Thelma & Louise

Why the alternate ending would have ruined the film.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Thelma & Louise

I remember seeing Thelma & Louise—just reissued by MGM in a 20th-anniversary Blu-Ray edition —with my mother upon its release in 1991. I must have been home on break from graduate school. I know we enjoyed it, though we stopped somewhere short of full-on love. And of course we argued about the ending, though I can’t remember who took what side. What I do recall is that in 1991, Thelma & Louise was a movie you had to see; for months after its release that summer, the film was the subject of op-ed-page debates and chat-show controversy. Like Do The Right Thing in 1989 or Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, Ridley Scott’s two-girls-on-the-run road movie was 1991’s de rigueur conversation piece.

Two decades later, Thelma & Louise persists in the popular imagination as an epochal and groundbreaking film, one for which there is a “before” and an “after.” No roundup of movies about female empowerment (empowerment! How’s that for a hit of 90s nostalgia?) would be complete without it. But has Thelma & Louise lasted as anything more than a feminist benchmark? Is it a feminist benchmark? And is it any good?

One thing I can attest upon re-watching is that Thelma & Louise is still loads of fun. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are vibrant and funny and gorgeous as the Arkansas housewife and waitress whose weekend getaway turns into an interstate crime spree. Brad Pitt, as the sexy hitchhiker who seduces and then robs the gullible Thelma (Davis), still occasions a sharp intake of breath and a who the hell is that? Louise’s green 1966 Thunderbird convertible looks fantastic against the bright red rock formations of the Southwestern desert, especially in the saturated Blu-Ray format.

And there are many satisfying details that I don’t remember having noticed the first time around: Louise’s heartbreakingly stonefaced reaction to the engagement ring her boyfriend, Jimmy, (an unexpectedly gentle Michael Madsen) gives her at the hotel in Oklahoma City. The way the two women’s wardrobes morph and overlap throughout the film, until by the end Louise is wearing a neckerchief repurposed from the torn-off sleeves of Thelma’s shirt. Hans Zimmer’s slide-guitar opening theme, which somehow evokes both the wide-open Southwestern landscape and a sense of looming claustrophobic menace. As a piece of high Hollywood craftsmanship—a machine for eliciting real emotions from unreal circumstances—Thelma & Louise is just about flawless.

But Thelma & Louise also looks profoundly weird now in ways it didn’t in 1991. This isn’t a criticism, exactly, but what most struck me most upon re-watching was the extent to which Thelma & Louise now reads as a document of another, long-lost time. The common criticism upon its release that the male characters were clownish, one-dimensional villains isn’t entirely false—though the Madsen character is one obvious exception, and other men in the film, including Pitt’s hitchhiker and Harvey Keitel’s Arkansas cop, come across as likeable if not complex. But seeing the movie now, you’re keenly aware how irrelevant that complaint about the movie was. Calling for a more emotionally layered portrait of Thelma’s boorish husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) would be like putting the white cops in a blaxploitation movie through racial-sensitivity training. Thelma & Louise isn’t a realistic drama about the state of male-female relations in Arkansas in 1991. It’s a fiercely funny pop manifesto, less a political than a cinematic one.

So much of the pleasure during the course of this vigilante fantasy comes from the movies we’re always aware we’re not watching: Not Bonnie and Clyde, not Gun Crazy, not Badlands, not any of the countless road movies in which two heterosexual outlaws go down together in a blaze of romantic glory. Thelma & Louise knowingly combines the nihilist energy of that genre with the feel-good glow of then-emerging Oprah culture. It makes us believe in its heroines’ poor decision-making process as a blow for personal liberation.

Spoiler alert here, since you can’t really talk about Thelma & Louise without talking about the ending: When the girls drive off the edge of the Grand Canyon in the final shot, I don’t think the screenwriter, Callie Khouri, is trying to suggest that women are so boxed in by oppression that their only option is suicide (another common objection on the 1991 pundit circuit). All I sense, from the writer, director, and actors alike, is the joy of allowing themselves to, in Thelma’s words to Louise at that moment, “keep on going,” to make the movie they wanted to make. As these two women we’ve come to love hurtle to their certain deaths, we experience something not unlike the thrill that comes with the final freeze-frame of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. But Thelma and Louise’s last moment leaves a sadder aftertaste somehow. It’s an ending that seems inevitable (and watching the film a second time I was astonished how early on the women’s fate was foreshadowed), but all these years later, it’s still hard to watch that car go over the cliff.

Other endings were discussed—including one in which Louise would push Thelma out of the car just in time, saving her friend’s life before sailing over the cliff herself. But in the end, Khouri convinced Scott to keep the ending she’d originally written. In a delightfully dishy commentary track featuring Sarandon, Davis, and Khouri—by far the best extra on this edition, and well worth listening to all the way through—Sarandon talks about how the final scene was the very last one to be filmed, so that the highly charged goodbye between Thelma and Louise also served as a goodbye for the two actresses, who’d grown close over the shoot. “It was perfect,” says Davis, remembering how the sun set over the canyon just after their second take, marking the end of the production. And there is something perfect about the frozen midair arc of that Thunderbird convertible. It’s an ending that’s perfect in its very irresolution, the vehicle of the heroines’ deliverance and doom caught at the very moment it goes from flying to falling.

Ridley Scott shot an alternate, longer ending, which is also included as an extra in this edition. In it, we witness the continued trajectory of Louise’s airborne car. A second shot from above tracks the car as it begins its descent, wobbling sickeningly as it hurtles into the void. As the state troopers gathered at the canyon’s edge realize what’s happened, the Harvey Keitel character approaches the lip of the canyon and looks over the edge, presumably at the mangled wreckage of the Thunderbird. He picks up the Polaroid photograph that blew out of the car—the one Thelma and Louise took of themselves as they set out, lipsticked and denim-jacketed, for their weekend jaunt—and gazes at it while a helicopter descends into the canyon.

This alternate ending adds perhaps 25 seconds to the movie’s running time, but it changes it profoundly. Ending with the horrified Keitel at cliff’s edge would have made Thelma & Louise into a head-shaking reflection on the terrible fate society visits on women. (In a ham-fisted line just before the final shot, the Keitel character laments to Stephen Tobolowsky’s FBI agent, “How many times are these women going to be fucked over?”) Choosing to end instead with the heroines’ shining-eyed farewell, followed by the freeze-frame of that eternally buoyant car, allows Thelma & Louise to dwell forever at that odd moment in movie history when women won the right to be just as crazy as men.

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