Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Shoulda Coulda Wouldas #3: "Thelma & Louise"

This is quite possibly the mother of all "shoulda coulda wouldas."  For me at least.  This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the first time I saw this film (21st of its release), and Thelma & Louise quickly became very memorable.  In the summer of '92 my sister had a friend over for a sleepover and they rented Lord of the Flies and Thelma & Louise, both on VHS of course.  The selections in retrospect surprise me because we were all under the age of 15 and I feel like my parents would've squelched the idea of anything rated R.  Regardless, I watched Lord of the Flies with them, after which they popped in the second film and swiftly proceeded to fall asleep.  I had no trouble staying wide awake.

I felt easily drawn in by the film's southern setting. Having grown up in a fairly rural area, I spent a lot of time on my grandparents'/uncle's farm, and always associated my upbringing with the country, which made (and makes) Thelma & Louise particularly nostalgic. We follow these two ladies on a journey across the south, on the run after Louise shoots and kills a man who was attempting to rape Thelma in the parking lot of a (Country-Western) night club. Despite the anxiety I felt about how much trouble they were in, the angst turned into almost a sense of relief as the two eventually set their minds to eluding police and making it across the border into Mexico and apparent safety. This film may very well have been the impetus for my ongoing affinity for strong women.

 The film seemed really long at the time, but in a good way.  It's only a little over two hours in length, but the scope and cinematography of the film, its engaging score, the landscape it traversed, and the emotional transitions the two lead characters went through made it feel like a journey for me too, all the way up to their historic plunge into the belly of the Grand Canyon. Seeing Brad Pitt for the first time on screen half naked probably didn't do much to deter my interest either.

So how does Meryl fit into all of this?  Meryl and Goldie Hawn had been interested in doing a movie together for a while. The script, which won Callie Khouri an Academy Award, had been floating around Hollywood for a few years, with plans that Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer would be cast.  There's a great online article from Vanity Fair for the 20th anniversary of the film's release in which it's revealed that Meryl and Goldie asked for a meeting with the production company and evidently loved the script and the characters.   Meryl however thought that one of the ladies should live (always putting in her two cents).

Director Ridley Scott is quoted as saying that he had a long conversation with Meryl and found her "absolutely wonderful," but that she had a "movie conflict."  Okay, the only film released in 1991 that included Meryl was the lightweight romantic comedy Defending Your Life.  I have to wonder if in hindsight Meryl would've reconsidered.   I mean, Buddha bless Albert Brooks, but have you seen that film?  Um, yeah.  The film that ultimately combined the talents of Meryl and Goldie was 1992's Death Becomes Her.  That film had its fans, but certainly not of the magnitude of Thelma & Louise, which garnered lead actress Oscar nominations for both Davis and Sarandon.  Both eventually lost out to Jodi Foster in The Silence of the Lambs (possibly my all-time favorite film).  Click on this link to take a look at the two ladies in action (I again apologize that I was unable to find a clip with the stupid embed enabled).

What's interesting is that in the Vanity Fair article, Ridley Scott states that Meryl would've played Louise.  In other articles I've read, Meryl was considered for either part.  It was hard for me to picture her in the role of Thelma until I recently watched the film with the director's commentary (only mildly embarrassed to admit that).  Scott reminds us of the role reversal that takes place about midway through the film.  Specifically when J.D. (Pitt) steals their money, we see Louise have a breakdown and Thelma sort of take on the role of mother, a place Louise had seemed to firmly establish in the first half.  It would've been fun to see Meryl negotiate that transition in either role. 

Despite my adoration of Miss Meryl and the weird tendency I have to dwell on "what could've been" for her roles,  Thelma & Louise is kind of like sacred ground for me when it comes to movies.  I've no doubt Meryl would've been amazing, and given the chance to see a version of the film including her I would accept in a heartbeat.  But the excellence of the film, its original performances and the nostalgic qualities it holds for me maintain it as one of my absolute faves.  And does anyone else totally get the urge to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes while watching this film?  Christ, it's worse than All About Eve.

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