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The debut of ''Thelma and Louise''

Six years ago, controversy erupted when the Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis film made heroes of a pair of unladylike women

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It seemed a pretty harmless premise — two beautiful women in a 1966 Thunderbird convertible take off down an endless expanse of American highway. But a dash of gunplay and a dose of defiance made the mixture inflammable, and when the distaff buddy movie Thelma & Louise roared into theaters on May 24, 1991, it sparked an explosion of debate between the sexes.

Millions of women seemed uplifted by Ridley Scott’s film, in which Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) hit the road to take a break from the tedious men in their lives. After being leered at, swindled, and assaulted, they shoot a would-be rapist, resort to armed (but very polite) robbery, and outwit the police.

Some critics condemned the movie, labeling it ”explicitly fascist…toxic” (U.S. News & World Report), ”a betrayal of feminism” (Los Angeles Times), and ”degrading to men” (New York’s Daily News). Time magazine’s cover story on the uproar noted that Thelma & Louise unwittingly ”tapped into a wild-rushing subterranean stream of inchoate rage and deranged violence.” Indeed, much of the censure centered on a perceived excess of violence in the film, although only the rapist gets hurt.

Thelma & Louise‘s filmmakers and stars countered that the real source of the outrage was the fact that the violence was directed at men. Sarandon said that the controversy showed ”what a straight, white male world movies occupy. This kind of scrutiny didn’t happen with that Schwarzenegger thing [1990’s Total Recall] where he shoots a woman in the head and says ‘Consider that a divorce!”’

All the brouhaha helped Thelma & Louise gross $43 million. Sarandon later won a 1995 Best Actress Oscar for her role as a pacifist, forgiving nun in Dead Man Walking, while Davis went to the other extreme as an invincible assassin in 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight. One thing they all learned from the experience, muses T&L screenwriter Callie Khouri today, was that ”a lot of people are very sensitive and like their violence in a very particular way: male on male or male on female.”


TIME CAPSULE

May 24, 1991

IN TV LAND, after 30 years as the king of 11:30, NBC’s Tonight Show host Johnny Carson announces that he will abdicate his swivel-seated throne in a year. David Letterman and Jay Leno begin jockeying to succeed him, and their battles add the word war to the phrase late night.

IN MOVIE THEATERS, the Bruce Willis action comedy Hudson Hawk opens after months of hype. The then-astronomically expensive ($55 million) film would earn a paltry $17.2 million. (In 1994, Willis would redeem himself with Pulp Fiction, and Hawk director Michael Lehmann — previously known for his 1989 debut, the black comedy Heathers — would go on to make 1996’s The Truth About Cats & Dogs.)

READERS put John Grisham’s The Firm at the top of the best-seller lists. Movie rights for the author’s second novel would earn Grisham $600,000. Last year’s The Runaway Jury got him $8 million.

AND IN THE REAL WORLD, Senate Democrats draft a comprehensive health care plan that seeks to set caps on spending and ensure coverage for all Americans. The idea paves the way for President and Hillary Clinton’s doomed proposal to create a massive federal health care bureaucracy two years later.

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