Why the golden era for women in film is yet to come

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.

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. MGM / Pathé / Kobal / REX / Shutterstock
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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-all-trades 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 up-and-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 guns-and-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.

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The Review.