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'Thelma & Louise' lets women rebel

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Women all over the country are going to see "Thelma and Louise" with a rare enthusiasm, despite Hollywood's conventional wisdom that men make most of the moviegoing decisions. To understand how they're connecting with the movie, look at an afternoon screening in a theater like the 900 N. Michigan complex. The largely female crowd isn't made up of teenagers, but more mature generations - married women, professionals, older women, visitors to the city. They love this movie. They cheer it, they get teary-eyed, and they bring their friends to see it.

In "Thelma and Louise," maybe they're getting the same kind of charge that men got more than 20 years ago, with "Easy Rider" or "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." This at last is a female version of the genres that defined the late '60s: the road movie, the buddy picture, the outlaw against society. Was there an unwritten law that only men could star in those formulas? Not according to "Thelma and Louise."

When I saw the movie, about seven weeks ago, I reacted to it strongly. It had the kind of passion and energy I remembered from the rebel movies of the late '60s and early '70s. My only major criticism of the film was the complaint of someone who really loved it: I thought the very last shot, the freeze-frame and fade-out of their T-Bird in the air, should have been held longer, so that its meaning could sink in and provide a more complete catharsis. The movie fades out with unseemly haste, and then cuts immediately to music, flashbacks and the end credits, all to distract us from what modern Hollywood dreads the most, an unhappy ending.

The people in the audience don't think of that ending as unhappy, and of course, it isn't. It's a victory for Thelma and Louise, an existential shout of defiance. Their final act is directed not only at pigs like that truck driver who wriggles his tongue at them, but even at paternalistic do-gooders like the cop who wants to save them. They are shouting into the maw of the universe that men are no longer going to make their decisions for them.

Some critics have found "Thelma and Louise" dated, a throwback to the '60s. I don't think it's dated, I think it's simply overdue. The anti-establishment films of the 1966-76 period were typically about men who told society to go to hell. Along the way, sometimes, a few women were allowed into the stories, mostly to provide the heroes with carnal relief, sympathy and admiration. Does anybody remember the women in "Easy Rider"? What was the importance, exactly, of Katharine Ross in "Butch Cassidy"?

The '60s are long over now. But, hold on - did they ever occur for women? Who, exactly, was liberating during that liberating decade? Judging by the women of all ages who relate so strongly to "Thelma and Louise," there is still a real hunger for all of the basic elements of those classic movies of rebellion against society, but translated this time into women's terms. The original screenplay by Callie Khouri was written in response, she says, to countless movies in which men were the free agents and women were decorations or sidekicks. It was time for the women to get the last word, for a change.

Consider what happens in "Thelma and Louise." A drunken would-be rapist gets blown away. A slimebag truck driver, who harasses the heroines with his obscene side show, gets his truck blown to smithereens. A husband who is smugly indifferent to the needs and voice of his wife finds out he has no idea who he was married to. A lot of cops get outsmarted and made into fools. And the women get the last word.

One critic complained sanctimoniously that if there was a movie where men did to women what "Thelma and Louise" do to men, there'd be protests of outrage. Excuse me? Men have been making victims out of women in hundreds of movies for years. It's an old story in our society: Oppressive behavior is permitted from the oppressor class, but becomes offensive if practiced by the formerly oppressed. Besides, "Thelma and Louise" isn't a realistic portrait of behavior, anyway; it's a parable. You can tell that by the spare, empty landscape the women drive through, by the visceral American symbolism of their T-Bird convertible, and by the gallery of male stereotypes they encounter on the road.

One of the most mysteriously beautiful scenes in the entire film, for me, is the one where Susan Sarandon encounters an old, old man with a deeply weather-lined face, who gazes out impassively to the landscape. She hunkers down next to him for a long time, just looking at him. He does not seem to notice. Finally, she gives him all of her jewelry in return for his hat. What's going on here? What does this trade represent? The way I see it, she is gazing with consuming curiosity at a man who has been a man for a long time, and wondering what made him that way, and why. He is as alien to her, staring out into the distance, as the statues on Easter Island are to us, and seems to have been gazing at the horizon nearly as long. She gives away her jewels - traditional men's presents to women - in return for his hat, a traditional man's present to himself, as if to put on his knowledge.

All of the men in this movie are equally inscrutable to the women. Freud is said to have asked, "Woman! What does she want? Great God almighty, what does she want?" To which "Thelma and Louise" would seem to reply, "Man! We know what he wants. But, great God almighty, is that all he wants? Isn't there any more to him than that?"

Geena Davis' big scene in the movie is one in which she discovers that, for some men, there really isn't any more than that. After the two women are on the road, she meets a young stud, an attractive outlaw who satisfies her sexually for the first time in her life. She walks around moony-faced for a scene or two, delighted by what she has discovered about her body, only to find out that a man can give that kind of pleasure and still not give a damn. That trust is a gift easily given by women, and easily abused by men.

In rebel movies of this nature - especially the groundbreaking ones - audiences shout with delight because they see taboos being broken, words said aloud for the first time, forbidden thoughts finally expressed. Peter Fonda flips the bird to the redneck in "Easy Rider," and Jack Nicholson tells the waitress exactly how he wants his toast in "Five Easy Pieces," and the audience cheers because its frustrations are being released. But today's women are still frustrated, and movies have not been a release for them.

The feminist revolution has taken place too largely in whining books and magazine articles and encounter groups, in attenuated novels of complaint and sad dirges by masochistic folk singers. It hasn't benefitted from the kind of release that a good popular movie can provide, when society is taken by the throat and shaken. It is not enough for a female character to negotiate a moral victory, as she usually does in movies with a feminist angle. Women audiences are hungry for female characters who get away with something, like the guys always seem to. When that gasoline tanker goes up in flames, it's vengeance, but it's also outlaw behavior that women characters rarely get away with in the movies.

Women don't want to see men killed meaninglessly, as so many men seem to enjoy seeing random violence in "their" movies, but they do want to see revenge, when it's deserved. And "Thelma and Louise" is a revenge tragedy wrapped in humor, discovery and rebellion. There have been a lot of movies in which women acted "like" men, but usually the characters seemed like men in drag - Shelley Winters with a cigar and a machinegun, or Angie Dickinson as a cop. In "Thelma and Louise," we are seeing actual everyday women - a housewife and a waitress - taste the heady freedoms that the movies usually reserve for Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson or Robert Redford.

The film was directed by Ridley Scott. Surprise has been expressed within the movie business that Scott could make a movie about people. He's supposed to be a special-effects expert. But look at his "Blade Runner" and you will see some of the same sensibility expressed here. That movie contained a creature played by Sean Young, called a "replicant," who looked and moved and felt and talked like a real woman, but was a robot. Except . . . she felt she had a right to be alive, to be treated like a real human being. "Thelma and Louise'' is about the liberation of two replicants.

Not long ago, I found myself discussing "Thelma and Louise" on the Oprah Winfrey program. "It's a female buddy movie," I said, meaning that as praise. "It isn't, either," a woman in the audience replied. "It's about sisterhood!" She got a rousing burst of applause. I wanted to ask her what the difference was between buddyhood and sisterhood, and then I realized something: That was the whole point.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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