This Week in 1991: 'Thelma & Louise' and Madonna Take Charge

Twenty years ago this week (on May 24, 1991) came the wide release of two movies that celebrated strong, assertive women, the likes of which we'd seldom seen on screen before -- or since. The heroines of 'Thelma & Louise' were fictional, while the protagonist of the concert documentary 'Madonna: Truth or Dare' was not, but all three women demonstrated their own ways of standing up against long odds and taking charge in a man's world.

Both movies were epic in scope -- 'Thelma' from the sweeping all-American vistas and mythic sweep of Ridley Scott's direction; 'Truth' from the worldwide footprint of Madonna's 'Blonde Ambition' tour and the extravagant theatricality of her concerts -- yet also strikingly intimate. 'Truth' showed rare glimpses of the private, backstage Madonna as mother hen to her family of dancers, while 'Thelma' presented a portrait of female friendship that has been oft-imitated but never duplicated.

'Thelma' took more than 10 years to make; Scott and screenwriter Callie Khouri spent most of that time considering nearly every A-list actress in Hollywood for one of the two starring roles before casting Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. Khouri envisioned the film as a gritty, documentary-style tale that she would direct herself, with Scott producing. Instead, Scott brought his gift for larger-than-life visuals to the director's chair and made it a fable about two everywomen whose weekend fishing trip takes a violent turn and transforms the pals into outlaws hunted by what looks like the entire patriarchy of the United States, with all their hardware.

The movie was controversial at the time -- were Thelma and Louise feminist heroines to be emulated or violent thugs who were just as bad as (or even worse than) the men who'd done them wrong? Was their final act (apparently patterned on the ending of archetypal male buddy flick 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid') a gesture of suicidal nihilism or triumphant escape?

Whatever you thought of its protagonists, the movie was unforgettable. Months later, it earned a screenwriting Oscar for Khouri and Best Actress nominations for both leads. (They lost to another iconic heroine, Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling in 'The Silence of the Lambs.') Hollywood made some other attempts at female buddy/road movies, though none with the chemistry or provocative premise that made 'Thelma' a hit. Ironically, the film's longest-lasting legacy may be its casting of a small, male supporting role, charming but larcenous hitchhiker J.D., a performance that made an instant star out of an unknown hunk named Brad Pitt.

An unknown young man, 26-year old recent Harvard grad Alek Keshishian (whose senior thesis was a stage production of 'Wuthering Heights' scored to Madonna and Kate Bush music), was the credited director of 'Truth or Dare,' but despite the movie's visual flourishes (the backstage sequences were in black-and-white, while the performances were in color), it was clear that the guiding intelligence behind the project was Madonna herself. She's seen throughout taking control, whether it's the look and sound of her stage show or dealing with the myriad logistical problems of a worldwide tour.

Even the supposedly candid behind-the-scenes sequences seemed as carefully choreographed and deliberately provocative as what concertgoers saw on stage. The distinction between what was real and what was crafted for the camera was a borderline Madonna seemed happy to ignore. The key line in the film came from her then-boyfriend, Warren Beatty, who grumbled, "She doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk... What point is there of existing off-camera?" It's no wonder that an old-school Hollywood star like Beatty, who carefully guarded his privacy, was ultimately incompatible with a contemporary showbiz figure like Madonna, who recognized that her job was to be a star 24/7 and that most of her duties consisted of image control and careful media manipulation. 'Truth or Dare' may have revealed both more and less of the real, private Madonna than anyone expected, but it was absolutely frank about her method.

Like 'Thelma & Louise,' 'Madonna: Truth or Dare' has had few direct imitators, despite a number of backstage concert films that have come out over the last 20 years. Still, it's apparent that at least one star-in-training was watching; indeed, Lady Gaga seems to have taken her entire playbook from 'Truth or Dare.'

This Week in Movie History


1977 (May 25): 'Star Wars' is released. It becomes one of the biggest hit movies ever made, launches a franchise that includes five more live-action movies and countless other spinoffs, changes forever the way Hollywood movies are made and marketed, and leaves a Death Star-sized imprint on all of pop culture.
1989 (May 24): Erotic drama 'sex, lies, and videotape' wins the Palme d'Or, the top prize at Cannes. The film becomes an indie hit that put both writer/director Steven Soderbergh and distributor Miramax on the map.
1998 (May 28): Phil Hartman is shot dead at 49 by his wife, who then turned the gun on herself. The comic actor was best known for his TV work ('Saturday Night Live,' 'The Simpsons'), but he also played deadpan comic roles in numerous movies and was instrumental in the development of Paul Reubens' Pee-wee Herman character, co-starring with Reubens in 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure.'
2004 (May 22): 'Fahrenheit 9/11' wins the Palme d'Or, the first documentary to do so in nearly 50 years. The film, Michael Moore's critique of the Bush administration's response to the 9/11 attacks and its decision to invade Iraq, would go on to gross $119 million in America, becoming the most successful documentary ever made.
2008 (May 26): Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack dies at 73. His 40-year directing career included such landmarks as 'The Way We Were,' 'Tootsie,' and 'Out of Africa.'

