian (Noel L. Walcott III) comes by on his bicycle, the cop calls out asking for assistance.
Instead, the cyclist blows smoke from his rather large cigarette (hint: it’s probably not tobacco) into the bullet holes in the trunk.
This amusing scene was not originally in the shooting script for Thelma & Louise.
As written, the scene would have seen the trapped cop finally manage to free himself once night had fallen.
Ridley Scott came up with the new scene himself, when he was driving and passed Walcott, who was indeed riding a bike at the time.
Such spur-of-the-moment changes are a rarity for Scott, who usually insists on “having the script completely nailed down before shooting.”
7. There was talk of a sequel
As we’ve established, Thelma & Louise is one of those movies whose conclusion would seem to preclude any possibility of a sequel.
However, any time a film captures the zeitgeist as powerfully as Thelma & Louise did, there’s always an appetite for more.
As hard as it is to imagine now, there was talk early on of getting the cast and crew back for what would have been a strange follow-up film.
Susan Sarandon recalls, “They had kind of knocked around ideas for a sequel for Thelma & Louise, but they were so ridiculous.”
“I remember saying, ‘What would we do?’ And they said, ‘You’d collect a big cheque!'”
Although this never happened, director Ridley Scott has long been reported to be working on a sequel to Gladiator – another of his films with a rather definite conclusion.
6. The film’s ‘Grand Canyon’ is actually in Utah
On top of being a celebrated feminist film, Thelma & Louise is also remembered as one of the great American road trip movies.
The film follows the protagonists of the title as they drive across several states in an open-top convertible.
Starting off in Arkansas, our heroines make their way through Oklahoma and eventually into Arizona.
Arizona is, of course, home to one of America’s most famous destinations, the Grand Canyon, which is the setting for the film’s iconic ending.
However, all of Thelma & Louise’s Grand Canyon scenes were in fact shot in Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah.
Aside from those climactic scenes, the rest of the film’s shooting locations were all in California.
5. It was screenwriter Callie Khouri’s first ever script
The popular impact of Thelma & Louise made debutante screenwriter Callie Khouri seem like the definition of an overnight success.
Of course, there’s always a lot more to the story than that, and Khouri had in fact been working her way up through the film industry for some time.
After initially setting out to become an actress, she moved behind the camera in the mid-80s to work as a production assistant.
While Khouri was in this job (which mostly consisted of producing music videos), she wrote the Thelma & Louise screenplay in her spare time.
Khouri described her time writing Thelma & Louise as “the most fun I had ever had in my life, bar none,” and once she sold the script her screenwriting career was underway.
Khouri later wrote Something to Talk About and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (which was also her directorial debut), and created TV series Nashville.
4. The script is partly based on Khouri’s friendship with country singer Pam Tillis
Screenwriter Callie Khouri largely based the relationship of Thelma & Louise’s title characters on that of herself and her close friend Pam Tillis.
The two women met when they were both in their 20s; Khouri was a waitress at the time, whilst Tillis was a struggling singer at a bar.
Both women went on to big things professionally, with Tillis becoming a successful country music artist.
Khouri’s core concept for Thelma & Louise was largely born of a real-life experience she shared with Tillis: when the women were mugged in the street.
Tillis recalls, “I was the levelheaded one… Callie was hanging on to her purse, because she’d been working her a** off for every red nickel. I had to yell, ‘Callie! Quit your dogheadedness! Let! It! Go!’”
Reflecting on the incident later, Khouri realised, “If I’d had a gun, I’d have killed them.” This, of course, is very much how Thelma & Louise’s misadventures begin.
3. Sarandon and Davis were both nominated for the Best Actress Oscar
Thelma & Louise was so well-received it wound up being nominated in six categories at the Academy Awards.
This included a Best Director nod for Ridley Scott, and Best Actress nominations for both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. This marked only the fifth time in history that two co-stars in the same movie were nominated for Best Actress – and, at the time of writing, the last time.
Ultimately, The Silence of the Lambs beat Thelma & Louise to both Oscars, with Jonathan Demme taking Best Director and Jodie Foster being named Best Actress. Of the five ‘double nominations’ for Best Actress, only one ended up winning (that being Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment, beating her co-star Debra Winger).
However, Thelma & Louise did win one of the big awards of the night: the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.
This made Callie Khouri only the ninth woman to win this award, and one of the few to be awarded it for their first script.
In her acceptance speech, Khouri declared, “for everybody that wanted to see a happy ending for Thelma and Louise, this is it.”
2. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon had to take driving and shooting lessons to prepare for the film
Even if you haven’t seen Thelma & Louise, you know the film involves a lot of driving and a lot of shooting.
Because of this, it was of course important for its lead actresses to know what they were doing in both departments.
As a result, once Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were brought on to film, they undertook driving and shooting lessons while the rest of the cast was assembled.
Sarandon has since described these lessons as “very serious,” which, given that they involved dangerous driving and firearms, you’d certainly hope would be the case!
As is probably to be expected, all that time spent enacting dangerous acts on camera took a toll on the stars.
Sarandon remarked afterwards, “I got so sick of that car—it took me weeks to stop driving like a maniac.”
1. The film inspired the Tori Amos song Me and a Gun
Thelma & Louise is very frank in its presentation of violence against women, as the attempted rape of Louise sets the main plot in motion.
The film resonated with women who have had to live through such ordeals, including singer Tori Amos.
Amos had been assaulted at knifepoint aged 21, and watching Thelma & Louise inspired her to talk about this in her music.
This became the basis of her 1991 song Me and a Gun, featured on her debut album Little Earthquakes.
Amos said of the experience, “I was psychologically mutilated that night and that now I’m trying to put the pieces back together again. Through love, not hatred.”
The singer went on to become the first national spokesperson for RAINN, a toll-free helpline for victims of sexual abuse.
Little Earthquakes was a big success for Amos, who has gone to record a further 14 albums in the years since.