True or False: Thelma & Louise Just Good Ol' Boys? : The movie plugs into the anger and frustrations of women working in Hollywood and their larger frustrations in society. But is it something to celebrate?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"You've always been crazy," says Susan Sarandon's Louise to Geena Davis' Thelma just after her friend holds up a convenience store. "This is just the first chance you've had to express yourself."

In a movie year not notable for its oomph and controversy, the new Ridley Scott film "Thelma & Louise," written by Callie Khouri, has been riling up audiences into a love-it-or-hate-it lather. As rigged and goofy and problematic as it is, the film has struck an exposed nerve.

It starts out innocently enough. The two friends set out for a weekend fishing trip--Louise to escape her waitressing, Thelma her creepo husband. It kicks into gear at a honky-tonk stop-over in Arkansas, where Louise fends off the attempted rape of her friend by offing the lout with a .38-caliber pistol. On the run across three states, they turn into self-styled feminist vigilantes.

Women are supposed to deplore violence in the movies, but a lot of women seem to be charged up by this film. Is it because the tables have turned? Could it be that violence is OK as long as the object of that violence is appropriately scummy? In "Thelma & Louise," retribution is all.

"Thelma & Louise" isn't the only recent movie where women have been "expressing" themselves. In "Mortal Thoughts," directed by Alan Rudolph and scripted by William Reilly and Claude Kerven, Demi Moore's Cynthia and Glenne Headly's Joyce are, like Thelma and Louise, best friends implicated in the murder of a creep--in this case Joyce's husband James, played by Bruce Willis at his burbliest. The new Blake Edwards comedy "Switch" begins with the drowning/shooting of a flagrant yuppie Romeo by his three on-a-string main squeezes.

Even the French cinema, where women are most often exhibited as demure objets d'art, has hit it big in this country with Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita," where a feral beauty expends a fair amount of her screen time plugging holes into people. Hollywood is now talking about a remake.

Women do not often get the opportunity to project strength in the movies, or to be physically threatening. When they have any significant role at all--a rarity right now--it's more likely to occur within the boundaries of moral or emotional heroism: as embattled single mothers ("Men Don't Leave") or courtroom lawyers ("Class Action" and "The Music Box"). But the more photogenic brands of heroism and anti-heroism--shoot-outs, firefights and destructo derbies--occupy most of the current action movies. And in these movies women have, at best, decorated the fringes of the frame.

When women have been allowed to demonstrate grit and physical courage, it is usually in crypto-male action roles, like Sigourney Weaver as the intergalactic big bad mama in "Aliens," or Jamie Lee Curtis as the terrorized cop in "Blue Steel," or, lower down the food chain, in Amazonian falderal like "Red Sonja." Some of these movies get a comic charge from their take-no-prisoners femaleness, but there's something closed-off and stunt-like about the heroism they project. They probably satisfy men's fantasies far more than women's. Corseted and cartoonish, these heroines can toy with the male audience's unexpressed desire to be sexually overpowered, because men aren't required to take them "seriously" as women.

It's a sick joke that actresses can only assume dominant roles now by co-opting male action parts that, in many cases, aren't worth playing anyway. Where is the glory in being the female Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis? The alternative for gutsy actresses is very often to play murderesses and vipers, like Anjelica Huston in "The Grifters," Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" and Ellen Barkin in "Sea of Love." As exciting as many of these performances are, they all derive from a pulpy, thriller mind-set where women are warped by their psychosexual tensions into femme fatale destroyers.

The other type of female destructiveness, as demonstrated in movies like "Sleeping With the Enemy" and "Silence of the Lambs," comes in response to male psycho craziness. It's a standard-issue fun-house formula--the terrorized woman finally routs the bogyman. The violence is eroticized, which is a dead giveaway as to what's really going in these movies. The pay-back is a form of sexual release, just as the action leading up to it is a weirdo form of foreplay.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of a new-style female marauder movie like "Thelma & Louise" is that the violence in it isn't eroticized. In this film, and, to a lesser extent, in "Mortal Thoughts," what we're seeing is a sort of post-feminist howl. The expectations of feminism have gone bust, and in its place is a righteous, self-immolating fury. The women in these movies reinforce each other's rage toward men; they trade on the cruelty men have shown toward them. In the process, they willingly sacrifice themselves.

Movies like "Thelma & Louise" and "Mortal Thoughts" are pumped with feminist mythology and chockablock with macho straw men. Neither of these pictures has a single sympathetic male--well, just one, perhaps, played as a police investigator in both movies by Harvey Keitel. The Land of Louts game plan functions like fast-read feminism.