This Week in Celebrity Birthdays


It's a good birthday week for witches and wizards. 'Harry Potter' sorceress Helena Bonham Carter turns 45 on May 26, while Ian McKellen was 72 the day before. McKellen's 'Lord of the Rings' foe Christopher Lee turns 89 on May 27. Joseph Fiennes, currently playing Merlin on TV's 'Camelot,' turns 41 the same day.

Stoner comedy icon Tommy Chong lit the candles (we think they were candles) for his 73rd birthday on May 24. Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier celebrates her 62nd on May 26. Iconic drill sergeant/Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr. turns 75 on May 27. Controversial '50s starlet ('Baby Doll')-turned venerable character actress Carroll Baker turns 80 on May 28.

Frank Oz is a comedy director, Muppeteer (he does Miss Piggy and Cookie Monster, among others), and the voice of Yoda; 67 years old he became on May 25. That birthday is shared by Anne Heche (42) and Mike Myers (48).

'Something Borrowed' star Ginnifer Goodwin isn't sharing her 33rd birthday with anyone in Hollywood; she has May 22 all to herself. Sometime movie actor Lenny Kravitz lets cake rule on the 26th, when he turns 47. Child star Jesse Bradford turns 32 on the 28th. John C. Reilly's 46th birthday was May 24.

Going Out? New and Noteworthy This Week

'The Hangover Part II' - Trailer No. 2


'The Hangover Part II' (R)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong
Directed By: Todd Phillips
What's It About? In this sequel to the top-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, there's another bachelor party blackout that the Wolf Pack guys try to piece together the next morning. This time, they wake up in Bangkok instead of Vegas, and with a monkey instead of a baby.
Why Should You See It? Uh, because you liked the first one so much that you want to see the same exact gags in the same order, but in a more exotic city? Because you think Zach Galifianakis can do no wrong? Because you thought the first 'Hangover' didn't have enough penises on display?
You Might Like It If You Like: 'The Hangover,' 'Bridesmaids,' 'Cedar Rapids'

Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews
Unscripted: Interview with the Cast (Video)
The Tattoo Controversy | The Smoking Monkey Controversy

'Kung Fu Panda 2' (PG)

Starring: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Michelle Yeoh
Directed By: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
What's It About? Roly-poly Po (Black) and the other animal warriors of the Furious Five face a new enemy, a megalomaniacal peacock (Oldman) bent on panda genocide. Po also seeks the identity of his real father.
Why Should You See It? Like the original, the film is meant to work as both a kung-fu movie primer for kids that's full of life lessons (though this one deals with much scarier issues) and a treat for adult genre fans, who'll appreciate the gorgeous visuals reminiscent of Zhang Yimou's color-drenched martial arts movies.
You Might Like It If You Like: 'Kung Fu Panda,' 'House of Flying Daggers,' 'Curse of the Golden Flower'

Showtimes & Tickets: 2D | 3D | Trailers & Clips | Reviews
Can 'Kung Fu Panda 2' Get Kids to Eat Tofu?


In Limited Release

'The Tree of Life,' which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this week, stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in a story about the spiritual life of a 1950s family, set against the cosmic backdrop of the history of the universe. It's the most ambitious film yet from visionary director Terence Malick.
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailer | Reviews

Still in Theaters, Still Awesome

'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' - In case you can't get into 'The Tree of Life,' here's a slightly less philosophical movie about the Fountain of Youth. Showtimes & Tickets: 2D | 3D | Digital 3D | IMAX 3D | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

'Midnight in Paris' - The summer has only just started, but Woody Allen's magical tale of nostalgia and romance in the City of Lights already looks like the indie comedy of the summer. Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

'Bridesmaids' - In case you can't get into 'The Hangover Part II,' or if you want to see a similar story but with fewer male genitalia flopping about. Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

Staying In This Weekend?


New on DVD: Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' seems reworkable in just about any context, whether it's New York street gangs or, in the case of 'Gnomeo & Juliet,' warring clans of lawn ornaments. For the kids, this front-yard romance makes a fine Shakespeare primer; for the grown-ups, there's the in-jokes, the stellar visuals and the soundtrack of familiar Elton John hits. Buy or rent the DVD | More new DVD releases

On Our Netflix Queue: Just in time for Memorial Day, 'Platoon' (1986) has come out on Blu-Ray. Twenty-five years after its release, it seems like a memento of a much simpler time. Not the late 1960s, when this Vietnam War saga takes place, but rather the late 1980s, when Charlie Sheen could credibly portray a naive young innocent; when castmates Johnny Depp, John C. McGinley, Kevin Dillon and Forest Whitaker were unknowns; and when Oliver Stone wasn't yet a fringe, conspiracy-theory-loving crank but rather a mainstream artist faithfully recalling the war from his own grunt's-eye perspective. Buy or rent the DVD

On TV: One of the best documentaries ever made, 'Hoop Dreams' (1994) is nothing less than an epic tale of how we live now. This, even though it's also the intimate story of two Chicago teens, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who see basketball as their ticket out of the inner city. Following both boys and their families over the course of four years, director Steve James tells a compelling story of the American dream, as seen from the perspective of people who face impossibly steep odds against making their dreams come true. It's showing Saturday at 7PM on Current, which has recently been showing a number of the most innovative movies of the last 20 years. Check your local listings


Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.