Most outlaw-on-the-run movies, especially the famous ones, like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Badlands," have also pushed a social agenda; they've tried to implicate America in the characters' moral sickness. It's part of the appeal (and the danger) of movies that so often these outlaws also end up glamorized. In "Thelma & Louise," the glamour of the Davis-Sarandon pairing is part of the polemic; their ability to magnetize men is crucial to the film's storyline. They are also virtually the only women that we see of any significance, all the better to reinforce the us-against-them agenda.

The agenda is scrupulously detailed. Thelma's husband is a jerky crank, who, when he finally gets a call from his errant wife, is more interested in the football game on TV. Louise's boyfriend seems like a decent sort, but he doesn't recognize her pain, and ultimately he betrays her; the stud drifter who gives Thelma the night of her life in a motel room ends up betraying her, too. Zipping down the interstate in Louise's green '66 Thunderbird, the women keep crisscrossing a trucker who jiggles his tongue at them; they retaliate by leading him on and then nonchalantly blowing up his truck. (Freud would have a field day with the way that long sleek truck is photographed.) Staring down the muzzle of Louise's .38-caliber, a brusque highway patrolman who has flagged the women for speeding ends up a whimpering simp locked into the trunk of his squad car. Even the details you catch out of the corner of your eye are prejudicial, like the shot of the FBI man killing time by reading "Boudoir" magazine. (The shot isn't played for laughs.)

By setting the movie in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, the site of innumerable man's man Westerns, the filmmakers seem to be gleefully plunking the outlaw women down in enemy territory. By implication, the whole country is enemy territory; women aren't safe anywhere, not even in the wide open spaces. When Thelma wants to go to the police after Louise plugs her attacker, Louise can't believe her naivete. "We don't live in that kind of world," she says, as if the police would actually believe her side of the story.

If the movie had been structured around Louise--wised-up, slightly blowzy, still branded by the ravages of her own rape years earlier--the movie would lack shock value. Louise we could expect violence from. But Thelma is deliberately presented to us as a fun-loving ditz, so her gun-toting transformation carries an extra measure of symbolism. Unlike Louise, Thelma is the kind of woman men are programmed to take advantage of; she blames herself for the ruckus she causes. If Thelma can strike back, the film is saying, then women's rage is total. She's plucked the last straw and set fire to it.

In "Thelma & Louise," the women are in the driver's seat, and the men along the roadside are relegated to the kind of piddling cameos that the women used to inhabit. For those who respond to it at all, the film is being enjoyed as a rich joke at the expense of the male actioneers who rule Hollywood's roost. It's a sisterhood bash-a-thon.

But the film may not be as far removed from the "woman's film" genre as you might think. Like "Mortal Thoughts," "Thelma & Louise" does not inhabit the decorous middle-class world of the classic woman's film, which means that the women's rejection of their surroundings can be more easily accepted by the mass audience; there are fewer material comforts at stake. And it's worth mentioning that Thelma and Louise are both conveniently childless.

Still, "Thelma & Louise" harbors some of the same sentimentalities as the weepies. Both scenarios exalt sacrifice. In the "Back Street" or "Stella Dallas" scenario, the woman sacrifices herself for her lover, her family, her child. In "Thelma & Louise," the two women sacrifice themselves like winged angels for their freedom. Hounded by men literally to the edge of doom, they take flight.

Given the dinky, subordinate role of most actresses in our movies, and given their rage at being blockaded in their craft, a movie like "Thelma & Louise" was inevitable. It plugs into not only the anger and frustrations of women working in Hollywood, but also their larger frustrations in society.

But is this movie really something to celebrate as a trendsetter? "Thelma & Louise" is graced with the kinds of small details about women's lives lacking in male action movies, and that, as much as anything else, may account for its popularity with women. (Men can enjoy it as a masochistic joy ride.) But, as drama, it's just about as vague and negligent as any macho shoot 'em up. The womens' descent into the outlaw life has no psychological horror; the film commemorates the fact that their anti-male mayhem turns them on. Imagine how different the film's tone would be if Thelma or Louise had accidentally plugged a woman.

Women have as much right to their road-movie shoot 'em ups as men, but that doesn't negate the overheard comment of one woman as she left the theater after the screening: "I liked it, but women are different. Why not a different story?" If the success of "Thelma & Louise" means we're in for a rash of female outlaw movies, that shouldn't be interpreted as a feminist step up, any more than the rash of pusher/pimp roles in the so-called black exploitation movie era indicated an honest dramatic depiction of black life in America. If the only way a woman can light up the screen these days is with a .38-caliber pistol, isn't that just another form of subordination?

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